There’s a Tiger in the Garden by Lizzy Stewart

“This is just ridiculous. Tigers live in the jungle. Not in the garden. And even though there are dragonflies the size of birds and plants that want to eat us, and you are a very grumpy polar bear, there is absolutely, definitely, one hundred per cent no…. TIGER.” (There’s a Tiger in the Garden, Lizzy Stewart, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2016)

Parents, grandparents, and carers of young children everywhere will nod knowingly at the conflict between Nora’s words – “There’s nothing to do here, Grandma” – on page one, and the imagery of toys, colouring pencils, and books scattered all around the room, clearly marking that there is indeed plenty of things to do!

It is a difficult task to find activities for children, find enough of them, and sustain their attention in an age of digital stimulus and immersive technologies. And even with drawing pencils in her hand and her favourite toys alongside her, Nora is bored and needs help to find entertainment.

The clever thing about this story is that Nora’s Grandma, does not offer to set her down with a new activity or to take her out somewhere, she instead plants an idea in her head, a rather unbelievable one, and challenges her to prove her wrong with only the power of her sight, feet, and imagination. I saw a tiger in the garden earlier, she tells her, and dragonflies the size of birds, plants that can eat you whole, and a grumpy polar bear.

Despite thinking that Grandma has gone mad, she takes up the task of hunting these things down in the garden, but even when she encounters the dragonflies, the plants, and the polar bear, her imagination can’t quite stretch to thinking that the tiger could be real too. She seems to accept the reality of dragonflies, the plants, and the polar bear, quite readily when she can see them with her own eyes for the first time, but when she does finally encounter the tiger, her first thought is to question it.

There is something different about a tiger, something special that can’t possibly be real in the context of her Grandma’s garden. But the tiger has an answer to that one – how do you know what is real? This is a philosophical question that even adults would struggle with, let alone children, but author, Lizzy Stewart, knows how to get around this problem.

A child is much more willing than an adult to accept the tiger’s rationale of ‘you just can’t tell’ but if you believe it to be real, and that thing believes in you too, then that is your shared reality. An adult, of course, will question their belief, think they are mad, dreaming, or hallucinating from a sickness etc… but a child is much more willing to believe in whatever it is that makes them happiest. And the tiger certainly makes Nora feel happy.

To help the imagination along, however, Stewart, employs a mixed approach to the balance between text and imagery; some pages have a number of sentences to each image, and some will have very few, and some pages have nothing but images to tell the tale, and it is the latter that depicts Nora’s imagination in full flow.

The scene where Nora’s toy is almost eaten by the plants is told entirely by pictures to show the reader you don’t need a narrative to imagination, you can just close your eyes and picture it into reality. The painterly quality of the images helps in this regard, however, as well as the hide-and-seek approach to identifying the tiger; we as readers know that the tiger is out there before Nora does, so we are willing him into reality more so than the lead character is in order to achieve the pay-off of him being eventually found.

Stewart also cleverly recognises that imagination always needs a bit of help, and keen-eyed readers will have spotted that on the first page of the story Nora’s immediate surroundings inside the house she finds so boring, consists of toys that include a polar bear, a plant that out-sizes a bird ornament, a drawing of a tiger that Nora has penned, and a large ginger cat playing on the mat. Mixed with a mind that needs a little push to imagine more exciting things, these objects become the dragonflies the size of birds, the plants that eat you whole, the grumpy polar bear, and the elusive tiger in the garden.

Once an imagination is ignited there is no going back, and so by the end of the story Nora becomes the one to allay her grandma’s doubts about the tiger – maybe it was just a big ginger cat? Not only is Nora satisfied that the tiger is out there, but she is now willing to push her imagination even further and suggest that their are mythical creatures out there too. Imagination needs just a small flame, Stewart suggests, and a child will do the rest, with nothing off limits, which captures the magic of childhood perfectly.

For children too young to read, the imagery provides plenty of opportunity to spot various objects, identify colours and call out ‘can see you the tiger yet?’. Repeat reading is a must to really appreciate the images to the maximum and to think of other things that could potentially be lurking in the garden!

Recommended for a reading age of five onward.

There’s a Tiger in the Garden, by Lizzy Stewart, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2016

The Good Bear by Sarah Lean

“And there will be many challenges in your life, Thea Whittington. We all have to find out what matters and how to bring ourselves close to them.” (The Good Bear by Sarah Lean, Simon & Schuster, 2020)

If you are looking for a heartwarming winter read, look no further than The Good Bear by Sarah Lean, set over one Christmas holiday in the life of young Thea Whittington, who is not looking forward to spending the celebrations with her Dad and his new family in a bitterly cold and remote part of Norway.

Despite her reservations about being parted from her mother for the first Christmas since her parents separated, she remains keen to rekindle memories of holidays spent with her father. This desire, however, comes at the expense of spending any quality time getting to know his new family.

She pins all of her relationship hopes with her father on a birthday present – a typewriter – that he ends up not buying for her, casting a dark shadow over how she hoped the Christmas period would work-out. So fixated does she become on this one item, that she neglects to be grateful to the efforts his family have put towards finding her suitable clothing for the Norway winter. Thea, instead, seeks solace at an antiques store in the town where she finds a vintage typewriter that the store owner allows her to borrow to kick-start her aspirations of being a writer.

It is only when Thea encounters a bear, hungry, alone, and running from a life of cruelty, does she come to untangle her emotional difficulties with her father and focus on something much bigger (figuratively and literally) than herself and in much more need of help. It is by spending time with the bear, who is under threat from hunters, does she understand that emotion will get you so far, but ultimately action is what is needed in order to solve any problem.

This is not the tale of an ordinary girl who has to be the hero to save the day, however; Thea is cruel and disrespectful to her father’s new family, but she is fortunate to have people around her who genuinely care for her and are willing to be patient. The bear opens her eyes to the powers of simple observation, to really see what is front of you before placing your own thoughts and values on it. If she had done this sooner, she would have realised that her ‘new family’ were not neglectful of her and that they had their own family Christmas traditions that were not absent, as she assumed, but simply different to hers.

Most importantly, Thea learns that the things she most wished for, the typewriter for example, are not perhaps the things she most needs. Would she have found her story if her father had given her the typewriter, instead of the coat and boots? Or is it that the coat and boots lead her to the bear, thus giving her a story to write about? She wants the typewriter, but without the boots and coat she would not have been able to explore the woods that revealed the bear that she needs for her story to take flight. Henry, her father, may not also be the father she wished for, but not just because he is emotionally distant, but because she won’t accept him for who he is – a person she actually ends-up needing in order to save the life of the bear.

One of the key things that Thea is searching for is honesty, but she wants her own truth, not that of others it seems, and so when she meets the bear, who has experienced a trauma she could never imagine, she starts to open herself up to seeing the honest representation of others. She appreciates the antiques store owner, V, for who she is – heavy make-up, wigs, and glamorous clothes – because she is very open about who is she and admits that much of her actions are influenced by how much she misses her mother and her desire to keep her memory alive. V makes no apology for this and yet when Thea’s father acts in the way that he does – quiet and reclusive – and offers no apology Thea can’t accept it, because it does not fulfill her own emotional image of who he should be to her.

Thea can only really see her father’s ‘truth’, when she stops being so entangled in her own, and the divisions she thought were there between herself and his family are partly in her own head rather than in reality. Ultimately she needs them all to save the bear, she can’t act alone as she has been since her arrival in Norway. The bear is alone, but Thea is not, and by seeing this bigger picture, she can help the bear survive and bring him the comfort he needs.

The reader is able to understand these complex emotions through the eyes of a much older Thea, retelling the story of the bear to her daughter. It is perhaps with this adult reflection that we, as readers, can appreciate Thea’s situation more fully, but it also casts some doubt on the story too. Is the bear simply a metaphor to help Thea explain her epiphany as a child to her own daughter, or was the bear real? We are left hanging on this point, but like Thea’s daughter, as a reader you dearly want the bear to be real and not just an invention by the now talented writer that Thea has become.

A story of family, acceptance and togetherness, it has all the hallmarks of becoming a classic fairytale, and Sarah Lean admits to fairytales being one of her most enduring childhood reads. We have all the identifying characteristics of a fairytale in the shape of the step-mother (who turns out not to be cold or dismissive); the unwanted siblings (who actually do want Thea to join in with them); a huntsman (who can’t bring himself to be a hero); and a monster (a misunderstood creature in need of help). And of course Thea, who has ideas of being her father’s princess, but who ends-up being more his equal instead.

An honest look at hopes, fears, mistakes and disappointments, this story will certainly linger in your thoughts long after you have put the book down, and like Thea’s daughter, you will want to revisit the story of Thea and bear every winter.

Recommended for readers aged nine and upwards.

The Good Bear by Sarah Lean, Simon & Schuster, 2020

2021 book wishlist

We have read many magical, meaningful, insightful, and memorable children’s books in 2020 and we are very much looking forward to our 2021 reading list. Here is a collection of some of the books that we will be reading with you in the New Year:

Here Be Monsters by Jonathan Emmett

This picture book is one of those rare finds that is both funny and smart, whilst retaining a strong rhyming narrative, supported by illustrations that have a classical painting quality that adults will appreciate more so than children. Each page holds a mysterious monster that the reader is surprised by long before its lead character has any clue to what is going on. The swashbuckling tale is perfect for reading aloud and for practicing your best pirate voices!

The Good Bear by Sarah Lean

Deep in the woods by the house is a bear…. This novel is a great way to keep the Christmas season alive for a bit longer, whilst encapsulating the magic of the winter months. Thea arrives in Norway to spend the Christmas holidays with her father, only to find him distant and acting strangely. Feeling alone she wanders into the woods and finds a bear who is just as isolated and scared as she is. It is up to her to help him find food and comfort, but can she prove to those living nearby that he is a good bear that won’t hurt anyone?

Fairytale Frankie and the Tricky Witch by Greg Gormley

A picture book that brings in every fairytale character that you can think of, it plays with the traditional idea of the ghastly witch on the hunt for her prey, but with a surprising twist. It is not everyday that you find a frog in your cereal, a mermaid in the bath, and a knight behind the coat-stand, so Frankie knows that something isn’t quite right in the land of fairies, princesses, and knights. A witch is coming and Frankie must help everyone hide or face the witch herself!

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery

In the midst of the London Blitz, evacuee Col, is in need of friendship, love, and a little bit of luck. His sister is in danger and he must do what he can to save her as bombs fall all around them. But just when he thinks there couldn’t be a worse enemy than the Nazis, a fantastical force, in the shape of the Midwinter King, disrupts his mission, forcing Col to rely on imaginary friends from his childhood to guide him on his adventure. A tiger, a badger, and miniature knight all featured in his childhood play, but now brought to life, they have a much more serious role to play in Col and his sister’s future.

Happy reading for a magical literary filled 2021 from Bewitched Reads.

The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

“Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself. Mr. McGregor came up with a sieve, which he intended to pop upon the top of Peter; but Peter wriggled out just in time, leaving his jacket behind him.” (The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Frederik Warne & Co, 1902)

At Bewitched Reads we discuss children’s books that have an element of ‘magic’ to their plot, locations in the story, and/or characters. The tales of Peter Rabbit do not sit neatly in this category – although we could argue that Peter’s multiple transitions between wild rabbit and human-like rabbit, requires some kind of magical thinking – but we are including it here because Beatrix Potter has certainly cast a spell over her readers to keep them coming back to the stories of Peter and friends for more than a century.

So what is this magic? Is it that Peter has the ability to sip camomile tea, like any human can, in the safety of his home, but run wild, just as wild rabbits do, outside the home, causing chaos wherever he goes? Or is it that this world of talking animals, that wear human clothes, is authenticated by the presence of Potter’s narrative voice – we know there are ‘good little bunnies’ and ‘naughty little bunnies’ because she makes that judgment for us, appearing (although limited) with the narrative ‘I’ through the stories.

It could be argued that the ‘magic’, particularly for Potter writing within the restricting times of the Victorian period, is that young rabbits (children) have choices – to wear human clothes and obey the rules of the adult world, or lose the disguise and take some risks, just for the fun of it. In the early 1900s, it certainly would have taken some sort of ‘magic’ to allow Peter to ‘get away’ with disobeying his mother, putting his life at risk, for no other reason than knowing that he can.

Much has been said of the theme of disobedience in Potters stories, but perhaps the reason readers keep coming back to the tales is not because it is fun to see Peter break the rules, but more the exhilaration of a young rabbit – a child – being able to decide for himself whether to do as his mum says or test the boundaries and do the opposite. And what is even more exhilarating is that there is very little judgement that follows his decision or indeed punishment.

The lack of punishment for Peter chasing down vegetables in Mr McGregor’s garden (not for hunger, but just to see if he could) is also a hotly contested subject; is he punished with camomile tea for supper or soothed with tea, tucked up in bed with a cold after hiding in a watering can? Potter doesn’t tell us, but she clearly points out that outside of the home there are consequences; Peter could have been killed, put in a pie, just like his father.

The rather abrupt way in which Potter outlines the threats to Peter’s life, and indeed the fate of his father (very matter-of-fact!), is not something we would normally associate with writing for children. There is no sugar-coating or ‘suggesting’ what might happen, rather it is what it is, and if he dies doing a naughty thing, he dies, and that is life. This, of course, was part of Potter’s insistence that children should not be talked down to, because children, just like rabbits, can be wild and disobedient, and they will be at odds with a rule-governed adult world, and some, for the rest of their lives.

As a naturalist, however, Potter shows us that this is just part of being a normal child, not an abnormal one (as Victorian society would have us believe). Peter loses his clothes in the garden and appears as any wild rabbit does, running away from a human, so in this way, Peter’s actions are perfectly natural to his biology. But even then, there are risks, and any child needs to understand how far they can push their natural instinct for exploring the world before it gets dangerous.

The role of Mrs. Rabbit, as parent, is to point out the dangers in an honest way, and if the risk is taken, hope that they have learnt their lesson, rather than restricting their freedom further. But the ‘naughty’ bunny is still our hero, not the ‘good’ bunnies with their milk and berries for supper, so Potter understands that her readers are always going to opt for adventure over taking safety instructions for an adult.

Of course, this is only the first adventure of Peter Rabbit; in the Complete Adventures, we see him grow into an adult and face similar threats, but this time in the role of guardian to younger rabbits, in trouble not through naughtiness, but by simply being exposed to the outside world. Here, and particularly in The Tale of Mr. Todd, Potter revisits the idea that the home is safe and the outside world is dangerous. The role of parent is not to change the outside world to make it safer, but accept the dangers so that their young will also know of the risks.

Again this means that Peter and friends are not your typical heroes, in fact many of their victories are by happy accident or just good luck, but perhaps Potter is emphasising here that the outcome isn’t what she wants readers to focus on, but the journey – the adventure – and part of that is taking the good and bad, the luck and the accidents, and hoping that by at least being part of it, rather than watching from the sidelines, you come out of it having learnt something valuable.

And there lies the magic – in the unexpected adventure. Naughty or not, we are going to want to explore that garden and see Mr. McGregor frustrated in his attempts to catch us. We want to be scared, knowing that there is safety on the other side of the gate; we want to lose the uniform, knowing that we can put it back on when we need to ‘fit-in’ again. We want to be dutiful at home, but care-free when out from under watchful eyes. Peter and friends give their readers the feeling of freedom, limitation, danger, and safety, conflicting states of being that children need to learn and adults need to balance responsibly throughout life.

It is interesting coming back to the stories as an adult, as in amongst the TV series, films, soft toys, home decorations and much more, you often forget the very grown-up themes of the original stories. A bunny that can talk and wear human clothes, whilst daring to break the rules, is probably what children will most come away with, but to revisit the stories means to understand Potter’s powers as a writer for all ages, weaving her magic through generation after generation.

Recommended for a reading age of nine onwards.

The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, F.Warne & Co, 2013

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn by Beatrice Blue

““Are you ok little horsie?” June asked. “Can’t you fly?” He shook his head. “I can help you,” said June. “We just have to make your fur shake and your tail flutter.”” (Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, by Beatrice Blue, Frances Lincoln, 2019)

The unicorn is often portrayed as the ultimate fantasy ‘pet’ of any young girl, with its colourful horse’s mane, magical (sometimes sparkly) horn spiralling out of its forehead, and its ability to protect from acts of evil. The generally accepted origins of its mythology, however, are somewhat the opposite, with the youthful girl playing the part of a temptress to capture the unicorn, ultimately leading to its death.

In actual fact, it is thought that the 7th century Greek description of a unicorn came from a fantasised reflection on the wilds of India – in particular the one-horned Indian rhino, which couldn’t be further from the beautiful image of the small colourful horse that appears in fairy tales today.

The Greek translation of this creature evolved to depict either a horse, goat, or ass, with a single, long, spiral horn in its forehead, a creature that was extremely fierce and almost impossible to capture, unless a virgin girl should stand in its path, at which point the unicorn would submit to her, laying its head on her chest. Its capture would normally end in a gruesome death, as the unicorn horn was valued for its ability to render any poison harmless.

Some tales tell of the guilt of the young girl for her part in the capture of the unicorn, and perhaps this is where we start to see the start of stories that depict the reverse – the girl that saves the unicorn and the girl that befriends the unicorn.

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn is one of those stories – the girl as saviour. June’s favourite past-time is to make-up stories about the woods near her home; whether it is exploring hidden castles or discovering magic wands, June knows that the woods hold secrets that only true believers in fairy tales can see. Until one day, she falls upon a herd of small horses learning how to fly – all but one.

June sets about trying to find ways to help the small horse fly just like the others in its family, but failure sets her on a different path, one which suggests that perhaps just doing something that would make the little creature happy would be enough to release its magic. One fortunate accident later, and the little unicorn has a horn (in fact an upside down ice-cream cone) and can fly. The horn, from that day forward, is a reminder of the kindness of that one little girl.

The concept is an interesting one; the horn is not part of the horse’s anatomy, but more of an accessory used as a symbol of the species origins. The idea that magic doesn’t have to be potions and the flicking of wands, but acts of kindness is also an important message for young readers; it grounds the fantasy in some form of reality and suggests that every young person has the power to do something magical for someone else.

One of the elements that is particularly appealing about this reimagining of the unicorn’s origins, is the fact that when failure strikes, June doesn’t stumble upon an answer, which is so often the case with these stories, but looks to her parents for guidance.

The parents in question, don’t give her the answer on a plate, but involve her in an imaginative and creative process that allows her to think of the answer herself. So often parents in children’s books are either absent, useless, or a hindrance, so it makes for a refreshing change that the parents here are sensible and treat the child’s concerns seriously, yet with a sprinkling of fun to engage the child’s imagination.

This is the first picture book from artist, illustrator, and animator, Beatrice Blue, and it is supported by her original drawings, which gives the book a very personal feel. The family unit that she depicts here, is one that she says she experienced herself as a child growing up in Spain, with creative parents and a younger sister that she would engage in all of her imaginative play.

It is an exciting literary start for this artist, and one that continues into her second outing, Once Upon a Dragon’s Fire, where she reimagines how dragons gained the ability to breathe fire. It is pleasing to see that the illustrations through her second book are more multicultural than her first, but nevertheless, Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, is sure to appeal to the imaginative abilities of any young female reader and to any girl that has dreamt of a unicorn for a friend.

Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, by Beatrice Blue, published by Frances Lincoln, 2019.

Recommended for readers aged between four and seven.

The Savage by David Almond

“Once I started writing the story, it was like I couldn’t stop, which was strange for me. I’d never been one for stories. I couldn’t stand all that stuff about wizards and fairies and “once upon a time” and “they all lived happily ever after”. That’s not what life’s like. Me, I wanted blood and guts and adventures, so that’s what I wrote.” (The Savage by David Almond, Walker Books, 2008)

It is difficult to know what to call this book – is it a children’s novel or a graphic novel aimed at children? It has some of the typical features of a graphic novel in the way that the words and images interact with each other, but minus the usual speech bubbles and boxed images.

It is also interrupted by a traditional narrative in the first person from our main character, Blue Barker. The best we can say, is that it is a book somewhere between a children’s novel and a graphic novel, which is reflective of the conflict that it explores – to be the kind and caring Blue Barker of old, to let an inner darkness, called the Savage, take over, or be something of a mix between the two?

The Savage is a physical manifestation of Blue’s grief and anger over the death of his father, and also acts to remind readers of the power of words, as the Savage, essentially a fictional character of a story written by Blue to conquer his emotional turmoil, eventually makes the leap from Blue’s notebook into real-life situations.

To assume that this book is only about how children come to terms with grief, would be a mistake however, as the creation of the Savage also represents the importance for children to have a private life. This is a common theme in Almond’s books; in modern life children are constantly observed and supervised, but Almond illustrates that this is not always healthy.

Blue decides not to share his stories with his teacher and only reads the more ‘safe’ passages to his mother and sister, but the parts of his creation that are violent and gruesome, he keeps to himself. This is, in part, because he doesn’t think his teacher and mother will understand, but also because he himself has not grappled with the implications of this darkness inside him. To come out of the other side of grief, Blue has to first tackle his demons alone.

His anger eventually becomes debilitating and Blue and the Savage start to merge to the point where Blue feels himself to actually be the Savage. He sees himself standing over the school bully, Hopper, and punching him in the face, but he also sees himself as the Savage standing over his sister and reaching out to comfort her – he is both human and savage. It is at this point that Blue learns to let go of the Savage and in turn his grief and anger.

There is a Savage in everyone, says Blue, and Almond seems to be saying that a little bit of wildness in children is ok, because this is how they learn and develop emotional maturity. Hopper too only realises his own cruelty and vulnerability when faced with someone more scary than he is.

Of course this message might not sit very comfortably with parents, who may feel the violence in this book is a touch too far for young readers. If we place this novel in the realm of fairytale, however – and we could easily do that – then the more gruesome elements are comparable with most of the classics.

The language used to tell the story of the Savage also helps our understanding; with the misspellings and phonetic sounds of the North East, the reader hears the voice of a child and therefore the violence appears more imagined, than brutally real.

These are not mechanisms to legitimise the violent elements of the book, however, it simply puts it into context and allows the reader to mark the difference between what a child can imagine and what they would actually do in reality.

Almond’s sister died when he was a child and his father died when he was 15, and these losses haunt his books, but love and a little bit of childlike imagination always come to the rescue, leaving readers feeling comforted and assured that there is light in dark places. The Savage is no different, as the novel ends with a more mature Blue looking back on his grief, a boy who is from a loving family and a role model for his younger sibling.

So let’s hold onto the ‘wildness’ of imagination for as long as we can, knowing that our good sense and ability to love and care for the wellbeing of others, will not allow us to go too far in the wrong direction.

The Savage by David Almond, Walker Books, 2008

Recommended for a reading age of eight and above.

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


“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


“‘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