Sunday 12 August 2012

Children's Books and the Olympic Ceremony - Joyce Dunbar (Guest Blogger)

To what two phenomena could the following words equally apply? Irreverent, idiosyncratic, mad, fantastical, unpredictable, bonkers, bizarre, beautiful, inventive, touching, chaotic, singular, funny, emotional, inspirational, anarchic, subversive .

And in what same two phenomena might you hope to catch a glimpse of an anthropomorphic Mole and Rat?

Olympic Park (Wikimedia Commons: Alexander Kachkaev)
The first, of course, is the Olympic Opening Ceremony. In the published responses, at home and abroad, most of these words were used.

The second is what we find in the best of children’s books - especially in that most visual form - the picture book. Only in stages of amazement did I recognize a shared sensibility and common intent.

But then, so did the whole wide world.

The run up to the Olympics was not promising: rain and more rain; big chain monopolies; rows about security; dubious sponsorship, tickets reserved for bigwigs; manned helicopters mounted on tower blocks; sausages arrested for forming into rings. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I don’t have the sport bit of brain. Somebody wins, most lose. I don’t know who they are so I can’t see how it matters. But it does matter, incredibly, to a great many people and I like watching them have a good time.

England's 'green and pleasant land' (Wikimedia Commons: Nick Webb)
So I sat down at the end of a dull day to watch the ceremony. I was on my own. What did that matter either? I expected the usual variety show turnout, a bit of tub thumping and marching, a fading nation’s last stand, bored disappointment and an early night. It didn’t turn out like that. The first few scenes were the very antithesis. Mythical England, maypole and morris dancing, cricket on the green, a bucolic blend of Tellytubby land and Betjeman’s middle England.

Industrial Age (Wikimedia Commons: Barney Moss)
But then, oh my goodness, from the moment that Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, uttering the words of Caliban, given to us by Shakespeare, (a puzzle inside a riddle inside a mystery?) that the ‘isles are full of music, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’, things took off with eye widening, heart thumping speed. Images rose out of seeming nowhere, disappeared and were replaced. Those towering chimneys, complete with smoke! Evelyn Glennie, a white witch with swishing hair and flowing robes (Beware, beware, the flashing eyes and floating hair), drumming her heart out, clicking her sticks; the river of molten steel rising up to be forged into the Olympic rings, the Queen jumping out of a helicopter only to reappear a moment later with her customary air of disapproval ....and on an on, one scene unfolding after another, each with a different mood - solemn, hilarious, touching, - totally surprising and utterly heartwarming. This magnificent panorama magically rolled out before us – the fine balance of chaos and technical wizardry – culminating in midnight birds on bicycles and copper petals rising sleekly upwards to form a flaming chrysanthemum of a cauldron.

Olympic Cauldron (Wikimedia Commons: Thomas Heatherwick)

There was sentiment, but no syrup. The NHS scene was idealised of course, but appealed to the childhood sense in all of us, the fear of nightmares, the longing to be tucked up safely in our own bed with our own light and our own nurse to guide us through night terrors. Deaf children singing a song they couldn’t hear, sick children bouncing and dancing on gigantic beds, a giant baby, so many children.

Amid this spectacle, Kenneth Branagh’s eyes glistened with wonder – which looked nothing to do with acting. I think this must have made more new patriots in an evening and more admirers abroad than anything we could have hoped for. And the medals were all to come.

For me, cracking open a bottle of fizz in sheer disbelief and excitement, tears rolling down my cheeks at the dance for the dead of 7/7 with that sweet rendering of Abide With Me, I had the most unfamiliar sense of belonging. This was the country into which I was born, its energy, its talent, its skills, its off-the-wall oddball genius.

"This is for everyone." (Wikimedia Commons: Nick Webb)
As a children’s writer, increasingly dismayed by the sidelining of picture books both in the book chains and in schools, it was immensely reassuring, coming as it did from the same imaginative seam – too rich and deep to disappear. The result was ‘a miracle of rare desire, a stately pleasure dome, with caves of fire.’ Quintessentially, it reflected the shared inner life and psyche of a nation. It was a picture book, writ VERY VERY BIG. To that world, I most definitely belong.

Thank you Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce. Thanks also to Boris Johnson for the extra dollop of merriment a few days later in getting stuck on a zip wire flapping his union jacks, as if they might get him going again. (Did anyone hear ‘Poop! Poop!’?).

Thanks also to all those volunteers. I wish I had been one of them.

Team GB (Wikimedia Commons)

Guest blogger, Joyce Dunbar, is an award-winning children’s author with over eighty books published and her series, Mouse and Mole, has been animated for TV. Joyce’s many picture books include Tell Me Something Happy Before You Go To Sleep, Shoe Baby, This is the Star and Oddly. In October, look out for Joyce’s latest fun picture book: Puss Jekyll, Cat Hyde.

Find out more about Joyce Dunbar and her books at


Rosalind Adam said...

I have a similar sportless brain but no one can deny the success that our country has just hosted. It's been amazing but on a more serious note, it's a great shame that picture books are being sidelined by publishers and schools. They're depriving children of that same wonderment that we all relished from the opening ceremony.

Jane Clarke said...

It made me smile to read this. I watched with a sense of wonder, too. Yes, all the elements were there - a very big picture book, indeed!

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post! And I missed most of the Opening Ceremony (through no fault of my own...) - MUST try and see it on Youtube or something...

Sue Purkiss said...

Joyce, you put it all so well - I reacted in a very similar way! And it had never struck me before, but you're absolutely right - of course, Boris Johnson is Toad of Toad Hall!

Lynne Garner said...

Great post - I don't know if I've mentioned it before but Boris Johnson was the image I carried in my head when writing 'Dog Did It' which features a troll called... Boris!

Pippa Goodhart said...

I absolutely agree with you, Joyce, and you put it so well. Isn't it refreshing to feel proud of US!

malachy doyle said...

Love it, Joyce. And how wonderful to see children's books being included as the best of British. That Frank Cottrell Boyce is a good guy, fair and square.

Moira Butterfield said...

What a fabulous point - the ceremony was a picture book writ large. I find that very inspiring. Thank you, Joyce.

Paeony Lewis said...

Yes! Boris is so Toad of Toad Hall. That makes me smile, Joyce. I too hadn't realised it (and now I can't get Toad out of my head!).
I smiled too through most of the opening ceremony - for all sorts of reasons. Yes, it's a riotous, thoughtful and vivid picture book, with an emotional depth that resonates with the British because somehow it's 'us'.
Like you, Joyce, I was filled with trepidation before the start of the Olympics. But oh, it has been glorious. I don't want the good Olympic vibes to end (and the newspapers to return to their usual gloom).
Wonder what the Closing Ceremony will be like...

Juliet Clare Bell said...

I didn't watch the Opening Ceremony on the night. I wasn't that interested. We had arranged to go out ages beforehand. What a huge shame. But we watched it the following night -and what a show! I hadn't realised at the time it was Frank Cottrell Boyce. If I'd known I'd have been more excited at the prospect. But I was completely won over, too. And then by the whole Olympics. I've really enjoyed the optimism it's brought. Like the thought of it as a picture book writ large. I've often felt picture books have a lot in common with productions/films and this is a good case in point. Thanks, Joyce.

Sally Goldsworthy said...

Thank you so much for articulating what I thought but couldn't express as well. Picture Books are really, really important and those of us who believe that must keep making sure children get access to brilliant picture books and stories. Also not a sports fun but converted to the Olympics one of the things I've picked up is the importance of endurance, don't just create what people want but something we couldn't even imagine. Thanks Joyce and come back to Discover Story Centre soon.

Joyce Dunbar said...

Thanks for your lovely responses. I' m not a blogger so I find it quite wondrous to hear from friends and strangers out of the ether. I'm in Brighton and went to the beach for a shared experience of the closing ceremony on the big screen. The best bit was watching the people watching. Amazing. Lovers, loners, babes in arms, all happy and good natured. I hope this lasts. We mustn't let the blighters get us down. Cheers and hello everyone.

malachy doyle said...

I really enjoyed your contribution to the Den, Joyce. Do come and visit us again.

Joyce Dunbar said...

Thanks Malachy. Would love to. Joyce