Children’s books

Today is Youth Day in South Africa (commemorating the role of the youth in the struggle against apartheid and the start of the Soweto uprising) so it’s a perfect excuse to talk about some of my favourite children’s books. (If this sounds flippant, then it’s not meant to diminish the struggle led by the youth. It’s just a celebration of kids’ books today. It’s common knowledge that books and stories can be as powerful, and more constructive, than violent protest.)

First of all, Dr Seuss.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

“I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try …. And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!”

There’s a kind of manic energy in Dr Seuss which is infectious. His books are basically doggerel with fun pictures. They’re perfect for little kids but doggerel nonetheless. I learned the alphabet with the help of ‘Dr Seuss’s ABC’. Here is the entry for V: “Big V, little v, Vera Violet Vinn is very very very awful on her violin”. The picture shows a little girl with a shock of blondish hair happily scraping away at her violin with sound waves emanating chaotically in all directions while two woolly figures block their ears. My brother and sister both played the violin so that was particularly funny for me, who grew up listening to them. They were actually pretty good and one of my favourite pieces of classical music as a result is Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.

Then of course there’s Richard Scarry (I liked the gorilla with the bunches of bananas), A.A. Milne, Lewis Carrol, Roald Dahl. One of the things about temporarily moving back with my parents is that I have access to some old, battered books I had as a child more than 30 years ago. Perhaps I’m regressing back to being a child (I hope not) but in the picture you have “The Cat in the Hat” and “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back”, “The Digging-est Dog” and “The King, the Mice and the Cheese”. I was going to say that those are brilliant but I’ll rather say that they are fun to read. I could go on and on. C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling ….

When I was small my dad used to read me a bedtime story every night. I can picture that big room with the small bed, and then my brother on the other side of a glass partition. My favourite author when I was about 7 years old must have been Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Danny the Champion of the World; James and the Giant Peach etc. Then we moved on to Arthur Ransome and the “Swallows and Amazons” series. The only book we ever gave up on was Ransome’s “We didn’t mean to go to sea”. There are only so many pages you can take of people being stuck in a boat. (Talking about boys being stuck on boats, it took me quite a while to get into The Life of Pi, which I subsequently enjoyed, as an adult).

I used to work part-time at the bookshop as a student, and when it was quiet and there were very few customers I would plonk myself down in the kid’s section. Some titles that spring to mind: Where the Wild Things Are; The Berenstein Bears; Where’s Wally?; the Paper Bag Princess; the Brothers Grimm; Aesop’s Fables. There were also South African books about wild animals and traditional stories but I can’t think of titles offhand.

As far as writing a children’s story is concerned, I started developing a story I read in the newspaper about some baby crocodiles on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal who were swept out to sea after a storm. I was imagining their adventures as the lost little crocs try to find their way home again. Unfortunately I ran out of steam before they’d got very far.

So what are some of your favourite children’s books? And if you wrote a children’s story, what would it be about?

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6 Responses to Children’s books

  1. I absolutely loved everything Dr Seuss when I was a kid. I’m 24 and I still love everything Dr Seuss! The Grinch was probably my favorite character, especially the old Chuck Jones cartoon version of the Grinch. CLASSIC!

  2. Litlove says:

    I’m always astonished how few good children’s authors I read as a child. That doesn’t mean I didn’t read books – I was one of those children constantly berated for not going outside to play – but I read a lot of trash. I’ve had a chance with my own son to catch up and it’s been wonderful. We loved Dr Seuss. One summer I read aloud to him the Harry Potter books up to number 5 – I was amazed I had any voice left afterwards! I’ve thought about writing a book for children but my general inability at fiction holds me back. But I’d actually write about children rebelling in a dystopia if I could – I often think growing up is a process of unlearning all the instinctual wisdom we are born with.

  3. pete says:

    Michael, thanks for the comment and your Dr Seuss site is very impressive. The Grinch is great, isn’t he? I like the way political commentators use Dr Seuss imagery (like the Grinch) in their satire. I just found this one by Maureen O’ Dowd (before Hillary conceded defeat to Obama):

    “The time has come. The time has come. The time is now. Just go. … I don’t care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Hillary R. Clinton, will you please go now! You can go on skates. You can go on skis. … You can go in an old blue shoe. ..Just go, go, GO!”

    Litlove, I like the idea of children rebelling in a dystopia – although I had to look up “dystopia” to make sure I knew what it meant! And I’m sure Dr Seuss would have a lot of fun with that idea. I think children’s fiction is about playing – it’s all about fun.

  4. pete says:

    I forgot to add that the now-unfashionable Enid Blyton was also a favourite as a child. Then there were all the Beanie and Scorcher yearbooks, Roy of the Rovers etc. (which would probably qualify as trash).

  5. qugrainne says:

    Speaking of Dr. Seuss, he has quite a few WW2 posters he is credited with, which are pretty clever. His depiction of the Japanese is disturbingly racist and rather a surprise to me, however.

    Books read as children? My mom read to me every night until I was old enough to read chapter books myself, and then I was required to read at least a half hour every night (though it was more like “only a half an hour” at which time I took the flashlight under the covers). My favorite author to be read out loud then was Pierre Probst’s “Caroline and Her Friends” which I unfortunately cannot acquire a copy of. I have many, many favorites among those I read to my children when they were small. Allan and Janet Ahlberg are in the top ten for sure. We also loved the Babar books, Maurice Sendak, Madeline, and, and and!! I still buy children’s books, especially Christmas books. Have you read Tolkein’s “The Father Christmas Letters”? It is wonderful.

  6. couchtrip says:

    Hi qugrainne, interested to hear about Dr Seuss’s ‘dark side’! I haven’t come across The Father Christmas Letters but thanks for the tip. Also loved Babar and Madeleine. Allan and Janet Ahleberg ring a bell (but a faint one). Thanks for sharing.

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