Sunday, 28 April 2013

Mr Gumpy's Outing (John Burningham)

Ah, Mr Gumpy. Your outing presents to toddler fans the fragile joy of anticipation, the lesser pleasure of realisation, the likelihood that hopes and dreams will be trampled on by poorly behaved acquaintances, and the consolations of cake in good company.

The Mr Gumpy of the outing is a gentle and very English fellow, with a floppy hat and a faded old blazer especially for boating. A selection of animals join him for a jape on the river in his punt, culminating in the punt capsizing and everyone tipping in.

As the story opens, Mr Gumpy is situated in a landscape that is rosy and bucolic – ‘This is Mr Gumpy’ – all pastels and smiles with a rolling, well-kept lawn. Perhaps he is a country GP? A vicar?

Page two, however, and doubt creeps in. Round the back of the Gumpy mansion, where the garden ends in the river, all is murky and green. The house from the rear looks dilapidated and Gumpy is obviously lonely. Is he in fact a retired, under-occupied depressive creative type presiding over the collapse of some prestigious real estate? Does he have an up-to-date CRB? Where are the LIFEJACKETS?

Two children and a parade of beautifully drawn animals arrive one by one to solicit a ride. The rabbit is a definite rabbit, not a bunny: large, wild and powerful looking. The dog has wistful eyes and is thoughtful. The chickens have huge scratchy feet and introduce a note of yellowy sunshine.

All of the animals are given specific orders based on Mr Gumpy’s anticipation of how their naughtiness will manifest. Your toddler will love this catalogue of badness.  Finger-shaking and exaggerated sternness are recommended to the narrator.

Poor Mr Gumpy: his depressing prognosis is right in every case, and the boat is overtaken by aggression and chaos. Everyone plummets into the river. Mr Gumpy’s hat is lost, exposing a sad little bald patch.

His grumpy world view has been vindicated, however, and he is clearly pleased by that. He is able to proceed home with all the children and animals for tea. Tea is completely lovely: a cake with strawberries, a bowl of cherries, an enormous blue floral teapot. Mr Gumpy has put on a pink blazer and presides over an enormous, happy table. As with the best children’s literature, gluttonous fantasies are thus furnished to the greedy toddler. And his greedy mother.

It is a beautiful book, with the element of darkness that the best literature has. Everyone appears out of nowhere and exudes loneliness, and everyone is comforted by being together, whilst struggling to get along, because all the characters (except possibly the chickens) are rugged individualists.

The message is: expect the worse, take comfort in food, prefer the company of animals and children to that of adults.

H’s comments: Ah loike sheepie, Mummy.

The Toddler Reader Manifesto

I love reading with H, my just two-year-old. Yet I have found it hard to find books that we both like. There are lots with too much text for him; lots that are so earnest and lacking in imagination that I want to hurl them into the carpark over which our flat abuts; and lots about diggers and dinosaurs (not a bad thing but it gets a bit old).

Yet when we find a good one, it makes me so very happy. I often wonder if I have lived an overly textual life, reading and writing all the time, so that when I am exposed to an effective and artistic union of vibrant pictures with some decent text, my soul leaps like a little kitten sniffing its first anchovy.  Some authors  – Sarah Garland, John Burningham, Quentin Blake, the Ahlbergs – make me really feel more excited than is proportionate.

So, I am often telling innocent bystanders about these books, and they are clearly bored to tears, though mostly polite. Hence the blog, so that the joy can be shared among the ranks of the interested. Those who know that books are the centre of everything, and that they must not waste valuable hours of their child’s life reading anything stolid, overly worthy or drab. Those who recognise the need to obtain a good selection of books that can be read to a child at least 45 times each without vomiting (him / her or you).

Anyways, the Toddler Reader will aim to make a list of really good books for children aged around the same as my H. You can peruse it and hopefully have a chuckle and feel a little sorry for me, a former academic whose skills at draining the joy out of life through over analysis are now being given full flower in burdening the innocent heroes and heroines of children’s literature with way, way too much significance.

I will be posting once a week-ish. I understand from my research that parent blogs ought to elicit the positive involvement of the child so I will be including a comment from H to round out each review.