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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

THE FAIRY CARAVAN by Beatrix Potter

I picked up this book – the first novel length Beatrix Potter I’ve ever seen – at a car boot sale.

Although it was a lovely old hardback and only £1, I nearly didn’t buy it, as I thought it would be just another book to clutter up the house and remind me of how my daughter doesn’t read.

But it just might turn out to be the breakthrough book.

It’s certainly the first time I’ve ever known her ask for the same book at bedtime night after night – admittedly with me reading, but at least it has sustained her interest – and one morning she even brought it out to the car and read it all the way to school.

So what is it about a book first published in 1929 that has captured her imagination more than any of the ‘cool’ contemporary chapter books I have tried to tempt her with?

The answer is simple: beautiful prose.

No exclamation marks, no ‘zany’ type, just elegant, measured, economical English. For example:

‘Next morning at daybreak a crowd of guinea-pigs collected on Tuppeny’s doorstep. More and more arrived until Mrs. Tuppeny came out with a scrubbing brush and a pail of water. In reply to inquiries from a respectful distance, she said that Tuppeny had had a disturbed night. Further she would not say, except that he was unable to keep on his nightcap. No more could be ascertained, until, providentially, Mrs. Tuppeny discovered that she nothing for breakfast. She went out to buy a carrot.’

At first I thought words like ‘ascertained’ and ‘providentially’ would put a 21st century eight-year old off, but far from it. She loved the book from its first sentence and I’ve hardly had to explain anything: the gold standard of good writing.

Which has me thinking that we are doing our children no favours with ‘modern’ books which feature farting jokes and other *kraziness*. Children respond to good writing just as adults do.

This idea was supported when, during bedtime chats last night, she asked me if I knew a hymn which had something in it about ancient feet and a holy lamb. It stumped me for a moment, but then I started to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and she joined in enthusiastically.

She’d heard for the first time at school that morning and declared it is now officially her ‘favourite hymn of all time’. We went over the words repeatedly until she was satisfied she knew them.

She loved the idea of her sword not sleeping in her hand and having a chariot of fire of her very own, just as much as I do.

So an eight-year old who has never read a book on her own can be profoundly moved by the words of William Blake. I find that intensely encouraging.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 4
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 0
Recommend to man pal: 4
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 2
Unpleasantness: 0


  1. How lovely to hear - and it's a Potter I never had as a child. I've been hovering around the Enid Blyton section in my local bookshops and of course looking for the fifties versions in second hand stores as they're the 'real' ones. (Don't judge a book by its cover they warn but we do)

    My son is five and rather taken with Zac Power (he reads two a night) but I'm sure he'll still find the magic in the Faraway Tree - and perhaps Blake when he's older.

  2. I am so with you on the inelegant and slangy writing of many children's books especially in that crucial 5 - 10 category. My 7 year old reads those Rainbow Fairy books and the plot of each of them is identical but with different fairies or colours or whatever.

    I always highly recommend to people 'Miss Happiness and Miss Flower' by Rumer Godden. I am reading it to my daughter now. The writing is complex and evocative but it is still a book for young girls to read and enjoy. It is about the building of a Japanese dolls house by a lonely little girl. An amazing book, really.

  3. Rocket:
    Monkey has been raised on BP and Enid Blyton, whom we both revere with a great, frothing passion. We have no modern books other than the HILARIOUS "My Dad's a Wrestler", "More, More, More, Said the Baby", and a handful of others.
    Mrs. Tiggywinkle is our favorite.

  4. I am twenty and don't have children, however I work in a bookstore and help non-reading children find books to make them fall in love with them. I think that children appreciate being spoken to as people - not children. That being said the joyful silliness of Roald Dahl and Dr. Suess are also appreciated by their honest and open approach to fun - they are not attempting to be cool, they are just there to be enjoyed plain & simple. I hope your daughter will find other wonders like Beatrix Potter to enjoy! :)