Friday, February 6, 2009

Catch, Mr Wintergarten!

Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten
I’m a parent of young children. As any parent would know, young children like to read the same story over and over and over and over and over and over again. So it’s important for parents to decide exactly what books they are happy to read aloud approximately fifteen thousand times and then get them into the house. Conversely, they have a responsibility to their children and to themselves to divest themselves of the books they hate. There’s no shame in getting rid of a horrible kids book (even if it was a gift) because you loathe and detest the very sight of it. If you are troubled by the thought of chucking out (even ripping up) a book, let me reassure you. Some children's books are so truly awful that you are only doing the world a kindness by eliminating every last copy that you come across. They can be patronising, inept, humourless and utterly soul-destroying. Passing such books on, or even keeping them contained within your own four walls, is quite probably a sin.

What I want for my daughters are books which are funny, joyful, witty, thought-provoking and interesting. I want books with intelligent pictures, in which more is going on than is spelled out in the text. I want books which respect the reader, even if the reader is pre-verbal. With a bit of luck, a picture book will even include some precise terminology or archaic word - maybe capstan, vestibule, or cully - which will intrigue the reader, and help inculcate a love of language.

With these demands in mind, let us turn to the very first book to be reviewed here. In Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten, a picture story book by Bob Graham, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and fairy cakes disarm the neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

The book is, of course, quite simply an illustration of Love thy neighbour. A most valuable moral, common to most world religions and ethical systems, and something I want my daughters to pick up. But unlike a 'Christian' storybook (most of which should be put through the shredder for their blatant moralising, patronising tones, paucity of imagination and sterility of language), this story is told for its own sake. It is genuine, authentic, and subtle. No moral is spelled out; the reader is not told the long-term outcome of Rose's actions. Instead, we have to work it out from the tone of the last page, and the illustrations on the end papers.

The illustrations are hallmark Bob Graham. Very simple, clean colours, and joyful subjects. A chicken pokes round a kitchen; a sheep sits on the roof; the girls have stripey stockings. Even these simple drawings, however, reward an attentive audience - my daughters were thrilled when they found a hidden crocodile in Mr Wintergarten's garden.

This is a book I have read out loud hundreds of times, and will always be happy to read again. I suggest you find yourself a three year old, and read it!

> Bob Graham Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten (London: Walker Books, 1992).

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