When I challenged myself to come up with my can’t-live-without desert island books, there was only one children’s book on it, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, all seven books included on the list as one title as a way of sneaking some extra books ashore with me.
It was some time later that I realised there was a whole swathe of books I had overlooked: children’s picture books. We’ve got a lot of these in the house, most of them ones we bought for our children and some from our own childhoods (which should have been a clue to me about how essential these were!)
So why did I overlook them? Looking back, I think I didn’t treat them as serious books. They weren’t books that I could put in the same class as Middlemarch or The Aeneid or even The Three Musketeers or Narnia.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. What’s more, there are other classes of books that many of us tend to disregard as ‘proper’ books. For some, it’s mystery stories. For others, it’s romance novels. Or fantasy. (I hate to break it to those of you who feel that way, but the last NZ winner of the Booker prize was a mystery story, both Shakespeare and Austen knew how to write a brilliant romance, and, when you come to think about it, every single novel is actually a fantasy. If you’re still not sure about fantasy and think it’s all wizards and swordfights, try China Miéville’s The City and The City. Not that there’s anything wrong with sword-fighting wizards.)
Perhaps this starts to take root at school, where we are taught to analyse ‘proper’ books, and then becomes ingrained as society eulogises certain (doubtlessly worthy) books, while others are implicitly sneered at. Picture books are for little children, so therefore can’t be worthy of serious adult attention.
Yet, as many people have noted, children’s picture books have been a saving grace for so many bookshops threatened by the evil twin wizards of online behemoths and ebooks. That desire to read with a child on your lap, and the difficulty of translating full or double page illustrations to e-reader screens, has ensured parents have continued to actually venture inside their local book store. So who’s calling picture books worthless now?
Not me, anymore. And in celebration of that, let me tell you about two of my absolute favourite picture books.
“Sam Cat and Dudley Pig are detectives. They find children who get lost. They catch robbers who steal things.
Brrring! It was Ma Dog calling. Something was wrong! What could it be? They hopped into their car to find out.”
The opening lines still trip off the tongue, but the eye is immediately drawn to the illustrations beside them. For a start they really do hop into the car. Dudley is in mid-air above it, while Sam follows behind, using his broom like Disney-Tigger uses his tail.
Sam’s broom remains a constant factor in the illustrations, propelling Dudley through small windows, tripping up waiters bearing loads of cherry pies, or being balanced on Sam’s nose with an enormous cherry pie atop it. The broom is never referred to in the text; it’s in the pictures that it takes on a life of its own.
The book is full of lines that have become family memes: “I can see there’s plenty of room for both of us.” “I have a surprise for you, come out and see what it is.” The best line of all is when Dudley and Sam are hunting in a busy restaurant (places are always busy in Richard Scarry’s world) for a thief with some torn trousers. Sam’s plan to get each patron to stand up and reveal the state of their trousers is for Dudley to ask if they are sitting on his hat (which the pictures show him holding in his hand.) “No,” say Wart Hog and Baboon, standing up to show him, “We are sitting on our own hats.” It was a long time before I could read that line without being disabled by laughter.
Sam and Dudley close in on the cherry pie thieves with their cunning plans and disguises, and eventually justice is done – I won’t tell you how, or the manner of payment the two great detectives receive from Ma Dog. The key thing is that it bears reading over and over again, and each time with pleasure.
Margaret Mahy’s story of the boy whose mother thinks he’s making up stories is justifiably a classic, and what makes it absolutely unforgettable for me is a line near the end.
Surely there isn’t actually a lion in the field outside the farmhouse, so the mother’s plan to create an equally imaginary dragon to scare the lion away looks inspired. Until the lion runs into the house looking for a refuge from the dragon.
“But there wasn’t a real dragon,” the mother says. “It was just a story I made up.” “It turned out to be true after all,” the boy replies, and then the lion says, “That is how it is…some stories are true and some aren’t.”
It sends a shiver down my spine when I read that. All the best books reflect truth about the world. Although they might be completely made up, like the mother’s story of the dragon, they have something true to say about real life situations and real people. The lion tells us that the border between our imagination and reality is thinner than we sometimes think it.
You’ll have many favourite picture books of your own, whether from your own childhood or that of your children. What creates the magic for you? Humour? Truth? Beauty? Finding yourself in it?
Please let me know, at email@example.com
This blog was brought to you by the letters S and D, and by the number π.