Steal not this book

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak

I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book.
Edited by Iona & Peter Opie.
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1992)
Walker Books 2000 (1947).

‘I saw Esau sittin’ on a seesaw,
Esau he saw I…’

I was brought up with this version of the tongue-twister, which doubtless continued though I have no memory now of how it ended; I was much more enamoured of the doggerel which went “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” The version recorded by Peter and Iona Opie was very different (“I saw Esau kissing Kate, | The fact is we all three saw; | For I saw him, | And he saw me, | And she saw I saw Esau.”) though the helpful endnotes admit that the first half of the shortened version I knew is often all that’s recited.

But this process of looking for familiar rhymes and ditties is one of the first things the new reader is likely to do; the second is to admire and rejoice in the visuals added to virtually every page. Originally published during the years of postwar rationing, I Saw Esau was reissued in 1992 with coloured illustrations by the redoubtable Maurice Sendak, making this probably the most heartwarming pocket book of “traditional rhymes of youth” (as the original subtitle informs us) I’ve had the fortune to see and now own.

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Some stories are true

A Lion in the Meadow
by Margaret Mahy,
pictures by Jenny Williams.
Picture Puffins 1972 (1969).

“That is how it is,” said the lion. “Some stories are true, and some aren’t…”

Read and reread, its covers mended with yellowing sticky tape, our family’s copy of Margaret Mahy’s classic has survived nearly half a century and has already been read to the children of the child it was first bought for. And the reason I think it has survived is that it doesn’t only work on very many levels but has also been served well by Jenny Williams’ luminous illustrations.

It begins with a boy running in from a field made savannah-like by grasses as tall as his head. “Mother,” he tells her, “there is a lion in the meadow,” but she doesn’t believe him. “Nonsense, little boy,” she replies. From this point we go on to what constitutes truth and what make-believe, who takes charge of storytelling and when does the storytelling stop, if at all.

It has the quality of classic fairytales, full of archetypal figures and incidents, layered by repeated phrases amid mild suspense but at the same time leaving space for one’s imagination to expand into. Pictures work hand in hand with text while leaving us free to interpret what we’re being told and what we’re seeing.

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A clowder of cats

Back cover illustration by Fritz Wegner

Carter is a Painter’s Cat
by Carolyn Sloan,
with pictures by Fritz Wegner.
Longman Young Books 1971

A book bought to read with our first child (and, in due course, subsequent children) has remained a firm favourite, at least with me, for nearly fifty years. The irreverent text by British author Carolyn Sloan and equally irreverent illustrations by Fritz Wegner are a perfect marriage, quirky and deeply satisfying in a way that’s not easy to put one’s finger on.

But I shall try, so — deep breath — here goes.

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Comfort and joy

Erik Blegvad endpapers for The Winter Bear

Ruth Craft: The Winter Bear
Illustrated by Erik Blegvad
Collins Picture Lions 1976 (1974)

This is one of the most delightful of picture books for this time of year. A perfect blend of poetry and watercolour & ink illustrations, The Winter Bear tells the story of three children who set off for a brief brisk walk in the countryside as dusk and snow approach and discover something lodged, tatty and unloved, in some branches.

Retrieving it with difficulty they return home to render it presentable and something to be loved. As a mini-saga, a journey with a beginning, middle and end, it’s as beautiful a miniature to look at as well as to read aloud.

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Incomparable parable

Bluebell Wood, Coed Cefn, Crickhowell

Dr Seuss: The Lorax
Random House 1971

Among the handful of books one of our granddaughters habitually chooses for me to read to her is this, reportedly the author’s favourite. Whether it’s the pictures, the words, the message or a mixture of some or all of these I haven’t asked, but it obviously appeals strongly to her. For the moment I’m happy that it clearly holds some magic for her, even at the age of six, and that now may not be the time to analyse how or why, only to recognise that it does.

The Lorax is an uncomfortable parable about the despoilation of our planet. It’s depressing that, half a century on, the moral of the tale has no more been learnt than it was by the Once-lers of our world back when it was first published:

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

As with the tale of Pandora’s box, there is a soupçon of hope at the end, an indication that youngsters, if they’ve learnt from the mistakes made by their pig-headed elders, may be able to begin repairing at least some of the damage done.

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The cat and the quilt

“Tabby drags her patchwork quilt up to the gate. She will not let it go.” One of Nicola Bayley’s illustrations for The Patchwork Cat

Nicola Bayley & William Mayne
The Patchwork Cat
Puffin Books 1984 (1981)

This picture book is both a delightful and a painful work to review. First the delight.

The text of The Patchwork Cat strikes a wonderful balance between using simple repetitious wording suitable for reading aloud to the preliterate child and pure prose poetry. Tabby the cat sleeps on a quilt. It is patchwork, like herself. She loves it. It’s the relationship she has with the quilt and with the milkman that form the focus of the narrative. “Oh milkman, milkman,” she says, “you can come and live at my house any time.” All is going well until the moment when she cannot find the patchwork quilt, her matching patchwork quilt.

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