By ELAINE MOSS tsrraustAsm for English,' wrote Guy Boas, `can neither be taught nor learnt, it can only be caught, like measles.' A child is prone to this delectable infection from his earliest years when his senses are sharp, his mind alert and unclut- tered, his thirst for stories, with or without pictures, unquenchable.
For a severe attack, expose your seven- to nine- Year-olds straightaway to Nurse Matilda by Christianna Brand (Brockhampton, 12s. 6d.) Which is even better than it looks; since it is an Edwardian story dressed accordingly in gold- stamped green boards, with red fly-leaves, a red silk marker and vintage Ardizzone decoration, this is no mean compliment to its author. Christianna Brand and Edward Ardizzone are cousins and when they were young their mutual grandfather used to tell them this hilarious tale about the taming, by the redoubtable Nurse Matilda, of a bunch of impossibly naughty children. Even Nurse Matilda couldn't have Managed without her magic stick, her kind heart or her sound grasp of child psychology (known in those days as Common Sense). Her Method is to sicken the children by an excess of the particular naughtiness in which they plan to indulge. They won't get up in the mornings? Tap goes Nurse Matilda's stick! And they can't get op because they feel hot and sticky, with pricking eyes and aching tummies. Next morning?
When Nurse Matilda came to the door, the children were up and washed and dressed and
had cleaned their teeth and folded their pyjamas and opened the windows and turned back their beds and were ready to go down to the garden for some Healthful Fresh Air before breakfast.
Reading this gloriously funny cautionary tale aloud 1 stopped only once—to render first aid to a young listener in hysterics.
Story-telling such as Grandpapa `Ardizzone- Brand' indulged in is all too rare nowadays, but librarians and teachers are coming to the rescue of parents who find yarn-spinning difficult by collecting together books of tales for telling or reading aloud. Eileen Colwell follows up an earlier success with Tell Me Another(Story (Young Puffin, 4s. 6d.), a large collection of short pieces from very varied sources, mainly for under-sevens. A Canadian librarian, Dorothy M. Reid, in Tales of Nanabozho (O.U.P., 12s. 6d.) has written down, with great sensitivity and a seemly reverence for the spirit of the American Indians whose folk-lore they are, the stories upon which Longfellow based Hiawatha (Hiawatha being the Iroquois form of the Ojibwa name Nana- bozho). The gleaming lakes, whispering forests and awesome rock-masses of North America are the very sinews of these delightfully humorous tales in which man, bird and animal live accord- ing to the laws of nature but the supernatural god- creator' Nanabozho, believing himself all-power- ful, sometimes comes a cropper—a delicious spectacle for Ojibwa Indian and English child alike. This is an unusual collection, both in its stark appearance and lively content, and is in violent contrast to the very traditional set of tales collected by Sara and Stephen Corrin under the suicidal title Stories for Seven-Year-Olds (Faber, 15s.). My own seven-year-old welcomed this collection warmly since so many well-loved friends are to be found within its covers, but I am certain the moment she is eight nothing will induce her to read this book, which is a pity since even the editors concede (in sub-title and introduction) that children draw different pleasures at different ages from the same material.
The book is beautifully produced and has an exceptionally good jacket by Shirley Hughes who illustrates in line throughout.
Ideally, the first full-length stories a child reads should be written in short chapters each containing a rounded-off episode. Such a book is Tina and the Latchkey Child by Jeanna Oterdahl (Macmillan, 12s. 6d.); it is a quiet, tender, unselfconsciously emotional book about two girls, aged seven and eight, from entirely different social backgrounds who strike up a friendship on neutral territory—the park bench. The author explores the difficulties of the poor child and the comfortably-off child in bringing this friendship to maturity, and a thoughtful young reader will absorb the lessons Tina and Annika (the setting is Swedish) have to learn.
In a class by itself is the Barbara Cooney illustrated edition of Sarah Orne Jewett' s A White Heron (Constable Young Books, 12s. 6d.). This book is for no age and every age: it is for any child or adult who responds to beauty in books, a collector's piece. Over half a century ago Sarah Orne Jewett wrote this perceptive study of a lonely little girl who loves the wild birds and animals of the Maine woods but desperately needs a human friend: in it she describes the agonising predicament of Sylvy who could earn the longed-for approval of a visiting boy ornithologist if she could only bring herself to betray to him the haunts of the majestic white heron. But the boy has a gun . . .
Barbara Cooney's light wash drawings in colour or feathery black and white of Sylvy's New England kitchen and blue ginghams, the pine forests of Maine, the orange sunrise and white-winged birds more than match the author's flawless and graceful prose.
In picture books for the very young, such blending of prose and illustration is rarely found but all-important. So often the prose has an afterthought feel to it and is painful to read aloud. But this season there is a picture book which may well sow the seeds of a life-long attack of 'English-measles.' It is Ted Hughes's Nessie the Mannerless Monster (Faber, 13s. 6d.), a story-poem about the Loch Ness Monster's craving for royal recognition : it has both humour and abounding pathos.
Another newcomer is Joanna Stubbs, whose sense of page design and use of size and colour to convey emotion make The Forest and the Bull- dozer (Hart-Davis, 15s.) a promising foundation- stone. The text has good patches but the climax to the fight between the forest folk and the marauding bulldozer is not nearly explicit enough for a young audience.
Edward Carryl's A Capital Ship (Bodley Head, 10s. 6d.), with characteristically lively illustra- tions by Paul Gadone, is a nonsense poem in the Lear tradition, rollicking stuff to read aloud. For once Edward Ardizzone seems to be off- target with Diana and Her Rhinoceros (Bodley Head, 12s. 6d.) since many children will find the span of years covered by the story difficult to digest : a not-so-good Ardizzone, which helps us to appreciate the exalted standard we had begun to take for granted from this king of author- artists.