Catherine Storr was a prolific author, continuing to write books for both children and adults until just before her death in 2001 at the age of 87. A psychotherapist, she also loved writing and her output includes plays and an opera libretto as well as novels. The Polly series was written for her own daughters and was intended for children who have just started reading independently. Many of her books, including her children’s novels, explore the relationship between reality and fantasy. In the case of Polly, the reality of home and family life exists alongside her potentially fatal friendship with the sentient, but usually stupid, Wolf in a reversal of the traditional fairy tale.
In this second book of the series, Wolf decides that Polly is the stupid one as he determines to outwit and eat her. Each chapter recounts a different episode in Wolf’s attempts to achieve his objective – each time he is outmanoeuvred by Polly’s quick thinking. His attempt to disguise himself as a fox fails dismally when the dye washes off in a rainstorm, then he fails to answer three of Polly’s riddles and runs away when she turns the tables and promises to eat him. In the final denouement, Polly’s little sister, Lucy, unwittingly outsmarts him during a game of ‘I’m a wolf and I’m going to eat you all up’, in which he forgets that his intention is actually to eat her. The book ends with him pleading with Polly to take her sister away.
Whilst the plot lines may capture interest, there are questions to be asked about the relevance to contemporary readers of a book so firmly contextualised in the 1950s. Polly lives in a bygone age in which hypnotism is described as new and fashionable, her mother stays at home, cooks lunch, shops in Woolworths and teaches her daughter to read cherry stones to work out who her husband is going to be. Polly wears frocks, buys ‘two penn’oth’ of red hair ribbon, sweets by the quarter pound and uses threepenny bits to buy ice creams. Her world is still clearly gender defined with boys requesting guns and girls playing with dolls – not a world that today’s child would readily understand.
Additionally, the language is quite complex – readers will encounter vocabulary such as ‘hypnotism’, ‘dextrously’ and ‘aggrieved’. Are these words which form the staple lexicon of young readers? Much as I enjoyed reading this book for nostalgic reasons, I cannot but wonder whether today’s children expect a more sophisticated treatment of fantasy and a much faster pace of narrative.