Katie Morag and the Dancing Class

There are to be dancing classes held on the Isle of Struay.  The girls choose ballet, and the big boy cousins tap, but Katie Morag isn’t really convinced by either.  She finds all manner of reasons to be late to ballet, until one day she misses the class completely and unexpectedly discovers that dancing is not all bad after all.

I confess that I hadn’t read any of these stories until seeing the (excellent) BBC adaptation.  Mairi Hedderwick is a long-established writer of both adults’ and children’s books, and Katie Morag, whose fictional home of Struay is based on the real island of Coll in the Scottish Hebrides, was first created in 1984, yet it wasn’t until watching the programme with the girls that we looked into the books.  They are delightful stories, beautifully illustrated, and very popular with the children who listen to them.  Of particular significance to me is their old-fashioned, gender-neutral, play-based vision of childhood.

In the Dancing Class, Katie Morag is extremely reluctant to go.  Her ever-practical maternal grandmother, Grannie Island, is certain it will be good for her co-ordination.  Her other grandmother, Grandma Mainland, is just excited at the prospect of Katie Morag in a frilly skirt.  Katie Morag is not excited about the frilly skirt.  Nor about ballet.  She goes, but goes later and later every day until one day she misses it, and ends up in her cousins’ tap class.  After dancing in her wellies she gets a taste for it, and ends up performing in the tap routine in the show, completely with tapping welly boots cobbled together by Grannie Island.

The writing is excellent; fluent, detailed and readable.  But more than that the characters are well-drawn, and well-rounded.  The contrasting approaches of the two grandmothers, one of whom knows Katie Morag better than the other; Katie Morag’s dislike of ballet and dance in general which softens during the story, and her loitering with intent on the beach in the morning are all very well-observed.  Significantly too this is a book about a girl whose gender is not her defining characteristic.  Katie Morag wears a skirt, but always the same neutral jumper and the same black wellies.  She rejects both the frilly skirt and the gender stereotype, avoiding the girls’ class and joining her male cousins.  When she does so, however, she continues to wear her own wellies,made into tap boots by a resourceful Grannie Island.  Throughout the stories Katie Morag’s attachment to her wellies is a source of tension between her and other characters, but she always sticks with them; here, their use as tap shoes shows her self-determining nature and the way she bends the class to her will rather than compromising herself for dancing.

“What are you like, Katie Morag?” said Hector.

“She’s like she is, she’s Katie Morag,” said Jamie.

However, this is no straightforward tomboy rejection of girly ballet.  Watching Agnes, Fay and Sasha perform their ballet dance, Katie Morag gains a new respect for that too.  That message, about giving things a chance rather than rejecting them outright, is a nice lesson to take from this book.

These are wonderful stories and this is a good example; the story is neither girly nor a rejection of all things girly, despite the female protagonist.  It’s well-written, beautifully drawn and part of am impressive and worthy collection that will keep your little bookworm interested for many years.

A solid-gold classic.


The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch

This is an old book but a real classic that has been used in classrooms for many years.  First published in 1977, it is one of those books in which all the elements of a good children’s story come together to form something special.

Mr Grinling is the lighthousekeeper.  He lives in a cottage on the side of a hill directly opposite the lighthouse.

Every day, Mrs Grinling packs him a (quite frankly delicious) lunch and hangs it on the wire that connects the house and the lighthouse, so it travels across to him.  But one day, a pack of voracious seagulls discover their system and help themselves to the lunch.  By the time it gets to Mr Grinling, there is nothing left.  The next day, Mrs Grinling ties the napkin on to the basket to protect it, but this is no match for the scavenging birds.  Next she tries sending the cat over in an identical basket to defend the lunch, but he is so terrified that he cowers pathetically in the bottom and pays no attention to the seagulls.  Then, finally, she has an ingenious idea that puts the seagulls off for good.

The illustrations are beautiful. Scruffy pen and ink and watercolour drawings, the stalwart Mr Grinling and his pipe, the homely Mrs Grinling and their reluctantly put-upon cat are brought to life by David Armitage with expression and humour.  The text too is of high quality; a funny, pacey story with words you can relish.  Mr Grinline is ‘a most industrious lighthousekeeper’ and the moment at which the seagulls descend is also nicely put: “Three scavenging seagulls set upon it and devoured it with great gusto.”  There are also comic touches from the seagulls, who discuss their stolen fare in speech bubbles with some enthusiasm and address each other by name: Fred, Tom, and Bert.  One of the best moments however is the deadpan delivery of the attempt to get Hamish the cat to guard the lunch basket. ” ‘A most ingenious plan,’ agreed Mr Grinling.  Hamish did not think this was ingenious at all.”

A classic story, original and funny with lots to talk about.



Mister Magnolia

Time for another classic.

This book is as old as me.  First published in 1980, it is one of the best of the books written by Quentin Blake, who is most famous as the oft-times illustrator to Roald Dahl.

Mister Magnolia has only one boot.  He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot, two sisters who play the flute, a newt, a parakeet-pecked suit, a water chute – and he’s a dab hand at juggling with fruit.  But poor Mister Magnolia has only one boot.  That is until a small girl turns up with a parcel…

This is great fun to read.  The absurd things in Mister Magnolia’s possession, all rhyming with boot, are delightful and of course beautifully and wittily illustrated.  The tiny mice marching past as he takes the salute are gorgeous.  And there is a kind of pathetic fallacy at the end as, depressed at the lack of a boot, Mister Magnolia stares out of the window at the rain and dull people hurrying past with umbrellas.  At the moment when he puts on his new boot, the sun is brightening and a man smiles at the sky, taking down his umbrella.  There is artistry and depth at work here.

For me, the most glorious aspect of this story is the fact that Mister Magnolia gets one new boot. Not a new pair of boots, but one new boot – that doesn’t match the old one.  That additional touch of the absurd is what lifts this story to classic status and has ensured it is now on its second generation (at least) of young fans.


Rosie’s Walk

Rosie the hen goes for a walk.  She goes across the yard, around the pond, over the haycock, past the mill, through the fence, under the beehives and gets back in time for dinner.

That’s the sum total of the story.  It’s less than fifty words long.  But on each page, as Rosie strides confidently across the farm, a hungry fox pursues her.  He is never mentioned in the text and exists purely in the pictures. Between each page that tells you where Rosie is is a double spread of the fox getting his comeuppance, cartoon style (Road Runny and Wile E. Coyote come to mind).

This is another excellent example of how pictures made picture books and of the crucial element of the visual in picturebook narrative.  It’s the book Margaret Meek uses to explore how young children gain a sense of a narrative and visual literacy before they can read.

The drawing is stylised and arguably a little stiff but the absence of obvious emotion frees up both adult and child to speculate and discuss how each character may be feeling.  It opens the debate as to how much Rosie knows – is she oblivious to the danger she is in? Or does she know about the fox and is leading him deliberately into trouble?

In terms of style this book may show its age but it is a timeless classic and well worth having and laughing over together.


Where’s Spot?

Spot the dog was created in 1980 by Eric Hill, and Where’s Spot? was the first book in which the little yellow puppy appeared.  Hill was given the idea watching a television advert in which his son laughed at the funny pictures hiding behing flaps.

In Where’s Spot? Spot’s Mum Sally goes around the house looking for the wayward dog, whose dinner is ready.  It’s laughably simple: each page asks a question about where he is, and when you open the flap he is very definitely not there.

The humour comes from the unlikely nature of the animals hiding in the various places.  Would anyone really expect to find a hippopotamus in the piano?  All the animal says is ‘no’ which leaves plenty of room for first adult and then child to fill in the description of what’s there.

All young children love flap books and this one is no exception.  There is a reason it’s still popular after thirty-one years!  The unexpected nature of what’s behind each flap and the simplicity of the text and drawings make it very appealing even from a very young age.   There is even a twist at the end when we think we have found him but it turns out not to be.

There is nothing to this classic but a very good sense of what keeps children entertained – and that is precisely why it’s been selling successfully for thirty years.


Winnie the Witch

Last week marked 25 years since the publication of Winnie the Witch.  The hapless character has been entertaining young children since 1987, putting her on her second generation of readers.

Winnie was created by Australian writer Valerie Thomas and illustrator Korky Paul.  The latter was born in Zimbabwe and studied in Cape Town before coming to Europe in the seventies.  He now lives in Oxford although spends a lot of time in Greece.  With such a multinational background it is hardly surprising that Winnie the Witch has been translated into ten different languages and enjoys international success.

There are now seventeen Winnie picture books, as well as some longer chapter books for older readers, but it is the original that has the most enduring charm.

Winnie lives in a completely black house.  The walls are black, the carpets are black – even the bath and the bed are black.  This wouldn’t be a problem but for Winnie’s cat, Wilbur, who is also black.  Provided Wilbur sits somewhere with his green eyes open, Winnie can see him.  But the moment he closes his eyes and goes to sleep, he is practically invisible.  Poor Winnie is constantly sitting on him and tripping over him, until one day in desperation she grabs her magic wand and turns him green.  Now she can see him!  Or at least she can until he goes outside in the grass, when he disappears completely….

It is a clever and funny premise, and Winnie’s efforts to solve her problem are of course unsuccessful.  In fact, she upsets Wilbur so much that he retreats to the top of a tree and refuses to come down.  Forced to come up with a better solution Winnie eventually hits on a real brainwave, an answer that fixes everything and brings the two friends back together again.

Korky Paul (whose real name is actually Hamish Vigne Christie Paul – I can’t be the only one who’s always wanted to know that!) has created a loveably unattractive character in Winnie, with her red nose, scruffy hair and bent hat.  The detail in each drawing does not detract from the impact of the whole picture and the scribbled, hurried style (reminiscent of Quentin Blake) is highly evocative.  The text is also well-written, full of repetition, patterning and simple, fluent sentences.  The occasionally awkward moments imitate the colloquialisms of oral storytelling and the way in which children speak to one another.

When Wilbur sat on a chair with his eyes open, Winnie could see him.  She could see his eyes, anyway. 

But when Wilbur closed his eyes and went to sleep, Winnie couldn’t see him at all.  So she sat on him.

When Wilbur sat on the carpet with his eyes open, Winnie could see him.  She could see his eyes, anyway.

But when Wilbur closed his eyes and went to sleep, Winnie couldn’t see him at all.  So she tripped over him.”

This is a classic with lasting appeal and a genuinely funny storyline.



“Here’s a little baby

One, two, three,

Stands in his cot,

What can he see?”

First published in 1981 this classic book is told from the perspective of a baby watching the world.  Peepo! trips along in a lilting rhythm, a simple description of what the baby sees throughout his day, but its unique feature is the hole on every other page, which allows the reader to peep through onto the next picture.  These are beautifully detailed and help to extend the potential for discussion beyond the text.  You could even echo Each Peach Pear Plum and play a finding game – there are lots of little tiny items that children could search for.  Younger ones will love simply poking their fingers through the holes. The text is fluent and a pleasure to read aloud.

He sees a bonfire smoking,

Pigeons in the sky

His mother cleaning windows

A dog going by”

Some may find the old-fashioned nature of the illustrations rather strange. The book is clearly set in wartime Britain, which does seem peculiar for something written in the early 80s, but it was a shrewd move on behalf of the Ahlbergs as thirty years later it still doesn’t look dated – or at least, it appears as old-fashioned as the day it was published!  Furthermore there is a poignant undercurrent that runs throughout, from the bombed house near the park, to the pair of warbirds flying past as the baby eats his teddy, to the father in uniform putting his son to bed.

Despite the ‘peepo’ game with the pages the tone of the book is actually fairly calm, and because it goes through the child’s whole day, it ends on a note that makes it wholly appropriate for bedtime, with the baby ‘fast asleep and dreaming’.

This is a classic for a reason.  It is a pleasure to read aloud and could be enjoyed by most readers from a very young age.


The Gruffalo

Less a book than a phenomenon, more than 3 million copies of The Gruffalo have been sold in over 30 countries worldwide.  Published in 1999, its most prestigious award was the Smarties Book Prize that year.

“A mouse took a stroll through a deep dark wood…”

The tiny mouse encounters three hungry predators on his (probably ill-advised) walk through the woods.  Each time, he manages to put them off by suggesting that he is meeting up with the Gruffalo, a – so he thinks – fictitious monster “with knobbly knees and turned out toes, and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose.”  This creature gets more and more developed with each telling of the tale.  As each animal thinks better of eating the mouse he scoffs to himself “doesn’t he know? There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!”  At least, he does until he suddenly runs into one himself.

Faced with the terrifying prospect of his own creation (shades of Frankenstein, perhaps!) the quick-witted mouse decides, with incredible bravado, to claim that he is the most terrifying creature in the wood.  Of course the other creatures are terrified when the mouse returns with an enormous hairy monster and quickly disappear, leaving the less than quick-witted Gruffalo ‘astounded’.  All it takes is the suggestion that the mouse might fancy some Gruffalo crumble and off he runs.

The Gruffalo has been made into a CGI animation in which Axel Scheffler’s world comes attractively to life, and some well-known voices provide those of the central characters.

So why is this book such a success?  Part of it is down to the story – the repeated tripartite structure and the universal appeal of the successful underdog in the shape of the cunning little mouse.  Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo is instantly iconic.  And Julia Donaldson’s verse is at its pared down best, with creative plays on the potential favourite foods of the Gruffalo:

” ‘Where are you meeting him?’

‘Here, by this stream.  And his favourite food is owl ice-cream!’ ”

Perfectly crafted and beautifully illustrated, three million readers can’t be wrong: a modern classic.


One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish

This well-known collection is less a story than a collection of poems linked by the idea that ‘funny things are everywhere’.   It’s filled with Dr Seuss’s imaginary creatures – not just red and blue fish, but the Zans, the Gox, the Gack, the Nook, the Ying, the Yink and the Yop, not to mention poor Ned in his too-little bed.

‘Dr Seuss’ was one of several pen names used by the American writer and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geigel.  Geigel had written several books before being approached by William Ellsworth Spaulding, (director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin).  Spaulding had read a report on illiteracy in American schools which concluded that young children were not reading because the books were too boring.  He compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Geisel to trim the list to 250 words and write a book.  This book was The Cat in the Hat, and Seuss followed it with several other lively, creative books with a vocabulary that made them accessible to young children.  One Fish Two Fish was published in 1960.

The great thing about Dr Seuss books is that the constant rhymes and galloping rhythms make them a joy to read aloud.  Not only that but the visual image of the rhymes on the page – for example Nook, cook, hook, book – clearly shows a young child learning to read how the change in first letter affects the pronunciation of the word.  It is a subtle and effective lesson in phonics.

One Fish Two Fish is an enjoyable collection of poems.  Notable highlights include a larged tusked creature in an enormous bottle being carted cheerfully home by two small children.

“Look what we found / in the park / in the dark.

We will take him home / We will call him Clark.

He will live at our house. / He will grow and grow. / Will our mother like this?

We don’t know.”

The zany, unpredictable animals are brought to life by Seuss’ dancing verse and even very young children should enjoy the sounds before they can appreciate the meaning.  By no means his best, but still a good read.



Mog the Forgetful Cat

Mog is not very clever.  She tends to forget things, like washing the rest of her leg when halfway through it, or that she has already eaten supper.   Most of all she forgets that she has a catflap.  Instead of popping back in by herself, she hops up onto the windowsill and miaows loudly to be let back into the house.  Nobody in her family is very impressed by this behaviour.

Mog lives with Mr and Mrs Thomas, Debbie and Nicky.  They are often saying ‘Bother that cat!’ as Mog manages to eat Nicky’s boiled egg, squash Mrs Thomas’ hat, prevent Mr Thomas from watching the boxing on television and make Mrs Thomas drop an entire colander of peas.  The last straw is when she crawls onto Debbie’s bed and, forgetting that she is not a kitten, licks Debbie’s hair.  The poor girl is scared into dreaming that she is being eaten by a tiger, whereupon she wakes up and cries, causing Mr and Mrs Thomas to call out in exasperation (and to the delight of small children everywhere) ‘Bother bother BOTHER that cat!’

Poor Mog runs outside and sits miserably in the garden for a bit, thinking dark thoughts.  She also thinks she hasn’t been fed (which she has been, of course).  Then she spots a small light moving about in the kitchen, and wonders if the strange man with a torch might be planning to feed her.

Judith Kerr’s book does show its age (if nothing else in the pelmet-like length of Debbie’s skirt!) but it is still a classic book.  The clipped, rather repetitive sentences may seem old-fashioned but are ideal for children learning to speak and to read as they model simple, grammatically accurate structures.  “The garden always made Mog very excited.  She smelled all the smells. She chased the birds.  She climbed the trees.  She ran round and round with a big fluffed up tail.”  There are some great humorous moments (usually at Mog’s expense) such as when she sees it’s raining in the back garden and wonders if it might be dry out at the front! The other good thing about this book is the extent to which the pictures form part of the story.  Visual literacy is an important part of child development and it also allows opportunities to talk about what is going on in each picture.  Explore and discuss them with your own little bookworm.

A classic book that is still worth reading today.