Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Perfect World, Better Than Real

My Favorite Wingfield Illustration
from The Party by M. E. Gagg

[See also this nostalgic blog post from "Wartime Housewife"
about the rosy world of Wingfield]

As I mentioned a couple of years ago, I always find Bill Bryson to be at his most endearing when he describes his favorite children's books from long ago. Like Bryson, I too have always felt "strangely influenced" by the depiction of life in those old readers and storybooks. Bryson's enthusiasm indicates that it's not just a "girl thing" to want that idealized version of childhood for your kids. Father's can have a similar vision (Bryson has, I think, 2 daughters and 2 sons). As Bryson was enchanted by the Ladybird Reading Series, illustrated by J. H. (Harry) Wingfield, I, in turn, am equally enchanted by Bryson's description of this long lost imaginary world:

"Once many years ago, in anticipation of the offspring we would one day have, a relative of my wife's gave us a box of Ladybird children's books from the 1950s and 1960s. They all had titles like Out in the Sun and Sunny Days at the Seaside, and contained meticulously drafted, richly colored illustrations of a prosperous, contented, litter-free Britain in which the sun always shone, shopkeepers smiled, and children in freshly pressed clothes derived happiness and pleasure from innocent pastimes -- riding a bus to the shops, floating a model boat on a park pond, chatting to a kindly policeman.

"My favorite was a book called Adventure on the Island. There was in fact precious little adventure in the book--the high point, I recall, was finding a starfish suckered to a rock -- but I loved it because of the illustrations (by the gifted and much-missed J. H. Wingfield), which portrayed an island of rocky coves and long views that was recognizably British, but with a Mediterranean climate and a tidy absence of pay-and-display car parks, bingo parlors, and the tackier sort of amusement arcades. Here commercial activity was limited to the odd cake shop and tearoom.


"I was strangely influenced by this book, and for some years agreed to take our family vacations at the British seaside on the assumption that one day we would find this magic place where summer days were forever sunny, the water as warm as a sitz bath, and commercial blight unknown.

"When at last we began to accumulate children, it turned out that they didn't like these books at all because the characters in them never did anything more lively than visit a pet shop or watch a fisherman paint his boat. I tried to explain that this was sound preparation for life in Britain, but they wouldn't have it and instead, to my dismay, attached their affections to a pair of irksome little clots called Topsy and Tim."
from Notes From a Small Island (103 - 04)
by Bill Bryson


Topsy and Tim certainly appear eager to camp out in a tent and clamber through the woods, yet the illustrations simply do not carry the idealized charm that Bryson appreciated in the Ladybird / Wingfield adventures. For another look at the contrast between Ladybird and Topsy & Tim, scroll down to see yesterday's post on "Bonfire Night".

I've written several posts on Bill Bryson (see list below), but I can't move on without sharing one more thing: his winsome commentary on the Dick & Jane reading series. The following passage from his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is rather lengthy but well worth reading every heartfelt and hilarious word:

"We were taught to read from Dick and Jane books, solid hardbacks bound in a heavy - duty red or blue fabric. They had . . . lots of handsome watercolor illustrations featuring a happy, prosperous, good - looking, law - abiding, but interestingly strange family. . . . Father is always called Father, never Dad or Daddy . . . Mother is always Mother. . . . The family has no last name. They live in a pretty house with picket fence on a pleasant street . . . The children . . . have only the simplest and most timeless of toys: a ball, a wagon, a kite, a wooden sailboat. . . .

"I was captivated by the Dick and Jane family . . . so wonderfully, fascinatingly different from my own family . . .

"Because our Dick and Jane books at Greenwood were ten or fifteen years old, they depicted a world that was already gone. The cars were old - fashioned; the buses, too. The shops the family frequented were of a type that no longer existed -- pet shops with puppies in the window, toy stores with wooden toys, grocers where items were fetched for you by a cheerful man in a white apron. I found everything about this enchanting. . . . It was a wonderful world, a perfect world, friendly, hygienic, safe, better than real. There was just one very odd thing...Whenever any of the characters spoke, they didn't sound like humans (145 - 47)."


Bryson goes on to mimic the stilted dialogue of the reading series:

"'Here we are at the farm,' says Father . . . then adds a touch robotically: 'Hello, Grandmother. Here we are at the farm.'

"'Oh, look! Here we are at the farm,' adds Dick . . . 'Here we are at the farm . . . Here is Grandfather, too! Here we are at the farm'

"It was like this one every page. Every character talked exactly like people whose brains had been taken away. . . .

"I loved the Dick and Jane books so much that I took them home and kept them. (There were stacks of spares in the cloakroom.) I still have them and still look at them from time to time. And I am still looking for [that] family . . . " (147 - 48).


from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:
A Memoir

by Bill Bryson

My essays "Tom, Betty & Susan In The Autumn" and "Dick, Jane & Bill (Bryson)"describe my own early mesmerizing experience with The Little Red, Blue, and Green Storybooks, which is remarkably similar to Bryson's nostalgic attachment to these formative old favorites.

My previous posts about Bill Bryson include

"Monday Pop" Quiz

"The Small Things That Make the Big Things Big"

"Dick, Jane & Bill (Bryson)"

"Jam Cake"

"Mind the Gap!"

"Catching Up On Bill Bryson" (on book blog)

"Siblings in Literature" (one of my Listmania! lists on amazon.com)

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