Recently I visited the fabulous Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a frankly bonkers collection of artefacts brought back from all over the globe. Row after row of wooden cabinets stretched around the rooms behind, stuffed with gloriously unpredictable objects. At the front sat the original Dodo skeleton that inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland. A ritual Pacific island statue lurked in a far corner, looking exactly like one of the monsters in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Other personal favourites included a delicate cloak made from seal intestines and a war helmet made from a porcupine fish.
Already primed by the Dodo and the wild thing to think of childhood, I saw a display of shrunken heads and was instantly pitched back to my parents’ home. As a child I had obsessions with particular illustrations in my small store of books. I secretly studied certain images again and again, while my imagination went on unpredictable journeys. For reasons unknown, my parents owned a book about the headhunters of New Guinea, and I used to stare long and hard at the macabre sepia photos of posing tribesmen.
E. H. Shephard’s illustrations for A.A. Milne poems provided me with a couple of other favourite pictures, including bears skulking on the pavement, ready to eat children who stepped on the cracks. In my Beatrix Potter books it wasn’t the rabbit in clothes that fascinated me, but a terrifying giant fish on its way up from the depths to eat Mr Jeremy Fisher.
All my favourite images had a touch of oddness and the unexplained, and often an implied threat.
I’ve been asking around to find out if other adults can remember having an obsessive interest in specific images as young children. It makes for a good conversation. Some people name something straight away. Others have come back to me a little later with a sudden memory. A number of those I asked remembered odd, mysterious or slightly threatening pictures. Not everyone - but enough for me to think I’m not alone. It turns out I wasn’t a uniquely greedy, ghoulish and cruel child…Phew!
We have been lucky enough to have grown up with a richly inventive and unfettered picture book illustration tradition, fostered by the higgledy-piggledy museum collections and strange imaginings of previous centuries. Illustrators were not afraid to embrace the surreal, the odd and sometimes the scary - not to prove a point or ram home an issue, but simply for the glorious sake of it, expecting children to react as the illustrators did, with interest.
Surreal unpredictable elements have generally disappeared from mainstream picture books in the last few years, rendered safe and predictable by the demands of the international market. There are, of course, exceptions, but most picture books are, in the main, all soothing reassurance. We don’t want to give children nightmares about giant fish biting anyone’s feet off, do we?
No child would react well to that kind of psychologically disturbing image…right?
I, for one, hope that children still get the chance, somehow, somewhere, to be secretly fascinated and sometimes deliciously scared by images of strangeness. I’d recommend your local museum.