Bedtime tales of past, present - and future

 

There may be a wealth of new titles for children, but the best gifts from generation to generation are the time-honoured classics. If only letting go of the books wasn't so difficult, writes Mary Leland

I KNOW THEY can't read just yet, I protest, but no grandchild of mine is going to grow up without meeting, along the way, The Lorax. Or Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School. Or George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square. Or Rosemary Sutcliff's The High Deeds of Finn MacCool. It's not that these infants and senior infants are short of books. New titles are pouring from the presses and, as much as anyone else, I and their parents succumb to the various charms of such titles as The Fourth Kingand A Creature Was Stirring. But these stories haven't yet been tried by turbulent bedtimes, so their lasting power is unknown. The most recent durable success in our family has been a reissue of Edward Ardizzone's classic Johnny's Bad Day, a wordless, comical but powerful evocation of disaster and redemption.

But why, comes the response, can't I trust my adult children to make sure that their children will encounter the books they treasured themselves? They will in time, they tell me; and it is true that already the grandparental shelves are lighter as their contents are pillaged. The tiger who came to tea now lives in Luxembourg, for example, and the lorax has found an appreciative pillow in Moscow, while Johnny's Bad Daycrowns good days in London.

Yet the finite nature of time becomes more obvious when I ask for anything at all by Graham Oakley in the local bookshops. Christmas is no time to talk or think about dying, but there is a space beyond oneself that will be inhabited by loved ones, the very ones for whom these Christmas books are being accumulated. They deserve Graham Oakley and his thronged drawings of church mice and Sampson the cat; there is even a suspicion that they might need them. They need the fun, the risky independence, the anarchy and rescue, the fortitude and the ever-expanding imagination.

It comes as no great surprise that Ardizzone's last illustrations before his death in 1979 were for a new edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas, with its descriptions of "pictureless books in which small boys, though warned not to, would skate on Farmer Giles's pond and did and drowned". There follows the rapturous list of Useless Presents, where the only book is a "painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field . . ."

Philippa Pearce saw that space beyond herself as she was writing what was to be her last book. In his recent review of Pearce's A Finder's Magic, Frank Cottrell Boyce notes that the book, published posthumously, is dedicated to Pearce's grandsons, Nat and Will, and her hero's name, Till, is a blend of theirs. But the book is also a blend of other aspects of Pearce's life and writing career. Affectionately and knowledgably decoded by Cottrell Boyce, this story of a boy and his (temporarily) lost dog is interwoven with clues: minnows from Minnow on the Say, the book she wrote when recovering from TB; an image from Tom's Midnight Garden; a disappearing dog recalling A Dog so Small.

None of these hints are ostensible or intrusive, they are just there, although there are correspondences to real people. Cottrell Boyce identifies one character, Miss Mousy, as a representation of this final book's illustrator, Helen Craig (also known for her Angelina Ballerina series). Craig is the other grandmother of Nat and Will.

"This is goodbye," writes Cottrell Boyce, "not just to fiction, but to life and family and home - which explains why this pretty, light-hearted fable has such a powerful undercurrent."

PICKING UP Experienceon a family visit a few weeks ago, I remembered my only meeting with its author, Martin Amis. I was to interview him during his reading visit to Dublin on the publication of his novel, The Information. It was a hurried interlude, but as we sat in an upstairs alcove in the Shelbourne I asked some question about his apparent affinity with an underclass, a submerged but vicious species which darkens so much of his text in that novel.

Amis had been in the publicity wars: there was his break with his London agent, a lot of fuss about, of all things, his teeth; and a mixed reaction to what was, in fact, a powerful and precise new novel. All these come into Experience, but that autobiography was still a few years away as he thought about my question. He answered it by talking about his cousin, Lucy Partington, who had vanished from his family's life 20 years before, only to be discovered as a buried victim of the monstrous Fred West.

It was as if some spell had enveloped him and us, for our conversation took place not long after the excavations at Fred West's house. It seemed that Amis and the rest of his family, having consigned Lucy to a mystery which could not be solved, were suffering the agonising bereavement not simply of a death but of an undetected death and one accompanied by horror.

In Experience, Amis excavates these events and these reactions, but although this was what drew me to the book at the time, now, 15 years on from our meeting at the Shelbourne, this was not what I took from it. Now I was pursuing his references to his stepmother, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, and her influence on his teenage education. Somewhere in those pages I found mention of Margaret Wise Brown's Big Red Barnand Goodnight Moon, some of the books of his childhood. It is a fact that every family has its own gauge of literary popularity and some of us miss out on what has sustained many others through childhood and adolescence. And it is also a curious fact of literature that a title mentioned as an aside can prompt a search almost as complex in its design as a fishing net.

The life story of Margaret Wise Brown, creator of Big Red Barnand The Runaway Bunnyamong at least 100 others, is that of an unusually independent American author living in a primitive (no plumbing, electricity, phone) island house in Maine or in her fur-lined wood-frame studio in Manhattan. This undercurrent of eccentricity flared into full-blown notoriety during her relationship with John Barrymore's former wife, Blanche Oelrichs (best-known by her pen name, Michael Strange). Her story came to an end just before her intended marriage to James Rockefeller, when she was recovering from surgery in France and kicked her legs high to celebrate her release from hospital. The kick dislodged a blood clot and she died instantly, aged 41. But she left a lot behind, not least Little Fur Family, illustrated by Garth Williams.

As an illustrator, Williams justifies the belief that the best illustrators are chosen for the best books. How anyone knows in advance is beyond me, but there must be some truth in this, for Williams drew for Stuart Littleand Charlotte's Web(EB White), Bedtime for Frances(Russell Hoban) and Little House on the Prairie(Laura Ingalls Wilder). He was also the illustrator for The Cricket in Times Squareand for all the subsequent George Selden books featuring Tucker Mouse, Harry Catand Chester Cricket.

GATHERING ALL THAT I can together, sometimes in twos and threes for safety's sake, I wonder for whom, after all, are these books intended? I must keep The Cricket in Times Square; I can't be without Paul Biegel's The King of the Copper Mountains, or Margery Williams's The Velveteen Rabbit, with its pictures by William Nicholson. It took so long to find another copy of The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, the best rendering of Irish legends I have yet read, that now I am reluctant to let it out of my hands.

The enchanting little drawings by Maurice Sendak for The Wheel on the Schoolhave fastened that story to this family, or so I believe. I have found another copy of Mole's Christmasand am following Lucy Mangan's book-lover's guide to building a children's library in the Guardian. But I realise as I fold the Christmas paper around A Creature Was Stirringthat what I am imagining, when the parcel is unwrapped, is my son reading to his son, as if to recapture those evenings when The Night Before Christmaswas read, with all its durable magic experienced for the first time.

Frank Cottrell Boyce was saying something of this when he reviewed Philippa Pearce: "There's something beautiful and just about the fact that it was Pearce's own grandchildren who inspired her to write this last book and that it describes so lucidly the way that art sometimes gives us back what life has taken away."

Johnny's Bad Day, by Edward Ardizzone, is republished by Jane Nissen Books; Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, by Leonard S Marcus, is from Beacon Press, Boston; A Creature Was Stirring,by Clement C Moore and Carter Goodrich, is published by Simon Schuster