‘Reminds me of someone I love’ suggests long-term separation: you love them, but they’re not around and you need a reminder. Fortunately that’s not the case for me. Or only in the special sense that when you have a small child, they’re developing so quickly that every week or at least every month, something of their old self is being left behind and a new one coming to replace it. As the new one is mostly more articulate and more adept, better at understanding temporal relations and better at remembering what it did yesterday, better at using a toilet rather than nappies, that change is very much welcome; but there’s still a slight undercurrent of sadness. In theory that ought to be true for adults, but in practice it’s only small children who change with such speed. As a neighbour who was a GP said with doctorly sententiousness (she herself had small children), ‘The days go slowly but the years go quickly.’
So, Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale. I wish I could remember when we first started reading this to my son at bedtime. We’d started with The Gruffalo, which I was soon able to recite from memory, and we soon had A Squash and a Squeeze, which R. didn’t like very much. I like reading verse stories at bedtime: I like reading something rhythmical, with all the possibilities for intonational melodies over the phrases. I even enjoyed Dr Seuss’s Scrambled Eggs Super, though I read it every night for about six months in the middle of last year, and though the narrative is an episodic structure in which any episode could be swapped with any other.
The Snail and the Whale came some time before that; we have it as a board book, so maybe we bought it when our son was one. As verse, Julia Donaldson’s books are very inconsistent. Several of them began as children’s songs, and so when they’re read as verse they scan unevenly and need a degree of rehearsal; but The Snail and the Whale is lyrical and smooth. It isn’t my favourite Julia Donaldson: that might be Cave Baby, both for its celebration of creativity and for Emily Gravett’s beautiful illustrations, or it might be The Gruffalo, for its astonishing economy and inevitability. But The Snail and the Whale reduced me to tears several times when I first read it. Not just because of sleep deprivation: the story is very evocative of the world being huge and wonderful, and the narrative depends on the idea that the small and powerless creature might save the life of the big one. Perhaps the idea of adventuring far and wide is particularly poignant when you have a small child; some people do travel, but we stayed firmly within Oxfordshire for the first 20 months. And the idea that the large powerful creature might one day need to depend on the wit of the small and vulnerable creature is a moving one. And the verse brings something to it as well, in its lyricism, and in the way the verses sometimes close up into the formulation ‘The tiny snail / On the tail / Of the whale.’ Our son is now four and a half, and evening story-time is a mixture of Spiderman stories and Roald Dahl, but The Snail and the Whale will always remind me of that earlier time.