Children’s books: beasts and beasties

February 3, 2017

farwell-brownThe Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts
Abbie Farwell Brown
(Kalavela, 2010) [1900]
146 p.

Teaching children about the saints is a worthy labour, and I take the view that it is good they learn the fancies as well as the facts, because the fancies, too, tell us something worth knowing about kindness and goodness. In stories about saints we imaginatively explore the happy side of life. In this book, first published over a century ago, Abbie Farwell Brown collects two dozen tales about saints and animals. The most famous of these in Christian tradition are undoubtedly those involving St Francis of Assisi, and the book closes with them, but Brown also treats us to tales about St Rigobert and the goose that followed him everywhere, about the fish who built a breakwater to shelter St Gudwell’s hermit cave, about St Launomar’s cow which was stolen but then led the robbers through the dark right back to his home, about St Kentigern who restored a robin to life, and numerous others. The stories are not especially religious in tone or content, except insofar as they are about saints. Two or three of the stories are told in verse. All are gracefully written, and were a distinct pleasure to read. My children concur; I read the stories aloud to them, and they were always clamouring for more.


nesbit-itFive Children and It
Edith Nesbit
(Puffin Classics, 2008) [1902]
288 p.

I assumed that the nameless “It” was nameless because frightening, and I wanted to read the book before passing it to my children, just to ensure that it was not too frightening. I needn’t have worried. The It is a cute little creature, with a furry, pear-shaped body, antennae-mounted eyes, and gangly limbs. It is easily annoyed, but harmless — at least in Itself.

But the catch is that It has the power of granting wishes — just one each day, and only until sunset — but wishes nonetheless, and for the children who find It that power might not turn out to be entirely benign. If there were ever a book to illustrate the wisdom of the old counsel to “be careful what you wish for”, this is it.

It’s quite a funny book, in its way, as the children make accidental wishes, or wish without thinking things through, and end up in pickles. I enjoyed reading it, and I think most children would enjoy it too. Of the five children, only the baby emerged in my mind as a really distinctive character. The book is well-written, and not too difficult. Nesbit hints on the last page that more adventures are to follow, and I see that she did write a few more books about the same children.

Although I enjoyed the story, and suggested it to our 7-year old, she abandoned it after a few chapters. This was precipitous, in my view — after all, not every book can be as good as the Magic Tree House books! — but the fault is partly mine: probably I gave it to her too soon.


grahame-windThe Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1908]
249 p.

Kenneth Grahame lived what seems a rather ordinary, if perhaps unhappy, life: his mother died when he was young, he was unable to attend university and worked his whole career in a bank, and his only child was sickly and committed suicide as a young man. Yet Grahame gave the world one of the great classics of children’s literature, a book so replete with humour and fresh adventure and beauty that it rejoices the heart of the reader each time it is opened. Would that we all could give such a gift.

The book is widely beloved and hardly needs me to praise it. I will just say that as I read it this time I was as dazzled and charmed as ever. It was wonderful to see Mole and Rat again, and I relished the chance to exclaim again over the foolishness of Mr Toad. Most of all, I was grateful for the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; one doesn’t expect the numinous to come shimmering through the pages of a children’s book about talking animals, but there it is, luminous and alluring.

I am sorry to say that I have not read any other of Grahame’s books. He wrote two memoirs of childhood — The Golden Age and Dream Days — both of which were well-regarded when published (and both of which I own). I’m going to make an effort to read them sometime soon. The man who writes The Wind in the Willows is a man worth getting to know.

12 Responses to “Children’s books: beasts and beasties”

  1. Janet Says:

    I was so disappointed to find out that I could never be as beautiful as the day.

    I would ALWAYS read Nesbit aloud. I think a seven year old would catch the humor better if she heard it. I particularly think this about the Treasure Seekers, which even I think is much funnier when I read it to someone.

    I don’t know how many of her books you have read, or if you know of the Lewis connection.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Perhaps you are right about the benefits of reading aloud. Right now we’re still embroiled in The Fellowship of the Ring, but there are many, many other books I’d love to read aloud to her, this one included.

    This was actually the first book by Nesbit that I have read. We also have The Secret of the Amulet, which I think is the sequel, and The Railway Children.

    I do not know the Lewis connection, nor did I suspect there was one. Do tell!

  3. Janet Says:

    Nesbit’s stories were syndicated in the papers when Lewis was young. You can see her influence in subtle ways, but there are two really obvious ones. The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe begins, “In those days Mr Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.” The Bastables are the children in Nesbit’s The Treasureseekers.

    She also has a story called The Aunt and Amabel which is the collection of stories called The Magic World which I think I will make you read for yourself. It’s pretty surprising.


  4. cburrell Says:

    Interesting connection. And I’m happy to be so instructed; I’ve just reserved the book at the library.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Heh! I read the story over the weekend, and my eyes popped. I wonder if Lewis’ wardrobe was a conscious homage or not?

    • Janet Says:

      Oh, I think it was conscious. You didn’t expect it to be so very similar, did you? He was a great borrower.


      • cburrell Says:

        No, I certainly didn’t expect anything remotely that similar! But that that would be a conscious homage seems a bit strange to me; it’s a slight tale. You’d think that if he wanted to honour her he’d have picked some more substantial story to allude to. But maybe it was just that detail that made an impression on him.

        I just wonder if maybe the phrase “Wardrobe in spare room” stuck in his mind somehow, and he forgot where it came from, or that it had in fact come from somewhere.

        But that Lewis would forget something is implausible.

      • Janet Says:

        This is making me think. I’m sure you must have read somewhere that the Narnia Chronicles sprang from a picture Lewis had in his mind for a long time of a faun with an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.

        Lewis would have been 14 when that story was published. Maybe he just played with the idea of the wardrobe and spare room for a long time. I don’t think it was really homage, but just using bits of something. The Treasure Seekers was published when he was only one, so he must have been reading her stuff for a long time.


  6. Janet Says:

    Speaking of borrowers, do you have the Borrowers books for your kids?


  7. cburrell Says:

    I’m going to get them sooner rather than later.

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