Unsuitable for children
I spotted a wonderful Twitter stream the other day: #Bookillustrationoftheday, where people had posted their favourite illustrations, mostly from children’s books. I could have wasted hours scrolling through it, revisiting old friends and discovering new ones. Ever anxious to get damesnet’s name before as many people as possible, I decided to post our own contribution, and looked through my collection of children’s books to find a candidate.
The first likely book I saw was a bumper Babar book: the anniversary album, containing six stories. Just the thing: I used to love Babar; I had fond memories of pictures of elephant infants in sailor suits – what’s not to like? But as I flicked through the pages to find a tweetable picture I was appalled.
The story line (in the first book at least) that I had taken completely at face value as a child now seemed completely unacceptable. True enough, Babar has the same back story as Bambi: a cruel hunter shoots his mother. Babar then runs away from the herd in terror and ends up in the big city, where a kind old lady takes him under her wing (no mean feat, when you are a little old lady and he is a five-ton elephant) and turns him into a gentleman, buying him exquisite clothes, a car, and paying for private tuition. But he feels homesick and returns to his home in his splendid De Dion Bouton. His fellow elephants’ response? ‘Why not choose Babar for king? He has learnt so much in the city.’ And there you have it – the justification for going out and colonising countries where elephants live. The charm and the graphic skill of the illustrations (Maurice Sendak was a fan) notwithstanding, I moved on to look for something else.
How about Happy Pig? I wondered. Happy Pig is the earliest book I remembered reading and having read to me. It’s about that children’s book stock character, the piglet with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi who is spared the trip to the abattoir. Here Happy Pig honours the tender-hearted farmer’s daughter who saved him by paying forward her kindness and helping out his fellow creatures of farm and forest whenever he can, jollying them along with his uplifting refrain:
Buttercups and daisies
Happy little pig
Singing all day
An unimpeachable story – except what’s this? Happy Pig comes across a sad black lamb (a helpful bit of phonics here). Why is the black lamb sad? (You clearly can’t have too much of this sort of thing.) Because the white lambs will not play with her. Happy Pig’s solution is … to find another black lamb for her to play with! Whoah, there Happy Pig! You were supposed to go into the white lambs’ field and kick ass, not promote woolly apartheid.
In the end I went with one of Nicola Bayley’s magical illustrations from The Tyger Voyage, written by Richard Adams (at top). Number of likes 1, number of retweets 0. In the words of Samuel Beckett, ‘No matter, try again; fail again, fail better.’