The real talent of a truly great writer is their ability to reflect the world back to you in a way which makes you view things differently. A good book can make you see things you’ve never noticed before, see the danger lurking behind the things you accept every day, or see the beauty and magic in the most mundane aspects of your life.
Many great children’s books do this, but by far my favourite is The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb.
Donaldson is undoubtedly one of the best at what she does; she is the Don of children’s literature. The characters she creates appeal to all children and the adventures they go on capture hearts in a way which few will ever forget.
But The Paper Dolls is in a league of its own. Like all great stories, it works on several levels. For children, they will enjoy the daring adventures the dolls go on – facing crocodiles, tigers and that meanest of all creatures, a little boy. For parents, they will see reflected back at them the true beauty and importance of their role in their child’s life. In this simple story of a mother playing with her daughter, Donaldson makes you realise the great magnitude of those simple little things you do (or sadly sometimes don’t find time to do) that make all the difference to a child.
Yesterday, my eldest finished his first year at school. As a reward for a great report I promised he could do whatever he wanted with the first day of the holidays.
“Can we stay at home all day?” (Turns out a whole year of school is tiring.)
Faced with a whole day indoors with two small children, I needed to plan and quickly scrawled down a list of activities. Inspired by the previous night’s story, I added ‘make paper dolls’.
What was intended as a quick time filler quickly became the focus of the day. As I put the finishing touches to ‘Scary Mary’ (I’m not much of an artist), my son giggled like crazy at ‘Jim with 5 eyes and 2 noses’. Once they were finished, I left the dolls to explore the house while I hung out the washing. They had, I was later informed, encountered a scary zoo-keeper, nearly been eaten by a dinosaur and had escaped by hiding in a glow-worm cave.
I can’t remember the last time I saw my son’s face so lit up with glee. All it had taken was a scrappy bit of paper, some crayons and a pair of scissors.
And, of course, a story.
I challenge any parent to read The Paper Dolls and not well up with emotion. It is what all great children’s stories should be: filled with adventure, beautifully written and illustrated, and with a subtle reminder to us parents about how important – and lucky – we are.
There is nothing in the world so important and which brings so much pleasure as reading.
My life revolves around reading: my house is full to bursting with books, in my job I teach children to be able to read and to love reading, and almost the moment I get home I settle down to read with my son. In a world where we are bombarded with noise, screens and media, there is nothing more beautiful and simple than snuggling up with your child to share a story. Storytelling is the foundation of our imaginations, our literacy skills and our social abilities.
That’s why It’s so disappointing when you come across a ‘bad’ children’s book. Obviously it’s all objective, but no one likes a book that’s too preachy, too boring or so simplistic as to offend the fun and creative minds which lurk inside each little person’s brain. Thank goodness for the genius of Julia Donaldson, Jon Klassen and the perhaps less well known Werner Herzog (if you haven’t yet read ‘The little mole who knew it was none of his business’, you’re in for a treat!) who keep our bedtimes full of fun and giggles. It’s clear you’ve got a great story in your hands when you find your 2 year old, who has only just learned to speak, turning the pages and ‘reading’ the story to himself when he thinks no one is looking.
The reason these stories are great is that they look at the world, not through the eyes of an adult who wants to read to children, but through the eyes of a child. A crazy, imaginative, silly child who finds wonder and fun in everything they see.
One of my favourite authors from my own childhood, Roald Dahl, wrote that the problem for most adults was that they could not remember what it was like to be a child, they only thought they could. The difference for him was that he really could remember, and that was why he could write his particular style children’s books (written in The Roald Dahl Guide to Railway Safety, showing how brilliant he was that I remember that 25 years on).
Alongside the amazing Mr Dahl, my other favourite storyteller, I am certain, knew exactly what it was like to be a child. If she hadn’t, she could never have created the captivating stories she did. Don’t try looking her up online; like all the great artists, Ellen McCormick was unrecognised in her time. I know only of her great work because I am lucky enough that she was my Nana. For that reason, only myself and my brothers will ever know the wonders of Angus McFangus who ate only Aberdeen Angus, or Auntie Esther who lived in Chester, or the boys who snuck off in the night on adventures with little green men, seeing the world but always getting back just in time to get under the covers before their parents came in.
Two years ago when my son was born, I began to think about how sad it was that he would never know my Nana, who had passed away the year before. I could piece together her stories from the scraps she left behind on the backs of envelopes and lines of sticky notes, but he would never know the funny, mad and wonderful person she was. He could hear the stories she wrote, but not the even crazier things she did in her own life (such as painting the ceiling, failing asleep part way through and waking up thinking she was blind because paint had dripped down and stuck her eyelids together) which inspired her stories.
My Nana was the one who sparked my love of stories, which led to a lifetime love of reading. She is my inspiration.
Last year I began to write the stories of ‘Nana Nellie’ – a mad, scatty and fun loving Nan – for my son and all the other children who are not as lucky as I was to have a real Nana Nellie in their life*. It became a new inspiration, and sparked off a new love – a love of writing. Now I think back and remember what it was like to be a little child, and look through the eyes of my own child, to write stories which I would have wanted to read, and which I would like to read with my son.
This post is my entry for the Mumsnet: The Big Idea competition for aspiring children’s story writers.
* The Nana Nellie stories are in the process of being illustrated by my very talented sister-in-law. I would have asked for some pictures to include in this blog but she is getting married in a couple of days so is rather busy! She designed my logo though so you can get an idea of how it might look.