Books on Books, Part 5
Tuesday, May 11, 2021
I started this series of post announcing that we'd be looking at four specific "books about books," but we're halfway through the discussion now and I'm going to expand that number to five. In Satuday's post, Lucy Mangan described the special magic of picture books for very young children: the first books that we have read to us, and also the first books we read to ourselves. Clare Pollard has written an excellent volume on the subject: Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children's Picture Books, and I honestly don't know how it slipped my mind when I sat down to plan this sequence of posts.
Fierce Bad Rabbits is so good that it's hard to chose a single passage to share with you here, but let's start where we left off on Saturday -- with another tale about owls:
"Owl Babies (1992), written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson, explores family relationships through absence and presence. Waddell has spoken interestingly about how 'animals are used in picture books because you can make them do things that you wouldn't be able to let children do,' and in Owl Babies the babies are put in a situation that would be impossible to depict in the human world without the mother being reported to social services. They wake in a dark wood and find she has gone, leaving them entirely alone. With their podgy bodies, stumpy wings and flattened, big-eyed faces owls make the perfect avian substitutes for toddlers (hence their ubiquity in books such as I'm Not Scared and WOW! Said the Owl). The three owl babies each react differently, with Sarah trying to be grown-up and sensible, Percy not really helping, and little Bill only able to utter the desperate refrain: 'I want my Mummy!'
"...The interest of the book lies in the question of what your mother does when she's not with you. It is a thought experiment many small children have barely attempted, yet the owl babies spend most of the pages pondering this. Is she hunting? Is she getting them treats ('mice and things that are nice' in Sarah's rhyming phrase)? Is she lost? Has she been caught by a fox?
"The spread on which the owl mother returns shows this, beautifully, from a vantage point high in the treetops. We see her swooping back towards her babies, who are in the distance with their backs towards her, not yet aware their ordeal is over. It says simply, with heartfelt relief: 'And she came.' Waddell has spoken of how originally there was much more text: 'They were the best lines I wrote, but when I saw the image I knew they were redundent.'
"Behind every story, a different story.
"Martin Waddell was born in Belfast in 1941. Just before the Blitz, Waddell's family moved to Newcastle, County Down, beneath the Mountains of Mourne. As a child, life in the area was idyllic, populated by animals and folktales. After his parents split in the 1950s, he moved to London where he signed for Fulham F.C. before realizing he was not going to be able to make his living as a professional footballer. When he turned his hand to writing, he found immediate success with a comic thriller, Otley, made into a film starring Tom Courtenay. Then, in 1969, he married Rosaleen, and they settled back in County Down, and Donaghadee.
"Waddell has described, in an interview with The Independent, how, following the birth of his second son in 1972, a life-altering event occurred. His young family now lived opposite the Catholic Church, and the local UDA would often perform their drill in the street outside. One evening, after he saw a gang of kids hurrying away from the church, Waddell entered the vestry to investigate and saw 'what looked like a wasp's nest' on a chair. The 'nest' lit up. It was a bomb. His first thought after he regained consciousness was that his family were dead. For months afterwards, he would wake up screaming.
"For six years, such was the 'total body shock' he suffered, Waddell couldn't work, so ended up looking after his three small sons at home. In the winter of 1972, they rented a dilapidated house on a rock overlooking the sea, its kitchen often ankle-deep in water. He has said that he was 'given a privilege which very few fathers have: the day-to-day business of looking after the kids. This didn't feel very much like a privilege at the time but it actually led to the richest vein of my own work.' He thought of moving far away but felt too deeply attached to County Down. He watched his children grow up where he had grown up, and where all his stories are set, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains: his precious, vulnerable, only home.
"In 1978 the writing somehow returned. His father has always told him that 'writing books will butter no parsnips,' but Waddell began to draw on his experiences as a father to write picture books.
"By 1988, when his Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? (illustrated by Barbara Firth) won the Smarties Prize, he was an 'overnight' success. Farmer Duck (1991) followed, with pictures by Helen Oxenbury, which she pithily sums up as 'a sort of Animal Farm...for babies.'
"Then came Owl Babies. Waddell has claimed it was written in about three hours after an event in a local supermarket. He came across a small, scared girl standing absolutely still, repeating over and over, 'I want my mummy!' They found her mother eventually, and Waddell had found a story.
"When she returns, the Owl Mother wants to know why there is so much fuss. 'You knew I'd come back.' It is, on one level, a comforting tale, used to reassure children with separation anxiety that they are being irrational.
"But, of course, on another level, Waddell knows their fear is not irrational. And anyway, what was the mother doing? When talking about the book with my friend Hannah, she said that her son is always indignant that the mother doesn't bring back nice juicy mice in her beak. What force of nature made her leave her children, then? From what truth is she protecting them?
"Foxes do indeed prowl outside. The UDA practice; nests explode; wives and babies perish. The father who wakes screaming and the child who shrieks for her mummy both share the same terror."
Fierce Bad Rabbits by Clare Pollard is informative, beautifully written, and thoroughly engrossing. I recommend it highly indeed.
Words & pictures: The passage above is quoted from Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children's Picture Books by Clare Pollard (Fig Tree/Penguin, 2019); all rights reserved by the author. The illustrations are by Patrick Benson (for Owl Babies), Helen Oxenbury (for Farmer Duck), and Barbara Firth (for Can't Ypu Sleep, Little Bear?). All rights reserved by the artists.