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Archive for the ‘Children’s books’ Category

It’s BabyD’s birthday tomorrow, and one of the presents we’ve bought for him is Willy the Dreamer by Anthony Browne. It’s a gorgeous book, really quirky with loads of hidden detail. The drawings are, I think, inspired by various famous works of art, or by the style of the artist. There’s a Dali pastiche, with melting bananas in place of clocks, and a burning banana casting a shadow in the background. Another page looks very like Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes, and the last is reminiscent of Rene Magritte. I also see characters I recognise from films and from Alice in Wonderland. The book is a fascinating artwork in itself, taking various styles and reproducing them with a witty and idiosyncratic twist.

What has really interested me, though, is that I really like this book. Not so long ago, I would have found this sort of thing very frustrating. I like to feel like I’m a clever person. When reading Jilly Cooper (ok, admittedly not usually the actions of a clever person, but bear with me), I love it when I recognise one of the literary allusions – spotting the odd line of Wordsworth or Catullus dropped nonchalantly into the dialogue gives me a satisfying sense of being ‘one of the gang’, in on some little joke that those who aren’t as well-read wouldn’t get. However, this is a double-edged sword. Because, of course, for every in-joke that I get, every smug nod of recognition, there are several that pass me by. When I read a quote from a poet that I didn’t recognise, I’d be really pissed off, mostly with myself for not having read enough and not knowing enough. “I don’t know whether this is Shelley or Byron – ugh, I’m so pathetic and thick.” I couldn’t bear the idea that there are people out there who’ve read gallons and gallons of poetry and literature, and who know things that I’m never likely to know.

I would have expected that Willy the Dreamer would evoke the same feelings. There are several pictures in there that look vaguely familiar, and that I’m pretty sure would have me chuckling with recognition if I was an expert in modern art. But for some reason, knowing that there are jokes I’m not getting and things I don’t know isn’t winding me up so much today. Either this is because Anthony Browne is somewhat more talented than Jilly Cooper, and his books are rich and beautiful regardless of whether you can spot every artistic reference and inspiration. Or possibly it could be because I’m becoming a little more comfortable with myself, more confident in the things I know, and in my ability to find out the things I don’t know. I do still feel like I have a lot to learn, and that I’ve a long way to go before I really understand ‘being in the world’, but perhaps part of the way there is becoming relaxed about the ideas that I can never know everything, and that there will always be people out there who know a hell of a lot more than me.

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The phrase “a timeless classic” could be considered one of the highest accolades for a children’s book. But what I love about Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s books is that they are anything but timeless – they have a strong sense of time and place that gives them an endearing charm. The Baby’s Catalogue was first published in the early 1980’s, and the lifestyle, clothing and everyday household paraphernalia of the five families makes this very clear. (Peepo, set in the 1940s, is another great example of this.)

Each page shows a different element of family life, from affectionate and amusing illustrations of ‘Babies’ and ‘Mums’ to ‘Highchairs’ and ‘Teas’. The illustrations follow the families from the early hours of the morning, with babies sleeping, crying and eating, through typical daytime activities, bath, bed and into the middle of the night, with babies sleeping, crying and eating again. Although there are no words accompanying the pictures, there is a clear narrative for each family, as parents head off to work (including one family where mummy gets in the car with suit and briefcase while daddy stays at home with baby and siblings), do the laundry and feed the children. For me, this is a big part of the appeal of this book: it recognises the little moments that make up each day, bringing out the joy and humour in everyday life. The page of ‘Accidents’ is a particular favourite – the quiet, good-humoured observation of the mayhem that young toddlers can and do cause several times a day never fails to raise a smile, as I recognise so many of the incidents myself!

At almost two years old, my son simply likes to point out his favourite bits on each page and I explain what’s happening (or, increasingly, he explains to me). The attention to detail in the illustrations and their rich depiction of family life means, I expect, that he will continue to get more out of this book as his understanding develops. I hope we’ll still be reading it together for years to come.

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