Dragons are no more absurd or strange to most of the toddlers I know than aeroplanes. They’re just a little bit rarer. Animals talk far more comprehensibly than politicians. And space travel doesn’t seem any more or less likely than the fact that there are huge boats that can carry hundreds of people. In fact, I’m pretty sure my daughter thinks that if her daddy were sensible, he’d just go out and buy a rocket and fly us all to the moon so we could have a nice picnic there.
It’s a wonderful state of mind and one that is admirably reflected in the books we read together. The first book my daughter started to respond to was Goodnight Moon, the classic written and illustrated by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd in 1947. It tells, in gentle rhymes, about the contents of a “great green room”. These include some socks drying on a line, clocks, a telephone, a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon. Here, the space-traveling cow seems every bit as real as the socks, as the clocks and as another prominent fixture in the great green room, an old lady sitting in an easy chair, doing her knitting and whispering “hush”. Not least because, as is the natural way in such books, the old lady is a rabbit wearing a dress.
Since then, most the other books we’ve read have supplied similar delight and wonder. Talking animals, strange creatures and magic are matters of routine. Every day we encounter concepts that warp the fabric of reality. One of my current favourites is called Daddy Lost His Head by Quentin Blake and Andre Bouchard. This relates, in a splendidly matter of fact way, about the time Daddy returned home from work, minus his head. Naturally, this caused a few problems. Most especially, Mummy was embarrassed. So his children made him a new head out of papier mache and took advantage of the fact that he had no brain to trick him into buying them all kinds of toys – as is perfectly logical and reasonable.
Meanwhile, the moon and everything else in the night sky continue to glow brightly over bedtime rituals. Space is at once boundless and easily traversed. Another favourite story is How To Catch A Star by Oliver Jeffers. This features a young boy who becomes desperate to play with his own star. He is initially unable to get hold of one because he used up all the fuel in his rocket ship a week earlier. But he manages to grab a star anyway when he spots it reflected in the sea and follows it when it washes on to shore. Lovely. I’m also very fond of Penguin by Polly Dunbar where, as well as being eaten by a Lion, tickled and shouted at, a penguin is fired into space in a small rocket ship. Just because that seems like a good way to get him to say something… And who would want to argue with logic like that?
Discovering such books has been one of the many joys of parenthood. I don’t know how long this delightful disregard for genre boundaries will continue as my daughter grows older. But I’m hoping that it will for quite a while. I remember a similarly limitless universe from my own later childhood. My favourite writer Roald Dahl didn’t think twice about introducing strange new lands, parallel universes and space travel. The land of the giants in the BFG is an SF dystopia if ever I saw one – while Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator features space hotels, shape changing extra-terrestrials, and a minus-land – the place where people end up after eating too much Wonka-Vite and becoming younger than zero-years-old.
Personally, I’d like to get hold of some Wonka-Vite myself and to knock a few years off. Not least so I could have the wonder of reading so many wonderful children’s books anew, from the perspective of a child. That’s to say, someone who doesn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, let alone SF and other kinds of literature. Someone with an entirely unblemished sense of wonder.