Old Lob's hour
Roy Kerridge A consideration of the changing pattern of children's reading habits.
Nothing makes children want to learn to read so much as being shown a book that is worth reading. Away back in the Forties the book that influenced my life so drastically was Old Lob. Old Lob was a kindly farmer, and among his large range of livestock was a certain Percy the Bad Chick, whose adventures led me gently along the path to literacy.
Modern children have not been so lucky. Sociologists and educationalists took over, and between them made exhaustive lists of the words most often used by small children. In state primary schools all over Britain, children were taught these 'key words' first, written out on cards, and were not shown books until the key words were mastered. None of these words were nouns, and so none called up a mental picture to a child's eye. Whatever incentive is there to read riveting statements such as 'and', 'but', `the"on', 'this' and 'have' — 'fill-in' words, that children learn without thinking as they pursue the adventures of animals, trains, aeroplanes, witches, and princesses? Pictures were the first alphabet, and to make reading a pleasure, there must be a picture. But how do you draw a 'but'? or an 'and'? The familiar 'the' has so far eluded the artist and its portrait is unknown.
'Key word' teaching is still used in hundreds, if not thousands, of schools today, aided and abetted by the otherwise excellent Ladybird Books. Much-derided Janet and John live on as the Key Word Kids, insipid Peter and his boring sister Jane. But in the latest, most up to date schools, there is a revolutionary new teaching method — Old Lob. Yes, Old Lob's hour has come once again and with him a Renaissance of children's books that would have seemed impossible ten years ago. In 1970, the new books appearing on the shelves of children's libraries were either bright, stylised potato-cut picture books, often based on child art of the clumsiest kind; or else, if for older children, were condescending and unrealistic `social realism'. Most children know that their first efforts at painting fall short of the ideal, which for them (as for me) is to be realistic. The more a bear, say, looks like a bear, the better they will like it. Just because their efforts at first resemble an abstract splodge does not mean that they expect grown ups to supply them with books full of abstract splodges.
Social realism, in tales with few pictures, is unsatisfactory because nothing happens. An accurate portrayal of a council estate does not make a children's book, lacking as it is in vital ingredients such as dragons, pirates, monsters, magic talking animals and mediaeval Royalty. In a very laboured way, robbers are often brought in, and the children catch them stealing the school cups. Working class life, as imagined by the clueless authors, emerges as something embarrassing and squalid. Tramps and gang huts appear frequently. Dad is always pictured as doing the pools, Mum often in curlers and somewhere around is a Negrowho-is-no-different-from-anyone-else. Attempts at warm-hearted working class dialogue usually show that class to be imbeciles who need everything done for them by the State. Moreover, their poverty is often quite absurd. My impression is, however, that no child has ever read any of these books. I have never seen one do so, and it seems clear to me that the authors make quite a good living solely out of library sales, their works being recommended as 'progressive' in the periodicals read by library buyers. I cannot imagine why anyone thinks that a child of a dustman will be put off, or upset, by reading about children whose father is always away at an office. In all the best stories, parents are so much in the background that their daily lives hardly matter at all.
Like the slow and delicate unfolding of a beautiful flower, good children's books began to re-emerge in the mid-Seventies. One of the first of these early blooms was Nicola Bayley's Tyger Voyage, with colour plates so imaginative and satisfying as to recall a lost world of Victorian delights. As well as tigers and gipsies, a scholarly father in a beard and smoking cap lends an air of security and cosiness to the tale, and if his presence has given anyone a complex I would like to hear about it. Miss Bayley's colours glow, and her green meadows are misty, dew-hung and mysterious. Adults like her books, and their tastes are not to be scorned, for children are surprisingly bad at choosing books for themselves. Most choose a bright badly-drawn picture book, and then, once it's home, scarcely look at it. Discerning parents do better and their children are thankful for it. Beatrix Potter and Helen Bannerman's stories are as popular with small children as they have ever been. Some public libraries ban the latter author's Little Black Sambo books, although in fact these are often the favourite reading of coloured children, as I have noticed time and again. In one East London primary school, I have seen a col oured teacher reading them to an enthralled class of five-year-old Bengalis. Curiously enough, the setting of these tales is usually India, yet the heroes appear to be Jamaicans. London is afflicted with at least one Curriculum Centre whose young minions try to remove all such 'offending material' from schools, and recommend 'progressive' works instead. They particularly frown on text books left over from the Fifties with their references to the Empire, the middle class and other forbidden subjects.
Many of the better books that crept back, as if after a hibernation, in the late Seventies, were American. The picture stories of Bill Peet and Wallace Tripp are my favourite, although the illustrations usually outmatch the writing. Bill Peet sometimes dwells on priggish ecological themes in the manner of a hippie-puritan, but his drawings resemble Disney at his best, and this I mean as praise. He once worked for Disney and Dumbo is a typical Peet story. Wallace Tripp, an illustrator, redeems a great many indifferent, not to say rubbishy stories, by his cheerful yet meticulous drawings. I believe that he once worked for Mad magazine but his children's drawings, like those of Peet, are mostly of animals. The supreme writer-illustrators of this Renaissance, however, are Judy Brook and Graham Oakley, both very English and very interested in mice. (Third place goes to Mary Rayner and her thoroughly modern pig family, much harrassed by the mysterious Mrs Wolf.) Before going inttp rhapsodies over them, though, I would like to see how the villains, Bright Badly-Drawn and Social Comment are getting on as the Eighties begin. Roger Hargreaves's banal Mister Men books are popular eye-catchers, often bought or borrowed, but seldom remembered. Social Comment is now chiefly confined to the efforts of one Michael Foreman, a favourite of librarians, who display his works prominently but seldom have to stamp them.
Foreman's illustrations for Kurt Baumann's Micky's Kitchen Contest have unconscious humour, for his Micky is the archetypal modern brat, the blue dungareed podgy-faced mop-haired child of trendy parents, complete with vacuous whine of 'Why should I?' Baumann's whole story revolves around Father doing the washing up, presumably while Ms Mother is at work. Washing-up fathers are creeping insidiously into children's fiction, with a laborious lack of comment, not to mention lack of mother. The message hammered home by this devious attempt at brainwashing is not that Dad should help Mum, but that men do housework, and women, wearing trousers, go out to work. I have even seen a book that featured a female koala bear, wearing spiky glasses, who drove home from her job as (probably) a fashien editor just as Father Bear finished the housework. Children, especially if their mothers do go out to work, like home life to be portrayed as cosy. Nothing could be bleaker than a Dad in an apron, both in life and in art.
Worse is to come, for Foreman is not only an advocate of Women's Lib but something of a Maoist, if All the King's Horses is anything to go by. The blurb of this very unsatisfactory story of a virago princess who beats up her suitors and then rides away across a washily psychedelic Mongolia mentions the author's affection for China. Foreman's grinning demon of a Chinese 'king' suggests that he could make a living painting propaganda posters for the land he loves, showing noble peasants and evil landlords in the new style of Chinese art.
Let us turn to happier things. Judy Brook's stories of Tim and Helen Mouse and of a farmer and his wife and animals, are worlds away from nasty trendiness — to be exact, near East Meon, a tiny village in Hampshire. Daring adventures, superbly cosy households and hearthsides and glorious views of an idealised Hampshire, are portrayed both in vivid illustrations and text of pleasing simplicity that encourages reading. A genuine understanding and love of children, free of condescension and full of delight in pleasing them, wafts from the pages as if in summer breezes from the bare green downs and slender trees of her landscapes. Judy Brook's mice are field mice who live out of doors, and her humans all live in farm houses or labourers' cottages. In her two books on the Noah's Ark story, her comfortably stout farmer and his kindly bun-haired wife appear as a Hampshire Mr and Mrs Noah and their ark is a floating farm whose snugness contrasts agreeably with the rainy world outside. Clearly Miss Brook is an expert naturalist, for her rescued animals are drawn in great detail, and can be recognised down to the smallest bird. Some, such as hyraxes and pangolins, are seldom shown in children's books. Judy Brook can paint brightly where it is necessary, but favours soft soothing colours for most of her country scenes. I particular ly like the way her fieldside footpaths dip up and down the hilly landscape, appearing and reappearing.
To judge by the writing, Graham Oakley's picture stories of the quaint and ridiculous town of Wortlethorpe, its benign and scholarly vicar, his cat Samson and the horde of pampered church mice led by Arthur and Humphrey, are for older children and grown ups. Yet the pictures, often combining beauty and comic genius, are so appealing that four-year-olds can enjoy the books, provided that the readeraloud simplifies the narrative. Mr Oakley's humour is subtle, using understatement, and sometimes he lets a picture tell a story, a device that small children starting to read cannot understand. They cannot always trust their eyes, and need explanations to reassure them that things are what they seem to be. Good-humoured satire in every picture seems aimed at the grown up readeraloud — note the various shop signs, newspaper headings and digs at the small town mentality. I suggest that Graham Oakley is himself a clergyman with a nottoo-demanding living, for every book must take at least a year to draw and paint. His crowd scenes show a keen eye for fashions and foibles, and his churchyard scenes are noteworthy for the skilful way he paints the weathering, flaky stones. New comic details are noticed every time you pick up one of his books, but Oakley is not a man for all tastes, and the stories suit the home rather than the classroom, and the bookish home above all others. Still what a town is Wortlethorpe, with its Tudor shops and ghastly modern Animal Rehabilitation Centre! Note (in The Church Mice at Bay) the householders who keep pigs in their garden, and the excited neighbours complaining to the man from the council. Other Oakley paintings that come to mind are of an army of starving rats, of great ferocity, gorging themselves on garbage while a small Church Mouse vainly lectures them on etiquette in the Court of Louis XIV. His night scenes of a swooping barn owl have -a haunting beauty. But finest of his stories, in my opinion, is The Church Mice and the Moon. The book's front cover seems to show the cat and mice heading for the moon in a space capsule, but open it all out and you see that they are in fact floating down a river by night, and the moon is a reflection. Despite the evil plots of two scientists from Snifley Polytechnic and the progress-crazed Mayor and councillors, no one leaves Wortlethorpe. Monitoring an errant space capsule on television, the atheist scientists think they are looking at the sky. Picture their horror when they see an angel! Actually the capsule is being dragged through Wortlethorpe churchyard by the cat and mice and its camera is pointing at a statue on a tomb. Note also the headlines in the local paper, before and after the space flop is exposed. Disgraced, the scientists end up as beggars, scorned by cats and laughed at by mice.
That is the happiest Happy Ending I have ever heard of!