Making glad the heart of childhood

ADELE FREEDMAN December 12 1977

Making glad the heart of childhood

ADELE FREEDMAN December 12 1977

Making glad the heart of childhood


Although buyers of children’s books would be right in thinking that alligators and crocodiles have, for the moment, slunk out of fashion, while gnomes and trolls have engineered a comeback, the most conspicuous feature of this year’s crop of kids-lit is its exuberant variety. There are pastel fantasies, slices of inner-city life and stirring examples of a new genre, child-

hood memoirs written by adults who’ve kept their rearview mirrors polished. Here are some of this season’s best:

Fungus The Bogeyman (Thomas Nelson, $5.95) is absolutely the last word on a slimy subject. Raymond Briggs’s description of a day in the underground life of a Bogey family—Fungus, his wife, Mildew, and their fetid offspring, Mould—with detailed drawings of their smelly sheets, Pepsomuck toothpaste (“gets teeth really black”) and marinating trousers, provides an upside-down image of a “surface” child’s life during which he’s exhorted to keep dry, clean and civilized.

What Briggs does for bogeymen, Wil Huygen does for gnomes. Gnomes (Prentice-Hall, $ 17.95) purports to be a scientific treatise on the history and habits of these forest figments from earliest times to the present. Gnomic sex life is not overlooked:

Mother Gnome, we learn, breastfeeds her young like any liberated female. As for medicine, gnomes are said to practise acupuncture. In short, they’re hardworking, robust little creatures who unfortunately tend to resemble the most prosaic variety of humans. Despite Rien Poortvliet’s wry drawings, Gnomes is not really enough of a spoof for it to soar.

John Burningham strikes a perfect baltnce between the humdrum and the fanastical in Come away from the water, Shirley (Clarke, Irwin, $6.50), lifting the :urtain on a child’s secret life with great sophistication. While Shirley’s parents sink nto their deckchairs on the seashore, occaiionally issuing perfunctory remarks 'rom behind newspapers and knitting leedles, Shirley carouses with pirates

and digs for buried treasure—returning from her fantasy journey just in time to rejoin her parents is they fold their deckchairs and

decamp. There is something shilling about the parents’ resolute blindness to Shirley’s imagination.

Other heroines fare better.

Zatlands/Pays des Chats py Felix Vincent (Tundra Books, $9.95) tells, in iirect and simple prose, the story of Juna who, in a reversal of usual roles, is educated by her seven cats on the subjects of birds, clouds and flowers.

In effect, the cats become Juna’s mothers; initiating her into natural wisdom. In the end, Juna’s parents are

allowed a peek at fantasy life: they accept it generously, with the happy result that Juna’s outer and inner lives are allowed to mesh.

As they do in Dennis Lee’s deliciously silly collection of children’s verse, Garbage Delight (Macmillan of Canada, $6.95). Whether dealing with such kids’ realities as pet worms, horrid siblings, squishable beetle-bugs or visions of pirates spitting “bloody crud,” Lee’s lilting rhymes refine them into the kind of poetic gold children love to hoard.

In a slightly different medium, but still with an eye to the cheap and cheerful, McClelland and Stewart has launched a iterary hybrid for kids, half magazine, half book, with the unlikely name of Magook. Each features a full-length story by well-known kids authors such as Ann Blades, but children may prefer the more elegant and manageable hardbound versions of her book to the clumsy Magook product. Older children:

This season’s best offerings for the 8to-11 age group are two autobiographies set in Europe during the rise of the Nazis. Expectations to the contrary, neither is ponderous or moralistic. Charles Hannam’s A Boy In Your Situation (William Collins, $8.95) tells with great honesty how a spoiled little boy with a collection of silk ties and an enormous appetite for sweets reached maturity during difficult times. Karl’s adventures in Germany and then in England, where he was evacuated by his father in 1939, present a fable of persist-

ence and inner strength; nothing of the maudlin is allowed to sugar the text.

Told from a different point of view, Use Koehn’s Mischling, Second Degree (Gage Publishing, $9.50) is nonetheless a moving story. At age six, German-born Ilse was designated “Mischling, second degree” by the Nazis, meaning that she had one Jewish grandparent. Although her parents divorced in order to guarantee her safety, Use didn’t discover the danger she was in until it had passed. She was, on the other hand, taught by her freethinking parents to value freedom over tyranny, a lesson that insulated her during the war years when, as a member of Hitler Youth, she was shifted from one evacuation camp to another. The fact that the war is seen through the eyes of a young child accentuates the plight of little people in the throes of great events.

But the long arm of war also reaches beyond man. Sheila Burnford, author of The Incredible Journey, has ingeniously constructed a war novel, Bel Ria (McClelland and Stewart, $10) using a homely

gypsy dog as its hero. Burnford chronicles Bel Ria’s three adventurous lives: the first with his gypsy mistress in occupied France; the second on board an English destroyer; the third amid the stifling comfort enjoyed by a sentimental English widow in Plymouth. In each phase Ria deeply affects the people he is with and the final scene—in which all three owners converge and during which the dog expires out of sheer excitement—serves as a well-intended reminder that heroism isn’t only the province of humans. Adults might consider this bathetic but in kids’ terms it strikes a perfect note.