Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 10 Sep 2018

Enjoying books with little Lucy

I was recently browsing my book collection for ones that my daughter Lucy liked when she was about six years old in 1979. By that time I was a newly qualified teacher and so I knew which ones had been recommended by my tutors and many others that had been popular with children in the several schools where I did teaching practice. One favourite was ‘The Giant Jam Sandwich’ by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway and Lucy loved me reading this one over and over again, particularly at bedtime.  The four million wasps that plagued the town of Itching Down made the long hot summer a terrible trial for everyone. No one was safe:

‘They drove the picnickers away,

They chased the farmers from their hay,

They stung Lord Swell on his fat bald Pate,

They dived and hummed and buzzed and ate’

I remember Lucy settling into the rhythm of the verses and joining in as she became more familiar with the book. It is a fantastical story that has echoes of the traditional tale of ‘The Pied Piper’ because a solution to the pesky wasp problem just has to be found. When Bap the Baker suggests that they should make a giant jam sandwich to trap the wasps, everyone cheers and rallies round to make it happen. The whole community works together to make the dough and then to transport the huge loaf to a bespoke oven of fifty cookers in an old brick mill. Once it is cool they carry it off to a field and cut two slices, using a great big saw held by six strong men standing on specially constructed scaffolding. Then they take it away to be placed on a large chequered tablecloth in another field and even more people set about making the sandwich by spreading huge quantities of butter and then strawberry jam onto the slices of bread using spoons and spades. The ingenious wasp trap is finally set and it works!  The finely detailed beautifully drawn illustrations on every page are still a joy to behold and I can remember spending a long time poring over each one with Lucy, talking about what was going on, going deeper and deeper into the story. Why wasn’t the lady in the green dress being more careful as she knelt in the butter as she spread the jam, when everyone else had taken more care? And why did they need to bother with using butter anyway when it was the jam that the wasps liked?

Another special one that we read together many times, (coincidentally also about jam), was ‘Bread and Jam for Frances’ by Russell and Lillian Hoban. Lucy had declared herself to be a vegetarian at the age of five and I remember that getting her to eat unfamiliar foods was rather a trial. Stories with a food related theme are usually popular with children and this one was just right for Lucy because it is about Frances, a very likeable young badger who doesn’t want to experiment beyond eating bread and jam. This American book is one of a series about this character and was written in 1964, which was probably a more child-centred time. At any rate, her parents go along with what might be seen as very unhealthy faddishness and so give her bread and jam for every meal. At first Frances is absolutely delighted, but eventually comes to realise that she wants some variety:

‘What I am

Is tired of jam’.

We spent such happy times reading about the lovingly described ritual of opening the gloriously varied packed lunch enjoyed by her friend Albert as she looked on:

‘I like to have a good lunch.’ said Albert.

Frances ate her bread and jam and drank her milk’.

Lucy would get the not-so-subtle message every time we read it and solemnly pronounce that it was very boring to just eat the same thing all the time. Again it is the wonderful illustrations that make this simple story so memorable and poignant. These are very delicately drawn using a restricted palette of soft pinks, blues and greys and they work perfectly with the words. The final pages where Frances discovers the exquisite joy of opening and arranging her own packed lunch watched by Albert makes me realise how important it is to take time to make eating food an aesthetic experience as well as a ‘healthy’ one:

‘I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives,

And a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery.

And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.

And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles

And a spoon to eat it with.’

Apart from these two very special ones, Lucy had a small collection of well-loved, well-thumbed books including a pop up version of ‘ Little Red Riding Hood’ which must have been given as a present. She used to like me to read the story while she pushed her fingers into the several three dimensional scenes, looking closely into the cupboard right at the back of the kitchen where the mother was standing by the homely kitchen range. Then on we went through the forest spotting the wolf lurking behind the trees and then into the grandmother’s bedroom where he lay waiting to trick the unsuspecting little girl. We would peer into the corners of each page and marvel at the intricate paper cutting which I am pretty sure we tried to replicate by making some simple pop up books of our own.

We didn’t own that many children’s books in the 1970s for all kinds of reasons and I regret to say that we didn’t very often visit the library either. I wish that I had spent more time reading and enjoying books with Lucy at this time because the demands of boring school reading books soon took over, which she didn’t really take to. But perhaps all children just need a small but strong foundation of fond book memories to build upon. She might not even remember any of these, but I know that at the time they were a very important part of her world. 

Karen Argent

September 2018