When things are less than perfect

September 17

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Sometimes things just don’t go to plan or don’t turn out quite as expected. Managing expectations is hard enough for adults but for children who are much less capable of influencing outcomes, it can be even more frustrating, disappointing or even devastating. 

Quite by chance, there has been a crop of books for young children on this theme recently so I thought I’d give you a selection of some of the most interesting and helpful examples to choose from.

The arrival of a new younger brother or sister is always a tricky one. Parents play up the ‘you’ll have someone to play with / look after / show how to do things’ angle but, of course, even for the most patient of children, this stage is a long time coming. Perfect, a picture book by Nicola Davies illustrated by Cathy Fisher deals with the problem head on with great sensitivity. 

The story parallels in the eyes of the older sibling the arrival of the new baby with the fledging of young swifts from a nest in the roof above the baby’s bedroom. First, the anticipation:

I watched their fledglings’ first flights from its window. They were perfect from the very start, soaring high to cross the sky with crescent wings. All winter I waited for them to return. And I waited for the baby who would sleep in the tiny rooftop room.

The day she came was the same day that the swifts came back. They raced and chased each other screaming over rooftops with the joy of being home. I watched them from my window. That’s how it will be, I thought, me and my sister, racing and chasing, screaming with laughter and delight.”

But, of course, it isn’t. The illustration of the older child lying in the grass watching the swifts and sobbing quietly into the grass is heart-breaking. Eventually, the child discovers a young swift which has crashed to the lawn “like a sooty piece of half-burned paper from a garden bonfire” and, realising that it isn’t hurt but just needs a little help, the child gently carries the bird up to the top window to release it. The bird’s feet grip the child’s finger for a moment before it “was gone, scissor-slicing through the morning air”. The child turns to see the new baby lying watching. The baby grips the same finger, echoing the swift, and smiles a “perfect, perfect, perfect smile” and the bond is formed.

Both text and illustrations are beautifully poetic, capturing the sadness and incomprehension of the older child. I am pleased that there is now a picture book available to parents preparing their children for the arrival of a sibling which doesn’t take the usual jaunty cartoon-like approach.

What might be perfect for one person may be considerably less so for another. And this is another difficult idea for young children to grasp. I loved A Perfect Day from the brilliant author-illustrator Lane Smith. In this picture book, the animals in Bert’s garden are having a perfect day – Cat is basking in the warmth of the sun in the flower bed; Dog is paddling in the cool paddling-pool, squirrel is nibbling on a corn cob and all is peaceful. Until Bear arrives and, without realising he has done so, commandeers everything, crushing the flower-bed, wallowing in the paddling pool, stealing the corncob. The humorous simplicity of the text in which all that changes is the emphasis in the sentences on the word ‘was’ is hugely effective – we go from ‘it was a perfect day for Cat’ to ‘it was a perfect day for Cat’. Children won’t fail to get the message and will enjoy learning it.


Lane Smith, again, is the illustrator in a collaboration with Jory John to create the delightful Penguin Problems about a deeply disgruntled penguin who is very dissatisfied with its lot. This is very definitely a penguin which has got out of bed the wrong side and his story will appeal to all who find themselves inexplicably cross with their less-than-perfect world. 

It begins “It’s way too early. My beak is cold. What’s with all the squawking, you guys?”. Things get worse when the penguin heads into the ocean to look for fish. “Oh, great. An orca. Oh, great. A leopard seal. Oh, great. A shark. What is it with this place?” Eventually a walrus gives the little penguin some advice - not immediately appreciated: “Why do strangers always talk to me? Walruses don’t understand penguin problems!” but after a while the penguin sees the sense of what he has been told and agrees that “Maybe things will work out, after all.” This would be a very dull end to the story.  Of course, there’s another page to go and a wittily imperfect epiphany.

Again the text is deceptively simple here – matched by simple illustrations in Lane Smith’s trademark sponged printwork style (at least I think it is sponged – my next research is to find out how he does it).

An interesting take on the ‘less than perfect’ theme is The Opposite by Tom MacRae and Elena Odriozola. In this story Nate wakes up to find an Opposite standing upside down on his ceiling staring down at him. The Opposite is responsible for all sorts of things going wrong during the day that Nate usually gets right (spilled milk, and paint all over the teacher, for example) but whenever the Opposite is accused, it has vanished: “It had already happened and it wasn’t there any more.”

Light suddenly dawns on Nate and he works out how to play the Opposite at his own game. “I mean to say … that there ISN’T an Opposite standing there in front of my finger … I DO so hope that it will stay around for ever and ever and EVER!”. And the Opposite disappears in a cloud of green and yellow smoke. When it comes back next morning, Nate is ready for it.

Almost all parents will have tried the ‘Please don’t you ever eat another pea/clean your teeth’ routine so children will recognise the irony and humour of this story – learning that sometimes you have to find a less direct route to achieve what you want.

Another fabulous (and slightly surreal) picture book on the theme of things not being quite right is The Hole Story by Paul Bright and Bruce Ingman, in which two holes, evicted from their home in a chunk of Swiss cheese by a family of hungry mice, struggle to find new homes where holes might be wanted. The King’s socks were not a good choice (“I can’t let my people see the royal hairy legs”); the queen’s knickers are also unsuitable, “I can’t let the people see my royal pink bottom”); and neither are various other choices. But eventually there is a lovely and very clever solution – and not one you’d immediately have thought of. This is very witty - and could inspire hilarious lateral thinking about where holes might be a nuisance and where they might be very helpful.

For slightly older children (and indeed adults) Good Dog McTavish by the wonderful Meg Rosoff and illustrated by Grace Easton is a supremely clever deadpan account of the impact of a new rescue dog on a dysfunctional family. It begins “McTavish’s decision to adopt the Peachey family was not the most sensible decision of his life. He could tell at once that they were not one of those easy families, the ones that fit effortlessly into a dog’s life. He could tell they were a family with problems.” And indeed, they are. Particularly when Ma Peachey decides she has had enough of cooking and cleaning and finding of lost keys and heads off to pursue peace and quiet with Pradeep the “handsome young man with flexible shoulders, firm thighs and a serene expression”. The rest of the family decide they want to adopt a dog. They visit a rescue centre and meet a stern-looking woman in overalls which declare her to be called ‘Ian’. “Hello, I’m Alice” she says. “The overalls may say Ian, but please look beyond that. I am not Ian. I am Alice”.

McTavish is selected and comes home to live with the Peacheys. McTavish is not Nana from Peter Pan. He is not a Good Dog. But his behaviour (in making a bed out of all the unwashed clothes, chewing all shoes scattered around the house but not those neatly lined up, and in eschewing all the takeaway pizzas) somehow reforms the family. 

Meg Rosoff has a highly quirky sense of humour (some may recall my previous review of her picture book Meet Wild Boars) and I recommend all her books to you (generally for the teens/adult crossover market). I am about to buy a second copy of McTavish for a friend of mine who has just adopted a rescue dog: I think it is probably required reading …

Finally, and very much on the theme of things not being perfect, is The Way to School published by New Internationalist in support of Plan International UK, a charity striving to advance children’s rights and equality for girls all over the world. The book showcases a series of photographs of children around the world on their extraordinarily difficult ways to school – across collapsed bridges, up ladders tied to vertical cliff faces, carrying their own desks, carrying bowls of water with them on their heads, stumbling through the aftermath of typhoons, or pulled along by dog sleds through deep snow, all in their school uniforms with their schoolbags on their backs. The text is very simple: the message is very clear – “Whenever possible, kids try to make their way to school.”. Their determination shines out. As chair of Edlumino, a small charity dedicated to providing high quality education to displaced and disadvantaged children around the world, I was very moved by this book. I think every school should have a copy, not simply to give the trite message that ‘you children at this school have it so easy’ but to open all our eyes to how highly children value their education. 

All these books are available from Hart’s Books (www.hartsbooks.co.uk) in Saffron Walden where the lovely bookshop staff are very knowledgeable and will be delighted to help you and your children choose something perfect to read.

Jo Burch

Founder of Words in Walden


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