Repetition is an important part of life with small children. I don’t just mean the endless wiping of oozing or leaking body-parts, or constantly saying “If you stand right in front of the buggy, I can’t push it” or “Get down from there, please”, or even the days when you look at the clock repeatedly in the hopes that it is now 5 o’clock and you can start making dinner and see the fabulous light at the end of the tunnel that is bed time, instead of the time actually only being 1.04 and not 1.03 like last time you looked and you’ve got a marathon of childcare to endure first. There’s the repetition of questions that can be like being pecked on the head for hours on end by a sharp-beaked bird, but also the gratifying slow arc of seeing how the answer to “Where do apples come from?” becomes becomes more complex as the child can grasp more information (Disclaimer: do not take it to heart if you’ve bloody well looked up how the blossom turns into apples and made sure you’re clear on stamens and what they do, if a child then looks bored, and asks “I just meant Waitrose or Sainsbury’s,” before wandering off.) Obviously, there’s repetition to the shape of most days, and in the house that includes an awakening that leads me to believe my second-born will be a milkman, there’s plenty of hours to fit in activities that are a repeat of the day before. It is, I believe, called Routine, and some are more fanatical about it than others. I prefer the day to have a familiar shape, punctuated by meals, and spend the rest of the time making hay while the sun shines (or clambering over the sofa when it doesn’t).
But then you get some of the most glorious repetition: rereading books you adored as a child and introducing them to your children. I can remember a lot of picture book classics, but I suspect this is more from when my sister was an age to read them rather than my having some vast recall of what I was read when I was two. Recently, Dulcie has become obsessed with what she calls Chapter Stories. Books that are split up and don’t have many pictures. She actually couldn’t concentrate on normal life or behave or acquiesce with even the most simple of requests until she found out how The Magic Finger ended, because as she shrilly pointed out “It is just IMPOSSIBLE to imagine. What is going to happen? I just can’t think.” while thrusting the book under the nose of anyone literate in the hopes they would put her out of her misery. Who shot JR had nothing to the suspense of this.
For Dulcie’s birthday, I bought myself – I mean, I bought her – a copy of the My Naughty Little Sister Stories, and oh the bliss of rereading them. And she seems to be very keen, too. So much so that we’ve had three of the other collections out of the library…
My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards and illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Dulcie is clearly an expert on younger siblings full of mischief and she couldn’t be more sanctimonious about bad behaviour than the oh-so-shocked older sister narrator of these stories, as she comes home from most pre-school sessions telling me who sat on the Time Out Chair or which boys were being too boisterous. How heartbroken she’d be to know that this cheeky, defiant little sister, with her red hair and expressive face, reminds me strongly of my own little Dulcie.
The naughtiness in the books is at a level that is pitched perfectly; bad behaviour includes falling into a stream that she’s been told not to go near, or getting grouchy when she has the measles – nothing your child is necessarily going to emulate or aspire to. Thankfully. Although “The naughtiest story of all” is pretty shocking. I mean, who’d bite Father Christmas? We were both horrified at that.
Each story is set in a time that you can’t quite put your finger on. Some carts are pulled by horses and trains have guards and chimney’s need sweeping. It is clearly Long Ago and the narrating sister stresses this, because although they were written in the 1950s, it clearly seems longer ago than that. However, the setting isn’t the point at all. It is the universality of the stories – little children doing things that annoy their parents. The illustrations are glorious – I have made my feelings about Shirley Hughes plain before – and I simply could not imagine these stories without them. It is a cosy world, safe in spite of the bad behaviour, both drawn and described. And each chapter is so neat, with 15-20 pages that include a scene setter, a build up, some naughtiness, some telling off and some repentance. For days when you can’t form the questions that you know you should be asking your listener about the story, the slightly priggish narrator helpfully interjects with “And what do you suppose that naughty girl did next?” or “Do you know what bubble and squeak is?” so if you’re not on the best parenting form, you’ve even had that done for you. There’s consumption of an awful lot of bread and jam and cake in these books and I would suggest not reading this at bed time if you’ve a fresh loaf downstairs that you can demolish as grown-up dinner is cooking.
I actually can’t decide though. Is it better to be rereading these with your child or being the child hearing them fresh for the first time and waiting to see how the episode with Bad Harry, the birthday trifle and the spoons is going to end…?