When I arrived at Junior school, my first question as I peered around the crowd to get a glimpse of the new classroom was “Where are the toys?” There was a little carpeted area at the back of the classroom that looked like the obvious place for keeping toys – but no toys. There were other things though.
My first memory of looking at a book in a schoolroom is of sitting in that same part of the room drawing pictures of mushrooms and little creatures from illustrations in books. Thinking about it now, I guess that words and pictures have always been entwined for me, each as important as the other.
When I was poorly and had to stay home, I was given a beautifully illustrated book to draw from. This was “The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast” by Alan Aldridge (illustrator) and William Plomer. I still have this book on a shelf at my family’s home, and there are some of my childhood scribbles held between the pages. I always think of this book as being a special treat, something to take a child’s mind away from feeling sad. I’m glad that I still have it.
Above the shelf where the Butterfly Ball sits ought to be a copy of “The Strange Adventures of Emma” by Dorothy Ann Lovell and Irene Hawkins (illustrator), but this is a childhood favourite that I can no longer find. I keep hoping that it will turn up somewhere. It’s the story of a doll called Emma who lived in a museum in London and went off on her adventures.
We used to visit London a fair bit when I was a child. We spent many an hour searching museums for Emma, because I was convinced that the story must be about a real doll. I remember the unfathomable expanse of the V&A, where my mum patiently went off to ask someone where we might find the dolls. We never found her of course, but along the way I saw and learned about lots of things. Looking back, I suspect that indulging this childhood obsession was a smart manoeuvre on my mother’s part.
The Christmas morning following our trip to the V&A, I came downstairs to find Emma sitting in our living room. She was an Emma made by my mother, complete with the dress and bonnet and cape and everything else described in the book, right down to her tiny bag containing a jewel and a handkerchief with a monogrammed letter ‘E’.
Another favourite is ‘A House for a Mouse’ by June Hurst and Wendy Man. It’s a little spiral bound story about a mouse looking for a home, complete with a little finger puppet mousey. It’s a bit battered around the edges now but still makes me smile. It even has a page for you to draw a picture of your own house. Looking at the faded price ticket on the back page, I’d say it was 95p very much well spent.
Perhaps sometimes we go out on adventures looking for something that we can find at home all along – but we still need to go.
How many of our childhood adventures help to define the person who we grow up to be? I think about my childhood of words and images, of rockpools and forests, and I realise how much of my childhood curiosity I still have today. I wouldn’t be without it. I think there’s plenty to be said for not putting away childish things.