With lashings of ginger beer*

It is difficult not to reveal one’s age when discussing anything you may have read or watched in your childhood but I loved watching the Famous Five on TV.

I was an Enid Blyton reader during my childhood but my oeuvre during my younger years had been more along the lines of the Magic Faraway Tree and the dubiously titled “Mr Pink Whistle Interferes.” So whenever I picture the Famous Five they will always be the TV versions.

As I got older mystery and adventure books drew me in and I started reading the Five’s adventures plus I also discovered Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew…who doesn’t love a story with secret passageways, torches, penknives, trapdoors, panelling that moved to reveal hiding places, treasure maps, spooky castles and adults whose dastardly plans were foiled by children (and a dog) – clearly I was an Agatha Christie reader in development.

The Famous Five were brothers Julian and Dick, their sister Anne, cousin George (Georgina) and Timmy her dog. They seemed to never age – which was sort of true as Blyton hadn’t planned on writing so many (she planned 6 but wrote 21) – and so Five seem to go into a time vortex and remain perpetually pre-teens! Either that or they never went to school and are on never-ending school holidays!

I imagine everyone had a favourite in the group. Julian was the self-assured older brother, while Dick was the more laid-back and famished second child, and the youngest sibling was Anne (who always seemed to be turning her ankle). But it was cousin George that I think most readers probably wanted to be – mainly because Timmy was her dog!

This year in September the Famous Five are turning 75 – hoorah! – as ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ was first published in 1942.

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As a grown-up you realise that all was not well in Blyton land – she had a troubled personal life – and her books can seem anachronistic and politically incorrect in 21st century terms. But her books still endure today and are still heavily read by children (and adults). She was extraordinarily prolific and wrote hundreds of books for children of all ages – including Noddy, The Secret Seven, Mallory Towers and St Clare’s school stories, and the aforementioned Magic Faraway Tree books.

But it is the Five that are perennial favourites with lots of readers.

I suspect it has a lot to do with children getting the upper hand on adults, and the endless eating – ice cream, scones, sticky buns and cakes, hard bolied eggs, apple pies, etc.

In fact I’m off to have a cup of tea and a slice of ginger cake now…

Cheerio!

Five forget mother's day

*Note: With lashings of ginger beer never appeared in an EB book but rather was coined by the writers of the Comic Strip Presents in their parody Five Go Mad in Dorset.

Of marmalade, memories, and me: A tribute to Paddington Bear

I’ve always been interested in old-fashioned toys, and find it really interesting learning what toys have been popular at different times. There have been some fascinating playthings through the years – no, fidget spinners, I don’t mean you! – but of all the toys I’ve seen, it’s always been the humble teddy bear which held a special place in my heart.

With a history dating back to just the start of the 20th century, I found the story of these furry creatures fascinating, and there was something about their personality and stature that just clicked in my little brain. As far as I was concerned, the teddy bear was my ‘spirit animal’, and quite definitely ‘the’ thing to collect. Toys, ornaments, mugs, books – if it had a teddy bear on it, I wanted it. When I got a membership to Victoria Street’s original ‘Not Just Bears’ shop for my 10th birthday, I was in teddy bear heaven.

I don’t collect teddy bears anymore, but with a background like this, you could guess how I felt when I heard that Michael Bond, creator of one of the most famous literary teddy bears of all, had died. I felt like I had lost a friend, and it was as if a little bit of my childhood had gone with him.

Cover of A bear called PaddingtonPaddington Bear. He of duffle coats, marmalade sandwiches, and a never-ending sense of mischief. The bear from deepest, darkest, Peru, who finds his English family on the platform of London’s Paddington Station. A bear who had been there through the many different stages of my life. A bear I had grown up with, and who I feel is just as important now as he was when I first met him.

My parents have a photograph of me in a costume parade back in my first year of primary school. There I am, dressed up as a nursery rhyme (more specifically, Mary from ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’ with a garden growing out of my hat), and I am holding hands with my friend Katie. Gumboots, duffle coat and luggage tag, floppy hat, and a smudge of a black bear nose – she was a perfect Paddington. I remember listening to Paddington stories as books on tape as Katie and I played together at her house – we loved hearing about his mishaps, and pretending it was us getting in to all that mischief. When we were expected to be well-behaved and stay out of trouble, Paddington could do what he wanted.

As I got older and was able to read the books myself, I was kind of jealous of how independent this bear was. There are lots of different Paddington stories, and I love the fact that in all of them Paddington sees something that needs doing, and does it. Things don’t always go the way he plans, and he might end up needing the Brown family’s help to achieve what he sets out to do, but he always gives things a go, and it is always him at the centre of the action. Everyone else is just a supporting part. When I was wanting to be more independent and getting frustrated that I couldn’t go down to the park unless I was with my friends and home by teatime, Paddington was off on his own, exploring and doing what he wanted.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I am working at a children’s bookshop when a Paddington Bear treasury comes in. A beautifully-illustrated hardcover book, this brought back a rush of memories for me. It instantly became one of my go-to recommendations for people looking for books for young children, but with so many Paddington Bear fans out there already, I didn’t really have to work too hard to recommend it – that bear really did sell himself. I loved seeing the looks on customers’ faces when they realised they could relive their childhood joy, and share these stories with their children. I had loved Paddington when I was little, and now I could introduce him to a whole new generation of fans.

Moving on to Christmas 2014, and I am mentoring a young child through Big Brother Big Sister. This was a child who had heaps of stuff going on in their life, without the opportunities to do so many of the activities many of us take for granted. As a special treat I suggested the two of us go to see a movie, something the kiddo hadn’t done before, and Paddington was the movie of choice. I’m not mentoring this young person anymore, so I don’t know if they still remember the movie’s plot, or if they’ve read any of the books that the movie was based on, but that really doesn’t matter. For me, the best part of going to see this movie was looking over at the seat beside me, seeing a child totally engrossed in a new experience, and knowing that regardless of what happens to them in the future, they will have a memory of doing something new and fun with someone who cares about them at this moment. Sharing books and stories is as much about making memories as it is about actually reading, and now Paddington Bear is makes me think fondly of being with a particular person at a particular time of my life. Hopefully it does the same for them, too.

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And here we are in 2017. When I think of Paddington now, I see him like a child who has ended up in care for reasons outside of their control. Sent away, to live in a different environment with a new whānau that he doesn’t know… in other words, some of the same challenges New Zealand children might face if they can’t stay in their own homes. Paddington manages to thrive in his new home, despite the difficulties he faces, and in this way he shows our kiwi tamariki that they too can get through these difficult times. It is really important for children to be able to see characters like themselves in books, and if children can look at Paddington as a role model during challenging times in their life, then I think this bear is just as relevant now as he was when Mr Bond first introduced him to us in 1958.

Cover of Paddington's cookery bookSo join me in celebrating the life of Mr. Bond, and the wonderful, colourful, character which he has left us.

Check out the Paddington books we have available, and share his stories with your own friends and family over a nice cup of tea, a marmalade sandwich, and some of Aunt Lucy’s Sweet Potato Mash. Apparently it’s a hit with the bears in the Home for Retired Bears back in Lima, Peru.

Happy Birthday, Alice

Some children’s stories stand the test of time because they are straightforward or simple tales. Others because the characters are so easy to love. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, which celebrates its 150th anniversary tomorrow, is neither of these and yet it is a perennial favourite, reprinted and reimagined year after year.

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In some ways it is an unlikely children’s classic, this convoluted tale of a lost and bewildered child encountering a succession of bizarre and often menacing characters and situations. Or is it? Is that, in fact, exactly what childhood is like? An ongoing battle to make sense of the world, and the strange people in it?

Cover of Alice's adventures in wonderlandCover of The annotated AliceCover of Alice's Adventures in WonderlandCover of Alice's adventures in wonderland and Through the looking glass

I’m not the only one who thinks Alice’s adventures in Wonderland is something of a riddle. There have been almost as many books written about Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) and the genesis of his Alice books as there have been reprints of the stories themselves. Something about them resonates.

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Alice, it would seem, is the Mona Lisa of children’s literature – endlessly fascinating and ripe for reinterpretation.

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If you’re interested in reacquainting yourself with Alice, Wonderland, and her adventures there we’ve got plenty of books to choose from.

Also our friends at Auckland Libraries have put together a splendid resource showcasing images from their rare editions of the Alice books.