This is a tale about some tales: about a whopping great giant, and the age-old, wise and revered tellers of classic, time-honoured stories, and about a really stupid little girl.
At my school (for I, Best Beloved, was the really stupid little girl) they had a splendid system for getting children to read the classic, time-honoured tales by writers remembered and revered. It was a system which I scarcely dare to describe, for fear it will instantly be adopted by the whopping great giant in London who knows what is Best For Us.
THERE WAS A LIST
The system was this. There was a List. (Who was the whopping giant that invented the list? How, and why, did he invent it? Ah – that is a secret lost in mystery.) And on that List lay, neatly, in quiet instructive columns, all the tales one should ever be required to read. If one had read all the tales on the List, one (and by `one’, Best Beloved, I mean that really stupid little girl and her much wiser friends and relations, of whom there were almost as many as dear old Rabbit used to have) would be as conversant with Our Literary Heritage as any whopping old giant in London could possibly wish.
AND ONCE A YEAR THERE WAS A TEST
Every little girl in the school took The Test, and answered questions on Our Literary Heritage: questions about little girls with grandfathers on Swiss hillsides, and dirty little chimney sweeps in the sea, and salty wooden boats up-turned on the shore, and other such enchantments.
For they were, and are, enchantments, Best Beloved.
But this little girl didn’t know they were enchantments. For they were not offered as a rapture, a passion, an obsession or a delight. They were offered as a List, and a Test.
The little girl was really, truly stupid – as the whopping giant in London would see it, and the mysterious inventor of the List would see it, too. She wasn’t stupid in the `no marbles’ sense of the word `stupid’, but stupid in the sense, if you will excuse the horribly non-standard English, that she was bloody-minded. If somebody ordered her to do something, she quite simply didn’t feel like doing it. If somebody gave her orders about Becoming Conversant with Our Literary Heritage, she picked up the nearest Enid Blyton in self-defence. If Teacher told her to go and read David Copperfield, she felt like Jemima Puddle-Duck being told to go and fetch the sage and onion to make the stuffing for the roast bird.
So, what did this really stupid little girl do with her marbles and her Test? It was quite simple, Best Beloved. She used her marbles to do very well in the Test. She chatted up the Jemima Puddle-Ducks who were happy to fetch the sage and onion, and she found out who lived on a Swiss hillside with her grandfather, and which dirty chimney-sweeps swam in the sea, and who lived in a salty up-turned boat on the shore. She cheated, and she did very well in the Test, and she lived ignorantly ever after.
Now, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
I grew up, and understood a little better what makes people stupid, and makes them happy. And then I had my happy childhood with my own children. I sat on their beds and cuddled them and read them Beatrix Potter, and Rudyard Kipling, and John Burningham and Helen Cresswell and Helen Oxenbury and Noel Streatfeild (my goodness, that one couldn’t even spell her name) and eventually even the Charleses Kingsley and Dickens. It was my daughter who lay awake long after what should have been `lights out’ reading The Water Babies over and over again; later, it was the same daughter who said, `Mum, haven’t you even read Great Expectations? It’s my favourite book!’ When the other daughter fell sick with the vapours (only now it’s called glandular fever) I sat on the sofa with my arm around her and read her Pride and Prejudice and Orlando and even Shaw’s Prefaces, simply because I love them (the daughters and the books). And they, the daughters, both go on reading Our Literary Heritage with no problem at all, and so do I, now.
And the moral of that is, Best Beloved? Well, you can see it as clear as mud, I’ve no doubt. I can see it now, though I couldn’t see it then, when I was a stupid little girl. And the whopping old giant in London seems to wear the kind of magic spectacles that stop him seeing anything at all.
If Our Literary Heritage is offered with rapture, with passion, with obsession or delight, it will live. If it is offered as a List, and a Test, it will die.
LOVE IS INFECTIOUS
It’s as simple as that, 0 Best Beloved, O Giant. Not many things in life are simple, but this one is. Love is infectious. Lists ain’t.
Alison Leonard’s most recent book (for the 7-10 age group) is Rugglesmoor Dinosaur, published by Walker, 0 7445 2198 X, at £6.99.