It all began, I suppose, with Edward the Emu.
Written by Sheena Knowles and illustrated by Rod Clement, this was the first kids’ book that I found actually enjoyable to read aloud to my firstborn son. Its protagonist, dramatic arc and pleasing rhythm set it apart from tales of the Where’s My Cow? variety.1 Edward was the first of many fictional characters to join our household. Blessed with an otherwise perfect angel who was disinclined to sleep for longer than 45 minutes, and with no idea what to do with all his ever-increasing stretches of wakefulness, I turned to stories. If I was doing nothing else right, and I often felt I wasn’t, I could at least crack open a book, secure in the knowledge that I was laying the foundations for early literacy as I yawned into my lukewarm cup of instant decaf.
I read beautiful books we’d been given as presents and library books and books from op shops and the post office and books my parents had kept from my own childhood; books about mundane household happenings and bizarre magic realist type books and books with an improving moral and books with no apparent take-home message at all. My son variously grabbed at them, chewed on them, ripped them,2 listened to them, looked at me with dark bright beseeching eyes and, as soon as he could speak, said ‘again!’ I marvelled at his love of narrative, concluding with armchair-anthropologist confidence that something innate makes humans seek out stories. We are, as Laurie Penny wrote a few years back, ‘a text-making species’. ‘I’m telling you stories,’ repeats the narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s 1987 novel The Passion. ‘Trust me’.
Favoured books were read so often that that they lodged themselves in my memory in their entirety. As I circumnavigated the local park with the pram, I recited Dr Seuss’s brilliant The Sneetches to entertain a small wriggly person who wanted to be on the move; Each Peach Pear Plum helped keep him still while I changed his nappies; to pacify him while I cooked dinner and he eyeballed me from his high chair, I’d reel out The Gruffalo. I was like a lower-stakes modern Scheherazade, if Scheherazade was ever covered with mashed avocado. Lines from books stay with me in the manner of an earwormish song: I vividly remember spending two hours trying to resettle my son to sleep in the early hours of the morning while a line from Rod Clement’s Olga the Brolga circled around and around in my brain. When I look back at this period of my life, a time of bone tiredness and Play School, Duplo houses and playdough cakes, fierce joy and love and vomit, it will be inextricably linked to all the stories that fill the days, providing a rhythm that hums along behind every domestic activity.
In a most entertaining takedown of The Poky Little Puppy, Gabriel Roth once lamented that ‘young children have terrible taste and enjoy garbage’. I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly not all kids’ books are created equal. For every creature that rolls its terrible eyes and shows its terrible claws there will be another one under the bed who farts. Happily, the kid appreciates some of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, which as I’ve argued elsewhere are more than capable of being enjoyed by adults. Unfortunately, he also shows an inexplicable fondness for a 1988 book based on the original Fireman Sam TV series, in which characters repeatedly proclaim things to be ‘brill!’ and which offers little more for the reader than the chance to put on a really terrible Welsh accent. I’ve always found ‘Waltzing Matilda’ unbearably grim, but we have it in book form and it has become a firm favourite (if you were wondering whether it’s jarring to hear a two year old solemnly intone ‘drowning himself by the coolabah tree’, the answer is a resounding yes). Dr Seuss’ wordsmithery is brilliant and I’m very grateful to him for helping me raise my children, but I can’t escape the feeling that he sometimes rested on his laurels. Alongside the mastery of The Lorax he has gems like Yertle the Turtle, a marvellous little tale of revolt against a tyrannical monarch. However, he’s also given us the likes of There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, about which the less said the better. Further, the Cat in the Hat is an unmitigated jerk and the Fox in Socks can get bent.
However, I’ve developed a deep respect for the craft that goes into picture books: the rhyming, the humour, the vivid characters, and the way the narrative tends to begin in a matter-of-fact way without any explanation. The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont simply begins by stating that ‘once upon a time there was an elephant’ who one day went for a walk and ‘met a Bad Baby’. We don’t know why the elephant is at large in a town or why the baby is hanging around seemingly waiting for passing animals to pick him up with their trunks (where are his parents?). None of this, clearly, matters to small children; the point is that the two companions go rumpeta rumpeta rumpeta all down the road. Stories end without any need for an overall resolution; it’s often sufficient to note that everyone went home for tea. Nevertheless, there is real artistry here. Julia Donaldson, for one, is a goddamned genius, and if you don’t want to take my word for it you can read Tabby McTat and Room on the Broom, to say nothing of The Snail and the Whale. The illustrations, of course, add another dimension: think of the colourful liveliness of Axel Scheffler’s creations, Judy Horacek’s spiky whimsy, the pleasing roundness of the characters in Pamela Allen’s books and Alison Lester’s intricate little worlds.
When you’re swimming around in all these stories, when they are the air that you breathe, it’s difficult not to overanalyse them. Some animals seem to punch above their weight: why do ducks and elephants appear in so many books instead of, say, llamas? Why do Spot and his friends prance about in the nude while their teacher wears clothes? How does a dog go about being mates with an alligator anyway? I love that Hairy Maclary and his canine and feline friends all have surnames, but who calls a dog ‘Bottomley’? Some characters have become so familiar I find myself bitching about them, wishing that the heroine of Jackie French’s Diary of a Wombat books would quit bragging about how much sleep she gets and thinking that after all the trouble we take finding her, the central character of Mem Fox’s Where is the Green Sheep? ought really to be doing something more interesting than taking a nap. Moreover, Rod Campbell’s much-loved Dear Zoo features an unbearably entitled narrator (‘I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet’) as well as a zoo whose management is clearly negligent,3 the titular character in Captain Crabclaw’s Crew is entirely unsuited to his chosen career of piracy, and Eric Carles ought surely to have named his book The Very Wasteful Caterpillar given the insect’s decision to, for example, chomp through five different strawberries instead of simply eating one. Each time I read Who Sank the Boat by the excellent Pamela Allen, I resist the urge to shout: ‘the whole entreprise was doomed from the start!’
Other stories are so achingly tender that I cried the first few times I read them, although it’s possible that I was just tired. If you too wish to be moved to tears in front of a puzzled toddler, I’d recommend Michelle Knudsen’s The Library Lion, Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick, and Emily Winfield Martin’s lovely book The Wonderful Things You Will Be. It’s not all sentimental territory, though—the panda’s resting bitchface in Steve Antony’s Please Mr Panda is delightful and Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back has a dark sting in its tail.
This won’t last, I know. One day the books will get more complex and the talking animals will vanish; one day my children will be able to read and I’ll be superfluous to their thirst for narrative. For now, though, they all lived happily ever after and had marmalade on toast for tea.
Sarah Burnside has written for outlets including the Guardian, Overland, Crikey and the Baffler, tweets at @saraheburnside, and can recite everything the Very Hungry Caterpillar ate on Saturday in the correct order.
- I am indebted to the late Terry Pratchett for this splendid parody of children’s literature, which appears in his 2005 book Thud! as the story Sir Samuel Vimes reads to his young son each night. Vimes muses: ‘The unidentified complainant had lost their cow. That was the story, really’. Quoting the section of the book in which the complainant mistakes a hippopotamus for their cow, Vimes observes drily: ‘At this point the author had reached an agony of creation and was writing from the wracked depths of their soul’.
- The books, of course, took a battering. I’ve never much liked Oscar Wilde’s line about each man killing the thing he loves, but certainly it’s apt as far as babies and toddlers are concerned. Mem Fox’s perfect Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes soon found itself in three little pieces, and several Dr Seuss stories are now mostly sticky tape. My son’s infant brother will inherit an extremely well-worn collection; this is, I guess, the eternal lot of second children.
- On reflection, zoo mismanagement seems to be a bit of a theme in these books. It’s certainly evident in Edward the Emu, in which the zookeeper fails to notice, say, a giant flightless bird hanging out in the lions’ enclosure.