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…