Friday, 13 September 2013

Now and Then by Sue Hardy-Dawson (Guest Blog)

I began collecting books at the age of twelve when a lovely old chap on playground duty gave me a battered ancient bird book with beautiful tissue covered plates.

Birds in Flight by W.P.Pycraft, illustrated by Roland Green. 1922

To this day almost nothing is more exciting to me than the smell of foxed paper and a few loose pages. Perhaps I’m strange, but it’s an interesting and relatively cheap hobby and it does tell you a lot about how adults have perceived, or at least made assumptions, about children through the decades. And oh how books have changed from the earliest I own, from the turn of the century, to present day.

The Children's Golden Treasure Book, edited by John R. Crossland and M. Parish, illustrator unrecorded, 1935

Firstly, the small number of picture books I own seem wordier, aimed at older children than would perhaps read them today. They are also very sedate and the author’s voice very evident as talking to and instructing the child.

By Constance Ripman, illustrated by Eva Ash. Undated.

Children on the whole had less of everything, even when I was young. I owned perhaps twenty books, some passed down from my parents. I could name them all, even now. Of course I could, they were my most precious possessions.

These Ladybird Books are tales re-told by Vera Southgate, illustrated by Eric Winter

Aged eight I was a big fan of Enid Blyton, much to my father’s dismay; he made no secret of what he saw as their many flaws, however they were my special place to go and as such will always have a place in my heart.

The illustrator of the Amelia Jane books was Rene Cloke, but the names of the illustrators of the other books are not recorded in the books.

Yet what is true of them was true of many of their contemporaries. Children’s books were bristling with good upright members of the public. Moral lessons were the order of the day.

 Even when risks were taken there were rules, not unlike the Geneva Convention, about being a decent ‘chap’. Yes I said ‘chap’ because ‘good sorts’ of girls were honouree chaps and this was thought, at the time, a great compliment. Equally villains were thoroughly villainous without extenuating circumstance or redeeming feature.

1922. Assorted authors and illustrators.

I am relieved at the changes that have allowed girls to become stronger characters, not chiefly reliant on boyish gallants for their instruction and protection. Reading through many of my old children’s books retrospectively I can see that they are peppered with stereotypes and even covert or occasionally overt racism; hard to believe but all perfectly acceptable at the time. And yes, I do often cringe when reading some of my old treasures. 

All the Mowgli Stories by Rudyard Kipling, illustrated by Stuart Tresilian, 1952.

However deeply flawed as they seem to our modern eyes, I think in one sense the best of these books did make children feel safe, much safer than I suspect a lot of children feel today, introduced as they are to all of life’s grim realities at such an early age. My favourite was, and is, the one about a family of kingfishers.

Undated, but presented to my mum in 1949. This is my favourite illustration from it:

Writing for children, as with all forms of media, has moved on. Now the choice is immense and far more accessible to children who have a plethora of consumerables to choose from. Unsurprisingly, although my now grown-up children can name their favourite books, they couldn’t even begin to name every book they owned because they had so many. Even at the age of three , they had a much greater sense of self and their own opinions than I would have ever have presumed at their age. Their life experiences and their media experiences were much greater than mine, all be it in a virtual way.


Picture books, like all other books, have evolved massively. They’re more colourful, slicker and in the main punchier than they have ever been and now more than ever they are aimed at the developmental stage of the younger child. However what has not changed, as any parent, or person working with children will tell you, is that the most important thing about any picture book is that it must also appeal to them. As a parent I well remember cringing at having to read some books, whereas others I've read hundreds of times and still think of fondly. I think this is probably why some books have stood the test of time, because they are lovely stories and they have wonderful illustrations and haven’t strayed too far down the path of what today would be considered non PC.

Yet in one sense, there are still no new stories, just new ways of telling them...

Sue Hardy-Dawson is a much published children's poet and illustrator. She has also been a childminder and a classroom assistant and is the mum of three grown-up children. Sue lives in Yorkshire with her family, and one cat, one fish and two Cocker Spaniels. You can find Sue on Blogger by clicking Sue's Link


Lynne Garner said...

A wonderful post and some of the Enid Blyton books and Ladybird books I recognise from my own childhood. I collect books but games books and as with picture books they are of their time. With terms and views that not only make me cringe but also smile.

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Thank you Lynne, I'm smiling with you it's good to know I'm not alone

Jon Burgess Design said...

Lovely post. I love old books too. It's the finding part I like especially. You never know what might be lurking in that charity shop. . . I accumulated various old books from junk shops etc for years. I love the insight into past times and values they give you, good and bad. Trouble is, I haven't so much as looked at most of them for over twenty years or more ;-( They will (mostly) have to go if we move house again!

Incidentally, re Martin(!) the Kingfisher - that 40's 50's, 'mid century' illustration and design style is very 'in' at the moment. In fact it's EVERYWHERE! I'm getting heartily sick of it to be honest, (probably because it isn't the style I work in and I feel a touch old and out of time as a result!) but I do like it's original incarnation.

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Thank you Jonathan, ooh I couldn't bear to part with mine though, every so often I visit them, like little time machines they transport me back to when I first read them.

Re the other I have no problem with their reinventions and hybrids but there's something charming about their older big brothers and sisters that immediately says when they were born.

Paeony Lewis said...

Lovely to see the books you enjoy, Sue. Apart from the memories entwined in books from my childhood, what I adore most about 'old' children's books are the illustrations. I'm especially fond of collections of fairytales, and although the writing can be a little cringeworthy, the illustrations are glorious and the gilt decoration on the covers is often stunning (eg the Andrew Lang volumes).

By the way,not long ago I discovered a problem with older books - I presume horse glue was used in the spines because our dog chewed several books and destroyed a 1929 Pip and Squeak Annual. Sigh. He ignored the more modern books.

Oh, and you mentioned how embarrassing old books can be. I shudder at some of my childhood books, I really do. The worst are those that belonged to my mother and grandmother, especially a retelling of a tale from Brazil called 'The Black Princess' which at first glance looks delightful with a delicate illustration of a beautiful black princess in a garden, but then I began to read the early 20th century story... Nuff said.

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Thank you Paeony. I love those old guilt covers too. Ooh hadn't thought about it but you must be right about the glue, luckily my two are not situated near any of my old special ones because at least one is still at the chew it and see stage.

We've had other casualties, a skirting board and a few cushions, toilet rolls were popular teething aids at one point, so I'm sure given the opportunity, antique horse glue would be perfectly acceptable.

Abie Longstaff said...

Thanks for adding so many pictures to your post - it was lovely to see so many beautiful examples! Like most of us in Picturebookden I have a whole load of dog eared books too! My favourites are the ones my grandmother used to read to my father when he was little - old books by H.A. Rey, before he became famous for Curious George. I really love reading them to my own children now.

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Thanks Abie, I remember well waiting for my own children to get old enough to read some of my and my parents favorite old books too.

Also avid jumble sale collectors my children often had love affairs with the battered and heavily cello-taped. Gertie the Duck springs to mind, one my eldest daughter made me read every night.

Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for contributing a fab post, Sue - happy collecting!

Moira Butterfield said...

Thanks for a great post, Sue. I, too, get unbelievably excited when I find an old book treasure with fabulous old illustrations. Pure joy! Long may we collect.

Sue hardy-Dawson said...

Thank you all, it was lovely to be invited and meet others with a love of the old and a bit loose at the seams.

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