Emotional landscapes

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.

20 thoughts on “Emotional landscapes

  1. This sounds intriguing and it’s a book that I did not know so thank you for bringing it to my attention Chris. I like both quotes as well, they highlight what makes well written children’s books so appealing and also important for young readers.

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    1. It’s delightful what one can pick up — could pick up — in charity shops, as I really admired Bawden’s ability to explore the emotional landscapes she identifies as crucial for young readers trying to navigate life; this didn’t disappoint, and now I’m wondering about exploring her adult fiction too. At the moment I’m dipping into her memoir, published a few years before her death in 2012.

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      1. Thank you for the prompt regarding her memoir, I’m sure I would find that interesting. Charity shops are a treasure trove aren’t they, I’m very much looking forward to when I am able to have another delve into their shelves.

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  2. What a marvelous story! And this is such an important point about the emotional connections. I think that’s why I’m enjoying Maass’ craft book so much–for all the adventure and magic, we need to be able to connect with the characters, and that happens through our feelings. If we cannot connect, then we can never be more than spectators in the bleachers. We can cheer, but that moment of elation is always fleeting.

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    1. Good points, Jean, thanks! It’s interesting, when I was a kid I just wanted action, the forward thrust of a narrative, and tended to skip over all that psychological / emotional stuff; it may be that I was merely slow to mature, or as a male didn’t ‘do’ such amorphous concepts, or even it was a side effect of being undiagnosed on the autism spectrum (though it wasn’t of course recognised much then, let alone defined).

      I suppose, as time went on, I started to recognise that literature could give me more of an insight into how how people ticked and in recent years I’ve been tending more and more away from non-fiction towards fiction that explored the psyche and relationships. It’s that connection that you mention — with individuals and not just humanity as a whole.

      Had to look up “the bleachers” and now have a new (albeit Stateside) idiom to bandy around in conversation! I suppose we’d say “on the sidelines”, “in the stands” or “in the wings”, or maybe just … spectators?! 🙂

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      1. Ha! Well, I’m happy to share some Stateside lingo when I can. Did you know Americans like to call people from Wisconsin Cheeseheads? That’s mainly due to the American football fans of the Green Bay Packers. Sports fans do love their specialized attire! 🙂 https://www.wpr.org/why-do-people-wear-cheeseheads

        But I do think there is a place for the purely escapist story; I love connecting to characters, but I also love to just watch Chuck Norris stop the Commies from invading the USA. I’m not looking to bond with Bruce Willis as he quips one-liners after a battle with terrorists. But I think this is partially because I can sense when I’m in the mood for such things. I can’t watch action all the time, just as we can’t dive into the emotional reads at the time, you know?

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        1. You’ve mentioned before foods Wisconsin was famous for but I don’t remember this morsel of information! As I said in another comment, I like plot-driven fiction with distinctive characters and ideas I can chew on, so I think we’re agreed here. 🙂

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  3. Thank you for this. I have picked up Nina Bawden books wherever I’ve seen them but somehow haven’t yet managed to read any of them–or maybe one, about a brother and sister evacuated during the War for which a television film was also made. Your review has inspired me to go back and read them. Her bio has always intrigued me and I admire and wonder at her consistent and prolific writing, for both adults and children.

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    1. I think, Josna, you must mean Carrie’s War (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-carrie) as the Bawden you remember, which I never saw on TV and only read last year. I’ve since read two or three other of her children’s novels and am now very much looking forward to her memoir. I’d be interested to know what you thought of the books you’ve accumulated — I wonder if any of them overlap with the ones I’ve read, The Witch’s Daughter, The Secret Passage, and Off the Road?

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      1. Hi Chris. Yes, that’s it, it was Carrie’s War. I’ve just taken a look and found only more Puffins–The Peppermint Pig, The White Horse Gang, and The Runaway Summer (the last of which I think I might try reading first, since it involves an “illegal Kenyan immigrant boy”–possibly timely).

        But it’s frustrating because I know I had two of her novels for adults, and now I can’t find them. Sincerely hope they weren’t among the books I made myself let go of when we moved here from our old house, but suspect that they were. It always happens that just when I’ve steeled myself to let go of a book, I need to find it! Not sure if one of those I had was one of the ones you’ve read–possibly The Witch’s Daughter.

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  4. This sounds very intriguing, Chris – especially in the context of the “emotional landscape” children are drawn to in novels in addition, or even before, they are drawn to the plot – I find that kids usually are more sensitive to one or the other at the beginning, but then discover also the other half of the book’s contents.

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    1. Hopefully the same applies to adults too, Ola! Purely plot-driven novels (cozy crime, thrillers, and the like) are fun but a bit like candy floss, while fictions just about mundane relationships, angst, unrequited love etc with no real resolution to speak of I find terribly depressing, or represent time I’ll never get back. A good plot, emotions, and something to make me think — that’s my ideal!

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