When we were very young

A few weeks ago I went to a baby shower, my first ever. Fortunately, it was a laid-back gathering, a chance to meet people and chat over mulled wine and sausage rolls and cupcakes. We played a few simple games, but we were spared the horror games that I have only heard of — passing the nappy filled with melted chocolate, nappy-changing competitions and the like.

One simple game that began the afternoon was the invitation for everyone to name their favourite children’s book. What a hard decision! As we went around the room, people murmured, sighed, laughed and nodded, memories obviously flooding back: being read to as a kid, or reading to their own kids. Lines and pictures came back to me.

I don’t remember my own early childhood books very well. I think the full fare of Enid Blyton and Peter Rabbit were the main ones. I was especially fascinated by Peter Rabbit pleading with Mr Robinson not to be thrown into the briar patch, then laughing in delight when he had. So innocent of subterfuge I was that my older sister had to explain. I did learn a new word, though — soporific — and discovered that, strangely, too much lettuce makes you sleepy. But I think I made up for that lack of books when my own kids were born.

Someone in the group named Where the Wild Things Are­ (‘“And now,” cried Max. “Let the wild rumpus start.”’) and the next person mentioned In the Night Kitchen (‘I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God bless milk and God bless me.’). The list went one: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Spot books (though not my favourite), all the fairy tales, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (‘We’re going to catch a big one. I’m not scared. What a beautiful day. Uh oh!’) The Wind in the Willows, The Paperbag Princess — one of my absolute favourites, where the heroine outsmarts a dragon and then tells the snooty prince, ‘You’re a toad, Ronald’ and marches off into the sunset.

My pick was Each Peach Pear Plum by the Ahlbergs, an almost perfect book for reading to kids because it has rhythm, rhyme and gorgeously detailed drawings. On each page a fairy tale character (and at the end, a pie) is hidden among the detail, hence the ‘I spy’ part of the rhyme. We had (still have) a tiny hardback copy, which made hunting among the detail even more fun.

The first line seems perfect, even though it doesn’t strictly make sense. It’s the sounds that work so well. ‘Each’, an ordinary kind of word, becomes so much more interesting next to ‘peach’, such fun to say. ‘Pear’ then softens, links gently to ‘plum’, such a good word for the line end. But most of all, they feel round and rich, juicy even. We used to draw out ‘I spy’ into long thin sounds, then pounce on ‘Tom Thumb’. When the game finished, a group of us managed to recite the whole thing. Hubbard and cupboard, ditch and witch, hunting and bunting — the rhymes are such fun to say. And at the end, it’s: ‘Plum pie in the sun / I spy everyone!’ It all comes together in one loud acclamation. Perfect.

It was all quite nostalgic, remembering the books I loved as much as my kids did. But then I remembered an incident my eldest daughter had reminded me about a few years ago. When she was about ten, and her younger sister was about eight, I read them The Hobbit. They loved it, the younger one being fixated by the spiders in the forest; the older one impatient and sneaking off to read the next chapter on her own. Apparently one night they were naughty and I was so angry that I pronounced there would be no more Hobbit. What?! How could I do that? But it seems I did; I’d obviously blocked it out. What a cruel and inhuman punishment — to deny them the end of the story, the satisfaction of resolution, the ‘I spy everyone’ kind of resolution. I apologised, but they laughed and said kindly, ‘Yeah, but we were pretty naughty. Fair enough.’

But I’m not sure — maybe scrubbing the floors would have been less mean…

I spy everyone 2

10 thoughts on “When we were very young

  1. I agree, Each peach pear plum is a wonderful read aloud children’s book. I also love, and often give away, We’re going on a bear hunt. And The paper bag princess. I have both versions – the “you are a toad” one and “you are a bum”. An alphabet book I really loved was Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. For slightly older children, I also love Wombat Stew.


  2. Hi Sue. It’s so lovely to find this love of kids’ books in adults. I haven’t hear of the Paper Bag Princes ‘you are a bum’ version. Is it the same apart from that? If so, I prefer ‘toad’; it’s just right. I’ll have to check out Chicka Chicka Boom Boom — I don’t know it, and with a grandchild due in a few weeks, I have the perfect excuse to invest in some more books. I’ve begun to realise that I leant out some of our kids’ books to friends, and of course, they’ve vanished. Time to stock up again.


    1. Sorry I didn’t get back to this earlier. Yes, it is exactly the same except for that word. The original Canadian version is, if I remember correctly, “bum” but it was felt that that would not go down well in England (I think — England is where the “toad” version originates. I certainly bought the “bum” one first in the US, and then a friend gave us the “toad” one when we came back to Australia not knowing we already had it.) I like the “bum” version – but that’s because it’s the first one I read. “Toad” though has some interesting layers doesn’t it?

      We’ve hung onto some special children’s books – those favourite ones – but you can’t hang onto everything forever can you.

      How exciting. A grandchild.


  3. This is so late coming. I have been thinking of this in bed each night but forgetting every morning.
    One of things that fascinated me when I was teaching that generations of little children liked the same stories by and large. They seemed to have an innate ear for musical and poetic flow, and catchy phrases. They were often not the books that are popular with middle class parents and merchandised with the adults in mind.
    It is wonderful to see the grandchildren loving reading too. The littlest one won’t read with me – it is only his mum that is allowed to do that special thing. I hope you enjoy your new books and book buying Robyn.


  4. Hi Pauline. I remember when my kids were tiny and we went to the local library, there would be a poster each year with a list of the nominated award-winning children’s books, and everyone had a chance to vote. Year after year, the ones the kids voted for were not the ones that won and I always thought how much we adults seemed to want ‘worthy’ books, which weren’t always enough fun for the kids. The ones my kids now remember are those, as you say, with great rhymes and musicality, and lots of repetition. I’m looking forward so much to doing it all again with a little one to teach me again the things that matter!


  5. Lovely, Robyn. I’ve been missing your posts, since I never check my wordpress reader. Ang chance of you getting a ‘follow by email button’? I’d love to press it…,x


    1. Thanks Michele, you’re very kind. As far as I know, you need to go to your reader page and the ‘edit’ function, to ask for new posts to be sent by email to you. You’re the second person who has asked about that, and there might be something I should be doing that I don’t know about. If you have any hints, I’d love to know.


      1. If you go into your dashboard, Robyn, and look under ‘widgets’ (which are just little extras you can add to your page) there should be one for ‘Follow by email’, which you can choose to add. Depending on your wordpress theme, the button will appear at the top or on the side of the homepage somewhere. Good luck!


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