Nina Bawden: Squib
Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)
‘Little children understand magic,’ her mother had said once. ‘It’s a gift you lose as you grow older.’
Squib is a marvellous tale about how children of a certain age look to fairytales to help them make sense of the world. In a little waif which they call Squib Kate sees either a changeling or the ghost of her younger brother swept out to sea years before; siblings Sammy and Prue want Squib as an otherworldly playmate but are worried that he’s guarded by a witch in a wood; Prue and Sammy’s brother Robin wants to pursue ‘useless’ subjects like Latin and classical Greek at school but sees himself as a reluctant hero when wrongs need to be righted and Squib needs rescuing.
And the adults, have they truly lost the gift of understanding magic? Kate’s mother — an illustrator of children’s books — believes that ‘in real life there aren’t any right true happy endings. You have to get used to things as they are.’ Meanwhile, Robin’s mother was once a competitive swimmer but thinks she will never have the need to demonstrate her skills in this department again. Is life so cruel then that dreams face being forever dashed?
Nina Bawden’s novella, a tad over a hundred pages in this edition, demonstrates decisively why she writes so well for and about children. Here are individuals we can believe in — self-doubting, over-sensitive, imaginative, anxious — because they have real emotions and real fears. Their interactions are the perennial negotiations that children pursue with each other, the perceived slights which lead to cooling of friendships, the warmth that comes with unforeseen praise, however faintly given.
While the enigma that is the youngster Squib gets the children’s attentions in the story it is something else that interested Bawden’s earliest readers: “not the plot, although they seemed to find it exciting enough, but the emotions, the feeling, of the characters. ‘I didn’t know,’ they wrote, ‘that other people felt like that,'” she confessed in Chapter Seven of In My Own Time. She realised that this was why she read novels:
Of course children want a story just as I do, the gossipy power of what happens next to draw them into the world of the book, but what holds them, what their imaginations respond to, is its emotional landscape.
In her “almost an autobiography” (1994) the author tells us that Squib grew out of a case she had sat on as a magistrate in court. She had wondered at the reactions of the nursery school children who had first observed a little boy suffering neglect and abuse, what they’d thought was going on: “were they curious to see what would happen next, or had they been afraid to mention it in case it was a secret it was dangerous to tell?”
Squib tells of such conflicted reactions of the young quartet — the two younger siblings, plus Kate and Robin who try to work out the right actions to take in a confusing but increasingly dangerous situation. The seemingly sinister wood (with its suspicious denizens) which features in the book, past which Prue and Sammy have to pass to reach a playground, is real but also a metaphor concealing paths, secrets and strangers.
I have noted before how children’s limited experience of the world works both to their advantage and against them. In Squib the received narratives which they’ve grown up with are powerfully enticing yet potentially deceptive: will the idea of him being a changeling account for Squib’s shy, silent and cautious behaviour? Is Squib locked in a tower dwelling or caravan the same as Rapunzel in her turret? And is Katie’s rumbling appendix a punishment for her apparent part in her brother’s drowning?
Even in such a short story I found a narrative rich in resonances. Kate’s mother illustrates children’s novels, a counterpart of Shirley Hughes whose accompanying line drawings enhance this novella. Fathers are largely absent — one drowned, a second might as well be absent for all his effectiveness, and a third turns out, when present, a tower of fury when provoked. How it all will be resolved keeps the reader intrigued during the twists and turns we’re presented with: we want to know how things turn out for all the children concerned.
This story fairly fizzes, just like the firework referenced in the title; though a pool of water is involved the tale turns out to be anything but a damp squib.