Lit Kid: learning from the greats

One of my great joys in lit kid life is giving Junior Reader access to books I read as a child. Whether as picture books, or chapter books, we are conveying something of the joy of story, character, illustration – and magic.

So what did my parents read? And what did they pass on to me? Because I realise that, while I have happily indoctrinated my way along with Junior Reader, I don’t always know what was an ‘heirloom read’ in the first place.

In a few cases, I do know. So it seems only fair to share those that I took to as well – in part, because I knew that they were part of my parents’ lives.

In this case, the instances are from my mother – and from her own books, some of which I now look after.

The Kittie-Poosies

You may not be too taken with the title, and that’s OK. But you need to know about the wise and loving Mama Pudditat, chief character and mother of the kittie-poosies.

This is one of two picture books my mother owned which I have held onto. They have a special place on the special books bookcase, which conveys something of the esteem in which I hold them.

The kittie poosies are born into Mama Pudditat’s fine home – but we need time to know more. We need time to explore this place, where Mama Pudditat has pictures of mice even in places that the Mouse Man himself may have not thought to decorate.

There are plenty of books out there which seek to convey an atmosphere within a ‘dear little house’. There are the hugely detailed worlds of Brambly Hedge, or the home of Mrs Tittlemouse.

But Mama Pudditat’s home is lovingly described in detail. In some respects, this was probably one of my early interiors reads without knowing it.

Indeed it must be, as Mama Pudditat makes her own curtains and paints her own stool for the sitting room – all carefully shown, picture by picture. (My childhood soul thrilled to the notion of gold stars on the ceiling and curtains, even if I don’t feel the need for them now.)

And Mama Pudditat is happy to give the tour, especially to her friend Mrs Pattypaws, because: the house also contains a nursery, where the kittie poosies will live.

If this sounds all too saccharine, forgive me. Anthropomorphic, yes, but then so are many other fine examples in children’s literature,  and we still read them.

Mama Pudditat goes on in the next story to name her kittens – and later to shore up her source of income, through making and selling pink sugar mice.

Sugar mice are no doubt less common these days – or perhaps less exciting and more quietly packaged than the factory items. But there is still something special about them – and surely some of that comes from Mama Pudditat.

A few years ago, I was thrilled to discover that Mama Pudditat had also made it into German, as Mama Miezemau. It also restored to me the front cover illustration (the cover long being missing on the English version we have).

Master Bunny at the Seaside

I am grateful to be able to show you the covers of both books (view the links above), because a great deal of the charm of the books is in the illustrations.

Master Bunny is told by Alison Winn, about whom I have found out little so far, but the pictures are by the well-known illustrator Molly Brett, whose books I also enjoyed as a little girl.

This book is like a cross between an animal story and a strip cartoon, with every illustration and story pane numbered. With plentiful bunnies in the story, this gives us a clue as to what pleasantries might have happened, had Peter Rabbit and his father been less keen on adventures.

Sometimes certain book phrase enter a family’s collective consciousness. In this case, the key phrase is at pane 29:

“That night Mrs Bun [Master Bunny's mother] gave Master Bunny a lovely hot bath and brushed his ears until they shone like silk.”

I can still recall my mother pretending to do the same to my brother, stroking his ears. In fact, the ear stroking comes at a key point in the story, because soon after, Master Bunny is off on holiday to visit his cousins – and find adventure.

There are plenty of details that children will enjoy and find real – from the pride in getting new clothes, bucket and spade to next bumping straight into a lamppost and needing a plaster.

The cousins have plenty of fun, between pillow fights, water fights at the seaside and a tea party which includes:

“…strawberries and cream/

Swiss rolls and chocolate biscuits. Everybody ate a great deal.”

Master Bunny’s final adventure involves crawling into a box kite on a windy day, and being by the seaside, you can guess something of what happens next. But rest assured: all ends happily.

I know something of other books my mother owned. I have mentioned the Famous Fives in hardback, and indeed Junior Reader can now return from a visit to my parents with another Famous Five out on loan.

My mother was also seemingly keen on increasing the colour in the books she owned – several Famous Fives copies have been painted in in water colour, as have a couple of the plates in Master Bunny.

There are a few (now worn) Flower Fairy books too that are hers – pages part in, part out, and their stitched binding clear to see. There is something of the love and time that was poured into these reads that is still greatly attractive.

One thing I can be sure of from these experiences is that I inherited a love of good illustration. Whether through Molly Brett, Kate Greenaway or Cicely Mary Barker (Flower Fairy books), I learned something of how the right pictures can transport you into the world of the story – and keep you coming back again.

I may favour more varied illustrators now – and a number are much more satiric than the safeties of the illustrations I’ve referenced above. But they all make a picture book special.

And as you know by now, if you’ve read a few of my posts, picture books are among the most special things of all.

Lit Kid: serial delights

Having skipped with you through some of the delights of picture book series last time, it’s now the point to change pace.

Taking a series into chapter book land is a different kind of endeavour. There may be pictures still, but the pictures alone will not add the same unifying elements to the stories.

You need good characters – and exciting situations. It’s time to move beyond everyday scenarios, and into the area of what we would like to have happen.

It’s also time for team dynamics, extending the cast with new characters, and finding other means to convey consistency across the series.

Astrosaurs and Cows in Action

I’ve alluded to these series before, and the author Steve Cole clearly understands what’s needed to create a series that keeps on giving.

Collector cards are a popular choice – not just here, but in Hiccup the Viking stories too. They appeal to the Top Trumps afficianados, keen to compare relative strengths and weaknesses of heroes and villains (and even dragons).

Add in the elements that will introduce a new reader to the universe, wherever they’ve come in to the series: some back story for how the main characters came together, what their mission is. Now the scene is set.

But don’t stop there. Add in a map too, particularly if your heroes are gradually exploring more of a given universe. For those keenly following the series, the map is the reminder of previous missions and places visited.

All set? Then make sure your cast is appealing. Borrow from other known ensembles: particularly space ship crews. You need the boffin; the engineer; the loyal second-in-command; the communications person to help you explore messages in unknown languages.

You may have a hot-head, ready for a fight – or a hero who is also just as keen on eating as on battles. There are types, sure, but there is potential for nuances too – especially if a new mission causes them to alter, or to question loyalties.

When I learned more recently that Steve Cole had kept Dr Who books etc going during the years between the Old and the New series, it all made sense. Puns, moving your characters on from one desperate situation to another, one species trying to wipe out another: it’s all there.

Astrosaurs has as much space as you want – and an acknowledged enmity between plant eaters and meat eaters. Cows in Action is all about time travel – and there’s plenty of times to visit too. Natural series-building empires, both.

Secret Agent Jack Stalwart

In a similar vein, the author of the Jack Stalwart books has a natural basis for extending a series. This time, it’s geography.

Plenty of other writers use different geographic locations for their books. It adds variety, allows you to include local places and customs.

Square this with writing for kids, and you have a series that informs as well as entertains. Plus, as we’re dealing with a boy spy, of course there are gadgets.

Junior Reader’s first port of call would be the gadgets page in each book. These give you a taster of the possible adventures to come. Some gadgets repeat in different books, others are known just in their individual book.

An interesting element to the Jack Stalwart books is the little underlying current of backstory: Jack’s brother, also a boy spy, who has since disappeared, although his parents think he’s at school abroad. Some of the stories help Jack, and us, learn a little more, and come closer to finding him.

Some of the books work better than others, it has to be said. Some kids may take the opening info on a given country and want to know more – others will just come along for the ride, and that’s OK too.

Pippi Longstocking

I feel the need to offer a few earlier series too, and Pippi is someone where you can’t wait to find out her next adventure.

Imagine a girl who she lives alone (apart from a horse and a pet monkey). She does not lack for money, thanks to her father’s profession of pirate king. She is hugely strong – and fully able to look after herself.

Into her world come next door neighbour children, Tommy and Annika. Their mother disapproves of Pippi, but Tommy and Annika love their adventures with the thoroughly unconventional Pippi.

Each chapter gives you a new adventure with Pippi, whether taking on burglars or even attempting a day in school. It is easy to keep reading and to share Pippi’s distrust of adult norms and preferences, choosing instead to live as she likes.

There is also some plot movement across the books – including a reunion with Pippi’s father. Right at the end of the third book, Pippi, a little like Peter Pan or Christopher Robin, faces the possibility of growing up, and uses her own resources to guard against it.

Ideally, of course, there would be neverending stories of Pippi. For, you see, there are never-ending ways in which children’s preferences and adults’ do not match – and Pippi is the catalyst for exploring these.

For wider exploration of Pippi’s influence – and different illustrator styles – have a look at Tygertale’s treatment, where Pippi is included in the series of ‘Bad Girls’.

Anne of Green Gables

Another well-loved series, the character of Anne, making her home on Prince Edward Island in Canada, is one that remains deservedly popular.

Anne and Pippi have various things in common – auburn hair, often in plaits, and a certain stubbornness. Anne, maybe less so than Pippi, is also in love with language, beauty, learning – but, back in common with Pippi, makes plenty of mistakes along the way.

With eleven decent-length books in the series, there is much to munch through, once the Anne bug has bitten. And unlike some stories, L. M. Montgomery is not afraid to show Anne moving on through time, into work, marriage, motherhood and more.

Part of the delight of the books is the way Anne’s individual experiences move around the emotions, often evoking humour, but also anger, sadness, grief, loneliness, and so on. Anne may learn from her earlier experiences but that does not automatically make the path ahead of her straight forward.

In a sense, particularly in the early books, it seems possible for Anne to have limitless adventures and experiences – and indeed she covers many of the possibilities we might think of, and more besides.

Whether having disasters over dyeing her hair, or dealing with meanness from classmates, celebrating having a great best friend, or dealing with teasing, Anne is both the person we might like to be, as well as the person we often are, right now.

There are so many other series to choose from, but all of those mentioned above use ways in which characters may grow, explore new situations, but still with plenty of variety and novelty.

Whether we prefer believable worlds – or created ones – series tap in to many of the situations we find ourselves in as children.

We want characters who will take us to new places, but we want ones who are not so far from us: ones with flaws, ones who go through difficulties as well.

Sometimes we may have to face hard truths: such as the end of a given book series. But we can be assured that there are plenty more out there to choose from – and plenty of reasons to see just why they are so easy to keep reading.

Lit Kid: serious about series

Apologies for those hoping for some writing last week. I was away. I’m back. So you get double posts for your money this week.

Last time, I wrote about what a good book series can give you – and why so many kids love a good follow-up story. And another. And another.

It seems only fair to take a closer look at a few series of children’s books: ones that went down well with Junior Reader, with me as the read-out-louder, or with me at an earlier age.

Some of these may not seem so much like series: but there are plenty more in that range, and they rely on similar formulae for success. See what you think.

In the interests of fairness (aka talking about as many books as possible), today I’ll focus on picture books in series, and do some chapter book series another time.

Hairy Maclary, Slinky Malinky et al

Hairy Maclary started life at Donaldson’s Dairy, in New Zealand, but has happily made his way around the world and into the hearts of many, adults and children alike.

Kids love stories about animals – particularly animals that misbehave and get away with it. Sometimes Hairy Maclary intends to cause trouble – sometimes it seems to follow him, particularly in connection with visits to the vet.

If your child loves language – or the grown-up doing the reading does – Hairy Maclary is for you. Happily including words like ‘bumptious’, ‘bellicose’, all spun into rollicking rhymes, the text romps along almost as much as the characters.

Hairy Maclary is the small scruffy dog in the pack, but there are plenty of identifiable types, including a dachshund (the wonderous Schnitzel von Krumm), a dalmatian, an Old English sheepdog, and more besides.

Every hero needs a villain, and Hairy Maclary’s main villain is Scarface Claw, ‘the toughest Tom in town’. For all of Hairy Maclary’s bravado, Scarface Claw will soon remind him who’s boss.

But lest there be too much division between dog lovers and cat lovers, there is the anti-hero cat Slinky Malinky, as well as the plucky Zachary Quack, a small duckling who is also well able to cause chaos, usually without much trying.

The illustrations are slightly cartoony, with lots of colour and fun. And I have to commend the author for conveying things like cats’ hissing noises as well as she does – not an easy task.

With four separate heroes, and some overlap between them in stories, this may feel less of a series than some, but the same ingredients are there: romping, mayhem, surprises, great verse and spiky, humorous illustrations.

Topsy and Tim

I have a soft spot for Topsy and Tim. And I’m sure others of my age do, or there wouldn’t be a kids’ TV series now, as well as a reissuing of the books.

Topsy and Tim are boy and girl twins respectively. Seemingly constantly at a pre-school stage, they are of an age where they are learning about the world, but with plenty of free time to do so.

This gives them pretty much limitless scope to do everyday things, like visit the doctor, watch firewords, explore farms and so on. They also learn from mistakes: my copies from the 1970s include them going hillwalking without permission, getting lost on a ferry and so on.

Over time, Topsy and Tim’s activities have broadened out, including a bit more cultural awareness. A newer one we own has Topsy and Tim getting to know Sikh neighbours – but they are equally busy with visits from builders, trips to the seaside, and so on.

Part of what works about the series is that it is immediately gender-neutral. Both girl and boy twins experience the same situations together, both enjoy a wide range of opportunities, and it is refreshing for that.

The books are also very good at getting the detail of what children see. In the hillwalking story, the children wrap their belongings in orange cloth that gets wet in the rain, and dyes almost everything in their packs.

In the story with the Sikh family, the children learn different names for grandparents, and are still interested in sweets – even if they are new to them.

Little Princess books

Little Princess may seem less neutral a character to start with, but don’t let that fool you.

The lead character has plenty of experiences that appeal to boys and girls alike, whether it’s dealing with potty training, wanting more than one birthday, wanting to be taller, and so on.

Little Princess, despite seemingly spending all her time in her plain white nightie and gold crown, is really a rebel and an opportunist. In order to play shops, she borrows items from the various people at the castle, and sells them back to other people – until everyone finds out.

Part of the appeal is that Little Princess, being a princess, can get what she wants a bit more than most children. But, as she discovers, getting what she wants – like more than one birthday a year – doesn’t always work out as she expects.

For the adults, a lot of the fun is the ensemble cast. Little Princess has plenty of stubbornness, but she needs others to be a foil to her wilfulness.

And being a princess, she not only has a mum and dad, but also a doctor, the Prime Minister, the Admiral, the gardener, the cook, and others who are personalities in their own right.

Still unsure? They are by Tony Ross, genius illustrator, who can also write a mean story. And she’s on TV now too. Proof.

Dr Xargle series

In case I need to do any more convincing, here’s another wonderful series with Tony Ross illustrations. In fact, probably my favourite picture book duo: Jeanne Willis on words, Tony Ross on pictures.

Dr Xargle is an alien, attempting to explain to its school class how Earth works. Inevitably, certain elements of life on earth are not understood quite as we do – which means that the aliens’ fleet often times its visits to Earth at less than auspicious times.

The draw here, in terms of a series, is the limitless number of general topics that Dr Xargle can hold forth about. So we learn about babies, dogs, cats, the weather, and other family members.

The learned Dr Xargle does not just focus on the stuff that goes OK – it also notices the little accidents that make children laugh, involving babies’ nappies, pets leaving little presents in the wrong places and so on.

The additional huge charm of Dr Xargle is the (seemingly unintentional) mangling of language. This is greatly appealing for the adults reading the stories, although it may take a slightly older child to know enough of how we normally describe things to then perceive the joke.

Our first acquisition was the one about weather, and I am still sure that Dr Xargle’s description of getting wet – ie ‘going soggy in the rainblob‘ – has yet to be bettered.

Again, there’s a sharp eye for detail. I particularly like the illustrations that go with ‘too windy’ weather, including a cat’s fur turning inside out, wigs going astray, and an unexpected viewing of bloomers that are ‘a present from Torquay Zoo‘.

Whatever your favourites, there’s enough of the good stuff in each of the books to know what to expect next time.

Whether it’s zany illustrations, sticking up for others, exposing adults’ attitudes, or simply exploring the world, picture books series are great fun, whoever’s reading and whoever’s listening.

Friday phrases: whiffling through the tulgey wood

Back to some silliness. This time, it’s Lewis Carroll’s turn.

There is plenty of silliness in Carroll – much to choose from. But what I want to include today is The Jabberwocky, his strange and wonderful poem that has even merited its own Monty Python tribute.

It is one thing to learn a poem. But the greater fun comes with the opportunity to recite it, preferably with some kind of audience to hand (even one will do).

The Jabberwocky is one I can reach for if needed. One of the great delights, when reading it aloud, is the natural crescendo through this verse (below) towards ‘burbled’.

That a terrible monster exists, we can accept. That it needs a brave knight to vanquish it – agreed. But that the terrible monster will burble, on approach, completely undercuts the fear and dread factor. It’s one of the reasons why I love it as a poem.

Many moons ago, when studying The Annotated Alice at school, I came to learn the Anglo-Saxon background to the poem – and you can too, if you want.

But in many ways, I prefer to leave behind the author’s initial intentions in writing the piece, and abandon my ears to the clash of sounds and images that Carroll conjures up.


The Jabberwocky

“…And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!”

Lewis Carroll

[You can read the whole poem at the link above.]

Lit Kid: off on another adventure

You can’t beat a good series. It may be on TV, on radio even. (People on the production team for The Archers clearly knows something, even if it’s not my personal tipple.)

So it is with books. And not just with books for adults – kids need their series too. All that youth, all that free time – it’s the perfect opportunity for series guzzling.

We may all have one book in us (or so we’re told), but what publishers would like is that we have a series, really.

Because a series allows us to do many things: create characters that we want more of. Introduce new ones. Have them interact. And so on.

Some books, you feel, have to be stand alone. 1984 is one that springs to mind.

We could spend time learning more about the world(s) that Big Brother controls, but the character arc for Winston Smith is complete. (A small amount of time on Wikipedia shows me, however, that others don’t necessarily think the same way.)

There are plenty of Great Books that would no doubt come into that category. But there are others that seem to become series in their own way – or, you could argue, are a long story that needs several books to tell them.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be one here – and, clearly, Tolkein felt there was much more to tell about Middle-Earth, or he wouldn’t have come up with the various other books that expand our awareness of that world.

Kids need their series too. They have a character they like, and they want him or her to keep having adventures. There may not be so much character development, or concern for origin stories, but that does not mean the demand is limited. Far from it.

Enid Blyton clearly knew this, or we wouldn’t have the various sets of books she created. You may say many different things about Blyton (and many have), but she clearly understood the junior reader’s demand for more.

Some of the series have endings written into them: the boarding school worlds of Mallory Towers and St Clare’s, for example. (Though that hasn’t stopped others writing extra books into the timeline for St Clare’s, for example.)

But others can seemingly go on for ever. Famous Five, Secret Seven, and more. Some are harder to spot as series (The …of Adventure ones), others have an ever-changing setup as part of their premise (The Faraway Tree series), and all allow you to create more and more.

Series allow you loyalty to a character – and enable you to contemplate loyalty to others in turn. You see their strengths and weaknesses (maybe not so strongly in children’s fiction), but you still trust them. You still want to be with them – or, often, just Be Them.

My holiday book buying lends itself to series. In a given year, you invest in your characters; you spend time with them. You could equally read completely unrelated books, and that would be fine, but there is a certain something of following the groove, repeating your steps and yet dancing them anew.

Another time, I’ll look at a bit more of what I see in children’s book series – what takes them beyond a single story, and into a larger narrative.

But for now, I am lost in happy pondering of which series I might pick to look at. It turns out you really can’t have enough of a good thing.