In the course of shifting around our beleaguered family library the other day, I came across a much battered Puffin edition of Rosemary Manning’s The Dragon’s Quest.
I discovered the R. Dragon books when I was about 10, and had two, the other being the first book in the series, Green Smoke. Both were given to me by my best friend for my 15th birthday in 1971. Over 40 years on, The Dragon’s Quest has pages missing from it now, and yellowed sellotape patches on the spine from previous attempts to hold it together, and I haven’t yet found the copy of Green Smoke to determine its condition.
These books are now considered collectors’ items, and appear on the internet for fairly large sums of money. Good job I held onto mine, as Green Smoke is now well out of my price range. The books are set on the Cornish coast and provide beautifully told stories about the court of King Arthur and the dragon’s other adventures, recounted to Sue, a little girl on holiday who is lucky enough to find him in a beach cave. The simple line drawings by Constance Marshall do much to bring the characters to life, especially the dragon who swore to King Arthur he would never eat meat, and has a fondness for Sue’s mother’s sugar buns.
I have often wondered why Puffin has not reissued them, especially with the current interest from collectors, and in view of the fact that as the recent BBC series Merlin proved, even with its wildly misjudged ending, interest in the subject never goes away. Young readers of Green Smoke meet Arthur and Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Lancelot and the knights of Camelot, including the dragon’s special friend Sir Gryfflet, who is not as brave as other knights, but has a good heart. The gentle humour, good characters, unpretentious writing, pleasing illustrations and sound storytelling make for a winning combination. I was delighted when my kids took to them as fondly as I had.
It set me thinking about other books I read aloud while my children were growing up, and what they were attracted to. When they were very young, a big book of Postman Pat stories proved compelling – they were well-told, humorous, and featured a good range of adult characters doing all sorts of different things, and together, we read the eight stories in the book until it fell apart.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar did good service, and we had hours of fun with the Mr Men and Little Miss series; I’d often finish the session with a sore throat, especially if we were doing Mr Noisy!
A year or two later, my eldest daughter came home and asked me to name somebody strong. I said Hercules, and we went off to find Geraldine McCaughrean’s excellent collection of Greek Myths, a large-format book with a literate but accessible style. Granny and Grandad obliged with a copy so we didn’t have to keep borrowing it, and that was another huge favourite, especially the tale of Odysseus. We also tracked down McCaughrean’s other story collections, including The Thousand and One Nights, and Myths and Legends from around the world. Anthony Minghella’s The Storyteller was also well-loved.
A surprising hit was The Nation’s Favourite Poems, which contained quite a lot of children’s verses, including Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, which we used to read making all the yummy noises, plus grown-up offerings like Roger McGough’s Let me Die a Young Man’s Death, and the rhythmic story poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman’s Daughter; my eldest daughter Harriet, then about 11, was particularly taken with Thomas Hardy’s blackly comic The Ruin’d Maid, which created interesting talking points about the social order – and a very surprised English teacher, who found it was the subject of a critical essay in early secondary school.
I decided to take a flyer and read them Jane Eyre. By this time, Harriet was collecting children’s classics and we had done A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Gulliver’s Travels and Heidi. I was surprised when all three of them – the youngest, Al, was only about six – were riveted by the first part of the book, with its Red Room child abuse, the weird brand of child-directed terrorism that constituted Victorian religion, and the punitive starvation regime of a ‘charity’ school. There were long conversations about the Victorian way of doing things and how times and attitudes change, especially towards children.
There were, of course, lots of other things – a collection of traditional princess stories from around the world, the picture book about a little fish who wouldn’t share his brightly coloured scales – and let us not forget He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Al’s all-time favourite excursion into super-heroes and intergalactic derring-do.
When I was growing up, television and film were not the threats to literacy they are now; I know an English teacher who was asked by the parent of a student studying Standard Grade if it would be OK for her daughter to watch the film of A Midsummer Night's Dream instead of going to the bother of reading it. If children are raised in a house with no books and only access to television and film, they associate being entertained with at best constant sound, at worst, manic noise, and eye-blinding colour. The inevitable consequence is a dulling of the senses through over-exposure. The daylong access to television with its dumbed down children's channels filled with dayglo American series full of shrieking teenagers and trite sentimental messages does nothing to encourage language, develop a child's imagination or help them understand and take an interest in the world around them. Give me an OFF switch and a Mr Men book any day over almost all programmes dished up for children, with a few notable exceptions.
And finally - one book I would love to re-discover for the next generation was one we borrowed from the library just the once, and never found again. Title and author are forgotten, but it concerned a group of enterprising cats lead by the intrepid Ginger Brown Sauce, who decide to do a few odd jobs around the house of their owner while she’s away on holiday. Things escalate from straightforward DIY until the cats have decided to resurface the road leading up to the house, before their efforts peak in a truly monumental feat of civil engineering. I have a memory of the cover, of a group of cats brandishing road drills and sporting safety goggles – It combined the best elements of an entertaining children’s picture book – it was a good idea, funny, well-told and brilliantly illustrated. If anyone reading this knows what I’m talking about it, I’d love to know!