Talking squirrels or lions or butterflies dart out of children’s books regularly, so you would barely be stirred by them while studying near the teachers’ collection at the Newsam Library.
On cataloguing some piles of picture books, however, I was startled by quite a few objects speaking to me out of the pages, amongst them a pair of socks, a sausage, and a brick.
I have already reported on The table that ran away and sought refuge in the forest and the tiny book looking like a brick wall, Mr Rouse builds a house, both by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. Already in 1938, the authors envisaged screaming flats, growling buses, and sniggering chimneys.
Now I can recommend the story of just one Brick, who undertakes a journey to many distant castles and temples, cottages and housing estates, until she decides to form part of… a garden path, lying down with a big smile! The real monuments, all of brick, in London and New York, Uzbekistan and India are shown in an appendix.
You have naturally met caterpillars before in libraries, at least The very hungry caterpillar, which crawls around our shelves in many incarnations. Or perhaps you felt uneasy at the remark: “Oh look, there are lots of caterpillars walking on top of your green head!” when Mr Rouse’s balcony flowers were laughing at a tree…
Richard Graham’s Cranky caterpillar is special. It lives in a piano and cannot get out – it is stuck in the dark wooden box and must play the same sad tune over and over again… A little girl tries to cheer it up with the assistance of some goggle-eyed, bouncing, laughing, talking musical instruments, until clouds of colourful shapes rise and the piano keys literally dissolve into a meandering jubilant tune.
Only those of us from those three generations who, as young children, memorised Pluto as the ninth planet orbiting the sun, can empathise with the little planet who is cast out of the fold in A place for Pluto. In Stef Wade’s imagination, the cute wide-eyed creature argues (“But I am in all the schoolbooks!”), demonstrates (“#PlutoBelongs”), and travels through space with his little suitcase until he finds his new mates, the dwarf planets.
An emotional and sociable planet would have given mirth to Aristophanes, whose frogs and bees swarm into our playhouses to this day, and who would have been acquainted with personified celestial bodies. Yet talking triangles and dancing rectangles, I believe, would have left Pythagoras nonplussed.
A talking house seems quite probable to an imaginative mind; a talking brick is still a tangible thing; but a rectangle is just a concept. Abstract art like Kandinsky’s which inspired Richard Graham, with line and colour as protagonists, as it were, emerged only in the early 20th century.
There are plenty of animated shapes popping out of many new children’s books. Some circles and squares passed through my previous article, together with wonky blobs and wiggly lines. With Circle rolls, a new squad has joined them, frolicking around to verse: “Whirl, twirl! Flip, flop!”… “Shapes glide… and collide!”
I wonder what the teachers amongst you will do with these books… and if you can have as much fun in other academic libraries!