The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes

“It was alive, glimmering under the rosebush, sitting on its haunches with its one spiralling horn and its long, white, silky mane. It turned its beautiful head and looked at him.” (The Lion and the Unicorn, by Shirley Hughes, Bodley Head, 1998)

Children’s books written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes never seem to go out of fashion. At 93 years of age, she has experienced and witnessed many different types of childhood; from a vulnerable one during the war years and the hardships thereafter, through to the ‘entitled’ generation of the 21st century.

During this time she has carried some of her most popular characters with her, such as Alfie, Lucy and Tom, and her illustrations from Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister series. Unlike the Harry Potter books, however, where the characters grow as the years pass by in real-time, Hughes’ characters remain in their infant phase of life, presenting a challenge seeing as over the space of almost a century, childhood has changed a great deal.

In interviews with the media, regarding a celebratory exhibition of Hughes’ work in 2017, at the age of 90, she argued that the themes of childhood are timeless and therefore her characters, although perhaps painted in a more idealised existence, never read as old-fashioned. Whilst children today may have televisions and iPads to play with – her most popular creation, Alfie, would never have known such a thing when he first made the page back in 1981 – the little crises of children are still the same; they still want to play in the garden and get covered in mud, and they cry if they can’t find their favourite toy.

This is Hughes’ greatest strength, sticking to the simple little things that mean so much to children no matter what age they grow up in, what gender they are, or where in the world they are from. It is said that Hughes finds her inspiration by sitting quietly in her communal garden in Notting Hill with her sketchbook and watching children play, and in this it is easy to understand how she can pick such universal truths about what is important to young minds.

One significant aspect of childhood that is particularly different, she observes, is the speed at which children have to process things due to the volume of ‘stuff’ they have at their disposal. They need to ‘slow down’, she says, in order to fully develop their imaginations.

This is where Hughes’ skills as an artist as well as a writer becomes useful, because her pictures take as much time, if not more, than the text does to explore, enjoy and comprehend. She told journalists in 2017 that she wanted to allow children to take their time and linger over the pages of pictures and guess what might come next.

Feeding the imagination, rather than having everything handed to them in a barrage of flickering images, is at the heart of Hughes’ The Lion and the Unicorn. Set during World War Two, when there was no such thing as tablets and mobile phones, her central character, Lenny, has to find his own amusement as he is sent away from his mother to a large country estate as a child evacuee.

His imagination is both his undoing and his salvation, as his mind fills his attic bedroom with fearful thoughts of lions on the hunt in the shadows of the estate, but also the possibility that a real-life unicorn exists in the walled garden of the house, ready to protect him from harm. It is in the walled garden, a place of refuge from the other evacuee children and the bullies at his new school, that he first encounters the statue of the unicorn, along with Mick, an amputee war hero.

The unicorn reminds him of the badge that his father gives him of the UK’s royal coat of arms – a lion and a unicorn. The lion symbolises bravery, his father tells him before he leaves for the army, and the unicorn is a gentle and magical creature that Lenny comes to realise stands for courage.

These are attributes needed in war, his father says, but Hughes points out that bravery, for a child, is not about facing the bigger adult world, but the little things they encounter everyday, such as the fear of being the new kid in school, sleeping in the dark, and being on your own.

After daily bullying at school, feeling homesick, and lack of friends, Lenny starts to crumble, wetting the bed and running away to the garden to cry in silence. Only Mick seems to understand him, and when Lenny learns his story, he finds that he is not failing in the lion-heart bravery that he promised his father, and that heroes can be scared and upset too.

It is the unicorn, however, that both Mick and Lenny identify more closely with. “There are different kinds of courage” Mick tells Lenny, and when one night after fearing his mother may never come for him, he sees the unicorn in the garden as a real-live creature. His night-fears drive him to a place of sanctuary with the unicorn, and in bringing him to life he finds a calmness that he hadn’t had since leaving his mother behind.

This plays into Hughes’ ambition of giving children that quiet, calm time, to slow down and not be forced to react to every little thing around them, but instead sit and focus on just one thing. Lenny’s ‘unicorn moment’, is just that – it focuses him and washes away his anxiety. Following the experience, he no longer cares what the bullies think, as the safety of his family is more important than anything they can do or say to him.

This magical encounter leads directly to the return of his mother and the realisation that bravery doesn’t mean that you can’t be scared sometimes, it is about finding little pockets of courage when you can and being kind to yourself in moments of weakness.

His father’s badge contained a different kind of magic than perhaps the one originally intended – the power of imagination to bring about real development. The imagined unicorn of the gardens defeats his night demons of a killer lion, but also slows him down and stops him from running away from his adopted home, just in time to see his mother return.

And isn’t this what Hughes wants children to take from all of her books – to slow the mind down long enough to allow for a bit of magic?

The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes, Penguin Random House, 2000.

Recommended for a reading age of six onward.

The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

winnie

“So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” (The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, Methuen & Co Ltd, 1928)

Is there anyone who wouldn’t want to get lost in the Hundred Acre Wood for a few hours of play and whimsical chit-chat with Pooh bear and friends? Milne is the master of pure escapism, shaped within the realms of reality, with a dash of humour and old-fashioned sentiment thrown in.  The Hundred Acre Wood, unlike the pure fantasy of Neverland and Wonderland gone before it, feels like a real place, where fantastical things just so happen to take place.

Christopher Robin has no superpower or special abilities; he is a typical six-year-old with a vivid imagination, and as such we believe completely in his adventures with his toys, Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo. Milne never takes his magical woodland friends too seriously, because a child would not, and why write for children if you can’t see things the way they do? You have fun with a teddy bear – get stuck in holes together, fall out of trees together, build houses out of sticks together, and hide from Heffalumps together.

This, of course, was Milne’s greatest skill – to situate his stories within a child’s perspective and use child-like language to build his adventures. No writer in his time, or since, has really come close to being as attuned to a child’s ability to blend a fantasy world with the real world.

Most children’s writers of the time used fantasy as a way of reflecting adult desires for a simpler time – a romanticised childhood view – but Milne preferred to stick with tales that make real-enough insignificant events seem hugely magical in the only way that a child can, and it is in this that he found humour, more so than any sadness for a lost time.

The first collection of Winnie the Pooh stories was published in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928.  Both books were instant best sellers and have not been out of print since.  His use of very simple child-like language to tell his tales of Christopher Robin’s favourite toys, was something that had not been seen in children’s literature before, and had more similarities to the ‘nonsense’ poems of the Victorian period than any novel published at the time.

The House at Pooh Corner sees the full character ensemble completed, with the arrival of Tigger who spends much of the book asserting that he knows exactly what Tiggers do and like best, whilst relying entirely on the other inhabitants of the wood to unwittingly reveal to him what he actually does do best.  One of the most amusing tales is of Tigger trying to tell his friends what breakfast he likes most, only to find that he must go door-to-door eating the breakfasts of others before he can truly commit to one.

Typical of the stories, is the warmth shown to this new character from the other animals of the wood; they accept Tigger’s misplaced confidence in himself not as a character failing, but of simply who he is, and are more than happy to rally around him, without judgement, when he finds himself in trouble (as he often does!).  At its heart, as with the first book in the series, is lessons in friendship, and what better lesson than to accept individuals for who they are.  

Eeyore is another good example of this, for despite his constant moaning, pessimism, and condescension, the animals try their best to make him happy.  These attempts often run into comical errors in judgement, such as Pooh and Piglet taking it upon themselves to build Eeyore a house without running it by him first, but nevertheless the good intention is the thing that binds the characters together in genuine friendship.

Literary critics tore into the books for its focus on a middle-class hero in a world safely bubble-wrapped, far away from the aftermath of World War, within quaint nursery walls and pretty English countryside. But the uneventful and safe world of Christopher Robin are in fact the very things that has kept the books on people’s shelves around the world for more than 90 years. The tales of Pooh counting his honey pots, or Tigger trying to decide what Tiggers’ do best, are so simple and universally childlike, that, much like the toys themselves, they can never grow old.

Christopher Robin, however, does – he grows up at the conclusion of the book. This is perhaps one of the few places where we see adult yearning for the past creep in. Play is no longer the main priority; it is pushed out for academic life and the hard work of learning how to be a grown up. But unlike Peter Pan, who is stuck in an endless loop of childhood fantasy, Christopher Robin moves on with the knowledge that his affection for his childhood toys doesn’t fade with time and will make them real whenever he needs them to be.

Unfortunately it is this sort of sentimentality that cast Milne out as a ‘serious’ writer, and in many ways prevented him from being known for anything other than the creator of whimsical kid’s stories.  Ironic, seeing as this non-intellectual approach to children’s writing was what set Milne apart from other writers at the time and heralded a new era of children’s writing – funny, silly, child-centric stories that avoid promoting childhood as a time for moral purity (as Victorian writers did), but instead a time to feel unashamedly self-important, where the main goal is simply to do as you please and have fun doing it.

And where better to have such carefree days than the Hundred Acre Wood, with a teddy bear and his friends.

The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, Egmont, 2016.

Recommended for a reading age of between 5 and 8.

Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo

mini-mountain-dragon-2

“‘It’s all right,’ said Mimi. ‘Come back down. I won’t hurt you.  I won’t let anyone hurt you.’ She held out her arm. ‘Come on, little dragon.’ Mimi knew he would come when he was ready.  And so he did, floating down on outstretched wings and landing on her wrist.” (p.18, Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo, 2014).

I can’t think of a better time than now to talk about empathy.  As the world faces one of its biggest health challenges, world leaders call for people to be understanding, considerate of one another, and mindful of those who are more vulnerable than themselves. It seems appropriate then, to be reading a book by an author who has championed such themes in his writings for children throughout his career.

Former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, is quoted as saying that if children have never imagined the lives of others, then they won’t learn empathy and make good decisions in later life. This appears to be the motivation behind Mimi and the Mountain Dragon, a story inspired by a trip to Switzerland where Morpurgo witnessed children from a village ringing cow bells, banging drums and cracking whips to drive away evil spirits – a ritual they performed every year.

His story starts with this tradition, but the evil spirits have been translated into the fear of a mountain dragon, and the ritual now includes the retelling of a story that reminds the villagers of how their community encountered the dragon through the courage of a small girl many years before.

For anyone that has read other Morpurgo stories, looking back to the past is an important part of how he aims to challenge young readers into empathising with people in situations that they may never have encountered before.  Stories of others long-gone, can fall on deaf ears, however, for a generation that is very much focused on the immediate present and the near future. But by introducing us to a narrator in the present day, involved in an intriguing ritualistic act, we are compelled to listen as he takes us back-in-time to unravel the story behind the unusual traditions of the mountain community.

The first person narrative that begins the tale makes us believe that the character presenting the story at the village gathering is in fact Morpurgo, and in this way, we as readers take the seats of the characters sitting around the campfire, ready and waiting to listen to the story that explains why the villagers use symbols of war and conflict in their Christmas tradition every year.

We hear the story of Mimi, a young girl who defies her parents and risks her own life to return a baby dragon to its mother at the top of the mountain, despite the belief that the dragon creates avalanches and takes people off the mountain.  Her empathy for the small dragon, separated from its mother, demonstrates how children should learn to understand all creatures, no matter how different they maybe from ourselves. Morpurgo says here that if empathy is not learnt in childhood, then young people become adults, like those in the village, who not only don’t understand those outside of their community, but are unwilling to even try.

Mimi’s adventure on the mountain shows her that if you invest the time, you can find creative ways to communicate across barriers and although the creature is bigger and stronger than any human, she is a mother, protecting her child, just as her own mother would. She learns that the image of the dragon has distorted the villagers understanding of their mountain environment, and in fact it is the people who created a monster far scarier than the reality.

Morpurgo often highlights the dangers of ‘otherness’ in his stories for children, and how fear of the ‘other’ leads to conflict.  He shows through Mimi that simple acts of kindness can bridge significant divides and has its own rewards, when the dragon ultimately saves the whole village from a snow storm.

Flash forward through the years of retelling this story to the villagers and we can now see that the banging of drums, ringing of cowbells, and cracking of whips commemorates a past ritual of both war and reconciliation, and the act of telling the story each year is the reminder that never again should the villagers rage against others, when there has been no attempt to reach out to them in the first place.

Morpurgo is typical of many other contemporary children’s writers, who demonstrate the loss of the ‘golden age’ of childhood. Children are no longer protected from an adult world, they can be corrupted by it and often fall victim to it. Mimi was in danger of becoming an adult as ignorant of her immediate environment as generations gone before her. It was her ability to empathise with another innocent young being that ultimately saves her and the generations to follow.

This beautifully illustrated story, now also a BBC animation, is sure to be a firm favourite with children and parents alike, and just like the villagers’ annual Christmas story-telling, is sure to be read and enjoyed again and again.

Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo, Egmont, 2019

Recommended to readers aged 5 upwards

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

stig

“The Thing sitting in the corner seemed to be interested.  It got up and moved towards Barney into the light.  Barney was glad to see it was Somebody after all.  Funny way to dress though, he thought; rabbit-skins round the middle and no shoes or socks.” (p.7. Stig of the Dump, Clive King, 1963)

I very rarely remember books that I read in school; I more readily recall books that my parents bought for me or read to me. Stig of the Dump is the exception. A popular book in schools the world-over, this novel, published in 1963, tells the story of an enduring friendship that cuts across time and cultural divide.

Coming to this book again as an adult provides a slightly different experience, but Barney’s imaginative freedom (is Stig real, or made-up?) means that we can easily part with the real-world and be carried back into a childhood playground, where cavemen can of course live in a dump-site and scare away bullies and robbers.

It is this imaginative power of the book’s central character that has allowed the major question of the novel to go unanswered for many years – is Stig real or not? We will never know, but he is real to Barney and that is all that matters for the book’s moral core – friendship, tolerance, understanding and kindness – to stand the test of time and be a source of great entertainment for both children and adults.

In fact it is Barney’s imagination that makes his everyday reality more meaningful, as he uses mundane objects to try and make Stig’s environment more comfortable for him. His inventive use of jam jars, tin cans, clay and logs makes Stig’s ‘cave’ more of a home, and it is through this imaginative play that Stig and Barney find a way to communicate, allowing Barney to reach depths of understanding and empathy for another that he might not have had before.

Barney’s friendship with Stig makes him stronger; in standing up to bullies and robbers and various other elements that threaten Stig’s home, Barney finds a way to ‘fix’ an adult world that is still fundamentally broken.  Although written long after the Second World War, King perhaps makes a point about the state of the adult world by positioning Barney between only two locations for his story – Granny’s house and the rubbish dump. Granny’s house is characterised by what adults will allow Barney to be, and the dump allows childhood freedom, where he can play and have fun, but also learn and grow.

Children had to grow-up fast following the war, in order to replenish a depleted labour market; the golden age of childhood ended, blurring the lines between childhood and adulthood, in a way that perhaps King is disappointed by. We still need children to be children in order to puncture a corrupted and desperate adult-world, bringing much needed light into a darkened environment.

The dump may in fact represent this fatigue with the world, with the rubbish tip being created by adults that clearly have a disregard for the environment.  But the dump is ‘saved’ by Barney and Stig’s friendship, turning the rubbish tip into a home, a place that needs protecting, and a space where childish adventure can flourish.

In this way there is not one hero of this tale, but two.  Barney makes Stig real to the reader and Stig makes Barney’s playfulness appear enlightened, and so together they turn a crumbling world (the dump) into something worth saving.  King demonstrates that relationships like this have endless rewards; after improving Stig’s world, Barney is invited into Stig’s at the conclusion of the novel.

The ritualistic movement of stones through the valley is an act so at odds with the way that Stig has been living in the rubbish dump, that we are not sure whether Barney has travelled into the past or is helping build a new future. Barney helps moves the stones towards the sunset as though welcoming a new and better world, one that tips its hat to the merits of the natural world and walks away from man-made destruction.

Perhaps this is the real value to the friendship between these two characters – to bring the past into the future in a new respect for a world suffering from lack of care and respect.  These themes resonated with a post-world war environment, but is also a major topic for readers in the 21st century, as global societies grapple with how to save a planet ravaged by the mistakes of human beings.

Childhood imagination and innocence save the day for King, and can surely not be discounted today, when anxiety around protecting children, protecting the environment, and protecting diverse communities are core concerns.

Long may Stig and Barney continue to imagine and play in the rubbish dump!

Stig of the Dump by Clive King, Puffin Books, 2014

Recommended to readers aged 7 upwards

12 Months, 12 Reads

stig-of-the-dump

As a first-time mum on maternity leave, I set myself a 12-month reading list featuring books that I would want my child to grow up with.  These books would fire-up and test the imaginations of both parent and child, and provide lasting memories of shared time in the pages of a book.

Having spoken to other mothers of young children, I know how important it is to get good children’s book recommendations.  For some years, children’s books will be all that parents read, so it is essential that the books we spend time and money on are enjoyed by both adult and child. I hope, therefore, that this list might be a good guide to some of the books that can proudly sit on bookshelves beyond the nursery walls for many years to come.

It wasn’t easy to come up with 12 books; there are so many books from my own childhood that I couldn’t put down and still have on my bookshelves as an adult.  I wanted this list, however, to speak to a new generation as well as an older one, casting a spell on a mind growing and learning in a world filled with digital imagery and technologies.

So to keep connections between the ‘old and the new’, I picked a theme that would run throughout the books, one that inspired me in my childhood, and one that is still strong in children’s literature today – myth and magic!

There is no recognised canon of children’s classics and no large body of critical work to draw upon; this presented both a challenge and an opportunity.  It was a challenge in that the list of books that I could have included is simply endless – so many magical books that have moved so many people the world-over.  At the same time the absence of this list meant that I could be more free in my choices and open in my thinking around them, picking perhaps more popularist books, little-known books, and books no longer in print.

I did, however, need some structure to my list and so I have chosen books that position children as ‘the innocent’; children as ‘the saviour’; and children as ‘victims’ of a modern fragile world.  These roughly break-down into late Victorian period novels, post-World War Two novels, and 21st century novels, as well as some beautiful picture books for younger readers.

I hope this list can add to your growing library of children’s books and cast a spell over parents, grandparents, and children, as they have done for me and my family.

Happy (bewitching) reading to all!