Book reviews

May 17

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In theory, if a book has become a classic, being reissued to celebrate 25, 50 or even 100 years of bringing pleasure to readers, it doesn’t need publicity. But some books are so good that you just want to be absolutely sure nobody misses them.

My first three choices for this issue of Salad Days are cases in point. The first is The Orchard Book of Nursery Rhymes chosen by Zena Sutherland and illustrated by Faith Jacques. All the childhood classics are here in all their Georgian glory and the pictures are beautifully old-fashioned to match. In fact, it surprised me that this book is only 25 years old – despite the bright warmth and colour of the illustrations, this book feels as though it should have enchanted families for as long as the rhymes have been recited. Had it existed 200 years ago, it would have done!

There’s lots to delight the eye in the illustrations and one or two perhaps less well-known rhymes will raise a smile. I’d not heard this one before:

There was a young farmer of Leeds,

Who swallowed six packets of seeds.

It soon came to pass

He was covered with grass

And couldn’t sit down for the weeds

How deliciously close to the wind does that one sail … ?!

The book includes a fascinating note by the illustrator about the rhymes, their history, and her illustrations – for example, all the domestic animals included in her pictures are authentic breeds of the period.

This is, I think, a book for every bookshelf.

Twice as old as the Nursery Rhymes is Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I’ve written about this one before – and it remains the book most quoted from in my family but I have rarely come across anyone else who knows about it. In essence, it is the story of Milo, a bored little boy, who receives an unexpected package – a magic tollbooth and a little car in which to drive through it into a fantasy world. But this is no ordinary fantasy world: it is the Kingdom of Wisdom in which two rival cities, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, are warring and the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished. It becomes Milo’s quest to rescue the princesses.

It’s an adventure story but it is also an education and is about education and all the puzzling things children are told at school.

Juster brilliantly exploits the nonsense which can be wreaked when day-to-day expressions are interpreted literally. A ‘square meal’ for example has indigestible corners; the island of Conclusions can be accidentally jumped to in an incautious moment; and the weather/whether man gets into all sorts of confusions. And, there are unexpected benefits for the boy who represents the 0.58 of the number of children in the average family (he is the only one, for example, who can drive the 0.3 of the average 1.3 automobiles each family owns).

If you’ve never read this, buy a copy now – for yourself, for your children, for you grandchildren, for anyone’s children. I guarantee it will delight you and live with you.

Also 50 years or so old is Richard Scarry’s Best Picture Dictionary Ever. We still have my childhood copy and I’m not sure I’ve seen a picture dictionary to beat it. Through the humour of its illustrations and its simple text stories children are taught effortlessly the iterations of verbs and the various meanings which a word can have (for example, ‘cold’: ‘It is cold inside the refrigerator. Pickles opened it so often he caught a cold’. Deceptively simple, this dictionary works incredibly hard. I’m afraid I have been terribly distracted by a nostalgic browse through the book while writing this review …

More than 100 years ago Anne of Green Gables first appeared, written by L.M.Montgomery. (Those of you of my age may remember the 1970’s television adaptation). It is the story of Anne Shirley, a little girl adopted by an ageing brother and sister in rural America who really wanted to adopt a boy to help on their farm. Anne is still as feisty and the way she deals with her troubles is as relevant today as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. I can hear echoes of Anne’s voice in Lauren Child’s Lola. I love, for example, the episode when Anne is taken to be introduced to Diana, who will become her best friend. Anne is exhorted by Aunt Marilla not to ‘make any of your startling speeches’. So, when Diana’s mother asks how she is, Anne says ‘I am well in body although considerably rumpled up in spirit, thank you ma’am.’ 

I suspect most girls of six and upwards would identify with Anne – and as heroines go, she’s not a bad choice at all.

New, but possibly set to become modern classics are two books about anger. Rabbit and Bear: the Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field. The second in the Rabbit and Bear series, this delightfully funny exploration of bad temper might come in handy. Rabbit is woken up at the start of Spring by Bear’s snoring. Like most people who are woken a bit too early, everything makes him cross, particularly noise – and even more particularly, the noise of Woodpecker hammering out her nest. Through an ingenious turn in the story, Rabbit recognises that his anger is within him. However, that’s not the end of the story – as he is then cross that despite having ‘learned Wisdom from a bird with a brain the size of a walnut’ he can’t stop himself being angry even when he wants to be calm. Eventually he learns to stop fighting the world and to stop fighting himself – and peace reigns. At nearly 100 pages (of wide-spaced text with lots of illustrations), this is longer than most picture books – which isn’t a bad thing. Any child dealing with a bout of rage will have forgotten all about it at the end of a lovely snuggled-up session having this book read to them.

The other book about anger I found has continued to intrigue me long after finishing it. The Day No One Was Angry by master storyteller Toon Tellegen and Marc Boutavant is a collection of rather unusual stories about various animal characters. Anger is a feature in every story but it is not always at all clear what the ‘message’ is. Indeed, I think, rather refreshingly, there isn’t necessarily a message but instead, the book showcases when and how anger can be generated, suppressed, expressed, dissolved – how it isn’t something to be scared of but is a necessary part of our lives which we learn to live with. The final story of the collection, which gives the book its title, perhaps sums it up. One day, despite all the usual bumps and scrapes in the forest, no-one gets angry and everyone feels unsettled. The ant fears the worst. Eventually, at nightfall, the cricket accidentally kicks the rhinoceros’s knee and, at last, ‘there were angry words’ and everyone relaxes. The ant is still afraid of things but ‘I no longer fear the worst’. 

I think this book could be a fascinating springboard for discussions about the whole range of emotions and could help children deal with, perhaps, angry scenes at home. It is very thought-provoking (and, I should say, has some gorgeous retro illustrations).

I’ve run out of space but don’t miss Triangle by Mac Barnett and the peerless Jon Klassen. Spare in text and illustration, the pair manage as always to convey big thoughts in the spaces between. Enjoy!

All these books can be found at Hart’s Books on King Street in Saffron Walden ( I’d also point you to their excellent selection of classic children’s books on CD, which can be a brilliant way-in to some of the older, more wordy stories which ought not to be missed. 

Jo Burch
Founder Words in Walden Festival


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