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Passing the book: Great stories connect generations

Through the joy of illustrated children's books, Drury Street's Tales for Tadpoles weaves a connecting thread between generations who have grown up decades apart

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Great illustrated children's books connect one generation to another, and Tales for Tadpoles, a dedicated children’s book themed shop on Dublin’s Drury Street, has aplenty

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“I now understand fairy tales better than I did in childhood”, wrote C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia. “Being able to put more in, of course I get more out.”

Only when we have grown up and can reflect on the books we read as a child do we realise how important they were to us, and how much they helped to formulate our world view. Parents find themselves rediscovering their old favourites through reading them to their own children, and it can be a very emotional process. 

Sharing a story can be a connecting thread between the childhoods of two people who grew up decades apart.

“We’ve had all kinds of emotional reactions from customers. Most get really excited, but some have even cried”, says Caroline Sullivan, the owner and founder of Tales for Tadpoles, a dedicated children’s book themed shop on Dublin’s Drury Street. “In a nice way!”, she’s quick to add. Like a familiar smell, the characters, stories and illustrations in childhood books can have a powerful effect on people, effectively transporting them back in time. A lot of Tales for Tadpoles’ customers are buying their childhood favourites to pass on to a younger relative. Sharing a story can be a connecting thread between the childhoods of two people who grew up decades apart. 

The Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson
The Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson

By the same token, gifting a partner or close friend a book from their childhood can be a deeply sentimental gesture. Remember the scene in Friends, when Chandler secretly bought a first edition of The Velveteen Rabbit for Joey’s girlfriend? It’s the gift of nostalgia, nostalgia for a time when life was perhaps less complicated, when family, friends and books were everything. “We hear a lot of lovely stories from customers,” says Caroline.

“Christmas especially is a time when people tend to look back to their own childhoods for gift inspiration. One time a couple came in looking for a present for their children, and the dad got stuck looking at an illustrated print from James and the Giant Peach for ages. He clearly hadn’t thought about it for years, but the illustration brought the whole story back to him. His wife eventually convinced him to get something else; she said that print wouldn’t suit their childrens’ bedroom. But later that day she came back alone and bought it as a surprise gift for her husband.” 

Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, illustrated by Quentin Blake
Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, illustrated by Quentin Blake

As with everything, trends in children’s books have changed through the years, and different generations identify with different characters and authors. Grandparents tend to favour Beatrix Potter and Winnie-the-Pooh, both of which are still just as popular with children today as they were almost a century ago. Many remember A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories for their humour, but to an adult, the stories are also about the transience of childhood; they were based on the author’s own young son’s imaginary games. Beatrix Potter’s books are very much of their time; the animals in her stories wear petticoats and buy toffee with pennies and farthings. But parents and grandparents who pass on her books might be surprised at how much children enjoy sharing Potter’s mischievous wit. 

"What day is it?" "It's today," squeaked Piglet. Illustartion from AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh.
"What day is it?" "It's today," squeaked Piglet. Illustration from AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh.

For Generation X, Shirley Hughes and Richard Scarry are among the favourites. Shirley Hughes’ Alfie series revolve around a little boy named Alfie and his sister Annie Rose. Hughes writes about the everyday moments that make up a childhood, and her beautifully illustrated books bring people back to a time when trips to the park and birthday cakes were the very apex of their existence. Children love her books because they can identify with them.

Alfie by Shirley Hughes
Alfie by Shirley Hughes

In the case of Richard Scarry, adults remember his books for the details he hides on every page. His densely populated illustrations show little animals going about their lives in his Busy, Busy Town. For a new generation growing up with interactive games and devices, Scarry’s books offer an alternative of endless hidden detail which will keep them busy for hours at a time.

Busy, Busy Town by Richard Scarry
Busy, Busy Town by Richard Scarry

And what Millennial didn’t read Roald Dahl? Dahl’s work unifies the generation that grew up with him, but his prolific output means everyone has a different relationship to his back catalogue. Every household will have had its own unique collection of Dahl books, and parents love collecting the same range that they grew up with. Today’s increasingly savvy children still love his sometimes dark, but always funny, books. 

The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl
The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl

What then for the new generation? As parents look further afield for parenting and education inspiration, so too are parents reading their children books from authors outside of the mainstream. Scandinavia and mainland Europe are becoming the gold standard for stories and picture books. The Moomins, Tove Jansson’s series of novels and picture books about a whimsical family of hippo-like creatures, have long been iconic overseas, but in recent years the books, (and all the addictively collectible merchandise that comes with them), are becoming better known in Ireland and the UK. 

Tove Jansson's The Moomins series
Tove Jansson's The Moomins series

“There are so many amazing books out there at the moment,” says Caroline Sullivan when asked to comment on the children’s book industry today. “I really feel this is a golden period for illustrated books. And it’s an extremely important time for books in general, as they offer an antidote to some of the throwaway elements of today’s digital culture. This is particularly important when it comes to children. Books give a greater sense of connection, whether it’s between the author and reader, or parent and child. I say it all the time but I truly believe that the gift of reading is a wonderful gift for life. A book really is the best gift to give a child of any age.”


Discover more about tales for tadpoles here

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