The Perils of Being a Toy

This post first appeared on Picture Book Den’s Blogspot.

00a RabbitsonIt’s not easy being a toy. You get mired in adventures out of your depths, dressed in outfits you never chose, and left in unlikely places by your forgetful owners. Toys are our avatars. They are mostly (happily) silent unless their owners voice for them. Children can’t help being animators – it happens to the first things that are picked up – they get brought to life.

Anything can be a Toy

Mini's Baby Book form C1967

Mini’s Baby Book from C1967

In my baby book, my mum records that when I was three I talked a lot about two persons called ‘Gully’ and ‘Linda’. My mum never knew who they were, though they were often up to stuff. But I know. They were my hands.

Those Yellow Pages fingers

Those Yellow Pages fingers

You know that thing where you can get your index and middle fingers to stride around like a pair of legs? Well that was Gully & Linda – I can’t remember who was right and who was left. They were possibly married. They used to do a lot of striding around on long car journeys.

Anything can be a toy.

In the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood a few years ago I found this:02 Shoe DollIt was someone’s doll once. What it also was, was the sole of a shoe.

Sometimes the most eloquent toys are the most basic – where imagination has had to do most of the animating. And the most disappointing of toys can be the ones who try to say and do too much. Here is Scrubbing Brush, who is basic:

Scrubbing Brush carrying lunch

Scrubbing Brush carrying lunch

…and Turbodog, who says way too much.

Turbodog - the most useless robotic dog there is...

Turbodog – the most useless robotic dog there is…

...both from Traction Man Meets Turbodog

…both from Traction Man Meets Turbodog

 

 

 

 

Children’s books are the theatre for toys to come to life, where toys really can have adventures. And I love books about toys having adventures.

So here are my Top Five Perils of Being a Picture Book Toy.

PERIL ONE: FALLING APART

It’s the big worry about being a toy. Not being able to regenerate unless someone repairs you can leave you in quite a mess. But the conundrum is: that falling apart makes you REAL.

Let’s go first to That Rabbit Belongs To Emily Brown.Emily BrownHere is Emily Brown’s rabbit Stanley in a terrible state after his kidnapping by the naughty queen:05 Emily BrownAfter she has rescued Stanley, the wise Emily Brown gives that Queen a recipe for making a Real Toy:

You take that horrid brand new teddy bear and you play with him all day. Sleep with him at night. Hold him very tight and be sure to have lots of adventures. And then maybe one day you will wake up with a real toy of your own.”06 Emily BrownSo falling apart can be part of the process of Becoming Real.

For more on becoming real, we’ll have to go to The Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams with magical pictures by William Nicholson.07 Velveteen rabbitPondering over a toy’s life in the Nursery, the Skin Horse offers the Velveteen Rabbit this definition of real:

“Real isn’t how you’re made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you…Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

There are many ways toys can fall apart: one is unravelling.made for youIn I Was Made For You by David Lucas a home-made knitted cat is destined to be a Christmas present but wakes up with the need to discover the answer to the biggest questions – not just what he is but why he is. The little toy goes in search of an answer to the big Why, but snags his wool on a rusty nail and unravels before our eyes until he is ‘just a long loose thread shivering in the wind’. 08 made for youHe is precariously close to not being at all, but is found and wound by Daisy & her Mum, who reknits him into his shape again.Loved to BitsToys can be tested to destruction. In Loved to Bits by Teresa Heapy and Katie Cleminson, the toy here is Stripy Ted who bravely loses body parts while engaged in adventures with his owner.
Stripy Ted gallantly loses an ear (“Still got the best one – never fear!” he says cheerfully), an eye, and eventually both legs and both arms becoming only a ball and head.

But his owner prefers him in his brave unmended state. 09 Loved to bitsSo how much of yourself can you lose and still be you?

You can come unstuffed, but you can also be remade.Tatty RattyI think Tatty Ratty, by Helen Cooper, is perhaps a story about being remade, so that old loved tired lost Tatty Ratty can become new again, dusted with sugar & floating down from the moon.

Lost probably on the bus just before the story begins, Tatty Ratty is only seen in the journey of adventures back home that Molly and her Mum and Dad dream up for him. Tatty Ratty is always getting closer, and always getting a bit remade – feeding himself up on porridge to get restuffed, falling in the sea to become washed, being dusted with sugar on the moon for a touch of sparkle.
Finally the family are ready to track Tatty Ratty down at the Kingdom of Bunny. There could be a difficult moment here, when Molly spots the shelf of similar white bunnies with buttons who are all pretty much Tatty Ratty clones. 12 Tatty RattyBut Tatty Ratty’s imagined journey home has somehow prepared Molly to find the right one.12a Tatty RattyPERIL TWO: BEING LOST

A perennial peril of being a toy due to their hapless, absent-minded and easily distracted owners, being Lost can happen anywhere. Red TedIn Red Ted and the Lost Things, Red Ted finds himself in a Lost Property Office having been left on a train, and along with a toy crocodile decides to pluckily find his own way home. I love seeing the little toys bravely navigate the confusing streets of the full-size world.13 red tedA nonchalant cheese-loving cat comes along for the ride. Red Ted is small but resourceful and the crocodile shows his teeth, seeing off a colossal dachshund. For the small toys the journey home is an epic struggle. Finally Red Ted is reunited with Stevie who makes everything right and has superpowers of understanding when it comes to toys and cats.13a red tedPERIL THREE: BEING SUPPLANTED, IGNORED, NOT PLAYED WITH, OR GIVEN AWAY

These fates are too awful to think about  – and they all do happen in the films Toy Story 1, 2 or 3 (EVERYTHING that can happen to toys happens in Toy Story somewhere.) Actually they are so awful I couldn’t find picture book toys that get treated this way (any suggestions?), so here I’m resorting to a story of pure imagination…

The Story of the Bad Mump Mump

The Real Mump Mump

The Real Mump Mump

When my son Herbie was 6 months old he was given this monkey. It was a good one – long legs, squashy round body, perfect bedtime companion. It wasn’t till a year later that we found out from Herbie that the monkey’s name was Mump Mump.

Underwater fantasy Mump Mump

Underwater fantasy Mump Mump

So all was well.

One day I was idly wandering round the toy department of Fenwick’s on Bond Street and I discovered an entire bin of Mump Mumps, probably on special offer. Ooh! – I thought – I could buy a spare Mump Mump! Just in case. We’d never ever have a lost or destroyed Mump Mump crisis!

Reader, I nearly did it. But I didn’t.

On the bus home I realised the full horror of what I could have done. Imagine the life of the Other Mump Mump.

Consigned to a cupboard – (as your existence must always be a secret to the child you are meant to be for) – you watch – (probably through a chink in the cupboard door) –  as your child talks and plays and sleeps with the other hated Mump Mump.
In your cupboard over the long years you plot out ways to despatch your rival Mump Mump. Maybe the day comes when the blow finally falls and the other Mump Mump is left on a beach or dropped off a ferry or mysteriously set on fire and at last you can take your rightful place at the heart of your child’s world.
But no – the long years in the cupboard will have taken their toll and you will be somehow poisoned and bitter inside.

Maybe not the best picture book material.

But with ‘given away’ I’m going to mention Dogger here.

dogger16 dogger

Dogger is lost and found and nearly lost again. Dogger’s owner is Dave. Dogger isn’t actually given away, he is lost then ends up on a toy stall at the school fete – but we see the loved toy ending up on a table with a ‘5p’ label hanging on them. Dogger is perilously close to going home with another child. Some ingenious bargaining by Dave’s sister Bella saves the day.

PERIL FOUR: The hard-working life of a toy which may include having to take the blame…Blue Kangaroo

Picture book toys often have to work hard for their owners. Blue Kangaroo, being a quiet sort, doesn’t point out the unfairness of being repeatedly incriminated for his owner Lily’s mishaps.
Eventually Lily’s mum puts Blue Kangaroo on a high shelf and Lily has to go to bed without him.
The page I love (I think it’s the shadow that makes it so exciting) is this page of blues as Blue Kangaroo jumps down from the bookcase where he’s been banished with an idea about how to put things right.17 Blue KangarooHere is a collection of toys (and an actual cat) grouped round our son Herbie when he was fairly new. When he was very little it always seemed important that he be surrounded by a sort of glow from his stuffed guardians. 17a GuardiansIn While You are Sleeping by Alexis Deacon, the bedside toys are hard at work every While You Are Sleepingnight, protecting, checking, scaring bad dreams away, tending their child. There’s a gathering of guardians around the bedside. Alexis Deacon’s warm pastel pictures conjure up a mysterious dark tender night-time world.

18 Sleeping19 SleepingBeing a toy is a serious business, a life or death struggle, a battle.

There are rules to being a picture book toy. Your owner will know you are alive but this is something they believe without seeing. You generally don’t come to life in front of them. It might freak them out. You don’t come to life around any humans (except maybe strange slightly magical ones.) You can only wander about when no people are watching you. Animals can probably see you and sometimes even understand/talk to you.21 red tedWhen I was making Toys in Space I had a picture in my mind of a group of toys being left on the grass in the garden overnight for the first time. They’d see the stars and wonder what they were. 22 TISWhat else would happen? I badly wanted them to be abducted by an alien. However I wanted also to be brutally realistic, so the story of Toys in Space was my way for having Toys simultaneously abducted by aliens and not abducted by aliens. 23 TISTo get through a night out in the garden, they tell a story (which is where the beaming up comes in) until at last dawn happens and the sun comes out and they know they will be found.24 TISPERIL FIVE: Your Owner GROWS UP

The Unspoken Tragedy in every toy’s life – is that its owner will grow up, the end of childhood.

On the final page of The House at Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin says:

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”

Pooh thought for a while.

“How old shall I be then?”

“Ninety-nine.”

Pooh nodded.

“I promise,” he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.

“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin earnestly, “if I – if I’m not quite -” he stopped and tried again – “Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”

The fate of a toy is to not grow, not change except to get worn and torn and be the victim of entropy, while your owner grows and changes and inevitably always grows up. But a toy is also potentially immortal if it doesn’t get too distressed, which its owner never is. So our toys have the potential to outlive us.

In Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood live a huge collection of toystoy museum

who have outlasted their owners. In David Lucas’s Lost in the Toy Museum Bunting the Cat and the collection of historic toys romp their way through a game of hide and seek in the Museum.

25 LOST

 

AND LASTLY…

Toy Names very often seem to have to state the bleeding obvious…so we have Red Ted, Stripy Ted, Blue Bear….25 Blue BearHere is my Blue Bear who sits on my shelf in an encouraging way… But I always feel that Blue Bear is only a breath away from getting up and stumping off and having adventures of his own.26 Blue Bear picAnd perhaps one day he will.27 Blue Bear multiple
For more about lost toys, here’s the tale of a lost whale.
TOYS

Meet the Relatives

This September, the House of Illustration ran a competition inspired by John Vernon Lord’s ‘A Drawing a Day’ – the challenge was to make a 1 inch square picture every day. I reckoned drawing things that actually would fit in a small square would be good, so I drew buglife….

16 Matilda 11 Gerald

 

 

 

 

Here’s the whole lot of them:The RelativesThe winner was this assembly of found plastic beach rubbish by Sojung Kim-McCarthy : bits of plastic that shouldn’t be there, but one person’s rubbish transformed into somebody else’s treasure:

beach squares

 

The Last Wolf & Other Missing Animals

This post first appeared on Picture Book Den’s Blogspot.

HALF OUR ANIMALS ARE MISSING!

01 Lost AnimalsA few years ago an announcement came out in the news. According to the WWF Living Planet Report, since the 1970s more than half of the wild vertebrate animals on Earth had quietly disappeared. Half of our animals are missing! – how could we have been so careless? And those were the big, visible animals. In a more recent study from Germany, 75% of flying insects – the insects on which everything else depends – were found to have vanished in 25 years. Things are quietly disappearing. Why are they disappearing?

THE LAST WOLF IN ENGLAND

The story of The Last Wolf started with Red Riding Hood. I wondered: what if, instead of taking that basket of goodies to Granny, Red is in the woods because she wants to catch a wolf. But could she actually find a wolf? In England, wolves were probably extinct by 1500, and the last wolf in Scotland may have been killed in 1680. There were once wolves, lynxes and bears, but we’ve lost all our big predators now and become a land of more Wind in the Willows-sized animals.

But walking in the woods can make you remember that the woods could once be dangerous places, where the unwary and unwise could get into trouble. It’s easy to be hidden in woods.02A Wytham treeSNear where I live in Oxford are the wonderful Wytham Woods, which have been studied for over 60 years and where you can walk around and see big old trees full of lumps and crevices, which are also fun to draw. When I was thinking about the story of the Last Wolf I liked walking in Wytham Woods and imagining a wolf was there, and drawing the big old trees.

Big old tree at Wytham Woods

Big old tree at Wytham Woods

I collected my favourite picture book trees – which started with these by Jenny Williams:05 Jenny WilliamsHere are more beautiful picture book trees. This is from John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk illustrated by Sara Ogilvy:06 midnightfolkand these wonderful wolfish woods are from Emma Chichester Clarke and Michael Morpurgo’s Pinocchio:07 pinocchioI kept these at hand for inspiration. Most of my previous picture books have been set indoors in the world of man-made things, so it was exciting to go venturing into the trees.

Here are some sketchbook pages from when I was working out the Last Wolf. I wasn’t sure how to end the story. I did want to begin and end the story with the Good Old Days forest at the beginning and the shrunken woods eaten into by houses at the end, but my wise editor Joe Marriott at Penguin Random House helped me to find a more hopeful ending.

08 Sketch09 sketch10 Sketch11 Sketch12 LW picHere’s the bit in the book where Red meets the Last Wolf.13 Wolf14 WolfAnd now to….

VAUCANSON’S DUCK

This is all that was last seen of Vaucanson’s Duck.15 duckIt is thought to have been destroyed in a fire in 1879. The Duck was an extraordinarily lifelike automaton. It could quack and drink and eat duck-food, which it would then transform into duck-poo to the astonishment of everybody around. It looked like a living breathing bird. But the burnt remains of the Duck reveal the cogs and springs and cams which made this illusion of life happen.

ANIMALS AND US

In the usual human view of the world, it is divided into those that talk and those that don’t. This is very useful, because it means that those that talk can farm and eat those that don’t.

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes

It is Rene Descartes I blame for this.  Descartes (1596 – 1650) maintained that animals cannot reason and do not feel pain; animals are living organic creatures, but they are automata, like mechanical robots. Descartes held that only humans are conscious, have minds and souls, can learn and have language and therefore only humans are deserving of compassion.

He assumed animals were automata. But this is a big mix-up: automata – machines which create an illusion of inner life, but work by clockwork and cams – can only be made by humans. Only people make machines like this. Nature doesn’t work this way. In the animal world it seems feelings drive behaviour. Feelings give the impulse to act, and determine what that action might be. Feeling scared at a threat brings an impulse to run away. Feeling strong, brave or angry will make you act differently. If something behaves like it has an inner life – then, I argue – it probably does. If my dog behaves like it is scared, it is because it feels scared. If my dog is behaving like it is pleased to see me, then it must be because it feels pleased to see me (I hope!)  Rene Descartes drew up the drawbridge, made the world into Us and Them, human and non-human. The non-human can’t talk, so doesn’t have an inner life. And that means they can be owned, eaten and treated as slaves – all very economically useful. Only with the ideas of Charles Darwin did we start to see ourselves in the continuum of the tree of life, and take our place in the unfolding story of evolution.17 insectsPicture books are a fantastic direct line to empathy and imagination –– where else can you explore what it would feel like to be an egg or a biscuit or a spoon? 18 EmpathyBut also the great thing about picture books is they are an arena where you can make anything you want happen. And one thing I’ve always wanted is to meet is an animal that could talk. But talking animals only really happen in books. The world of children’s books is crammed with talking animals – from Alice in Wonderland to Narnia to Philip Pullman’s daemons to Piers Torday’s Last Wild  – talking animals are rife. Books are windows and doors into experiencing being someone else and that someone may be an animal.19 Lynx and deerThe legacy of Rene Descartes was to see animals as automata, giving an illusion of inner life, but not really having it. But automata are only possible because they are manmade – nothing in nature works this way. The inner lives of animals are worth imagining, what it must feel like to be them. Some animals end up being food. Would we be able to treat talking animals this way? It would seem a bit rude to eat someone who you could have a conversation with (see the Dish of the Day episode in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) But maybe it is even ruder to eat someone you don’t know at all. An anonymous meat could well have had a terrible life. Maybe it is worth asking the question: Meat – Who did it use to be? Packaging is powerful stuff. It would be useful if meat packets could tell us more about the life of whoever is in the packet, so we could choose the one who had a good life before they were meat.

MEAT: who did it use to be?

MEAT: who did it use to be?

MORE TREES PLEASE 21 more trees pleeseRed Riding Hood is a tale that came out of the terror of the forests – the ancient human struggle for survival against nature and predators. But things aren’t like this anymore – we’ve remade the landscape of our planet and its animals to support nearly 7 billion humans on Earth.  It could be time now to change our Us and Them thinking. It always used to have to be ‘Humans first’, because we were small and the Wild was vast. But now the vast majority – some say 98% –  of the mass of vertebrate land animals is us and our livestock. Could we give back a bit more space for the Rest of the World? We could include thinking about nature in everything we plan, and try putting a real value on our existing nature especially ancient woodlands. The amazing 4.6 billion year story of life on Earth – the complex long weaving of our life on Earth – is it OK to unravel and simplify this?

A Sunday Times headline: as it was (left) and as it could be (right)

A Sunday Times headline: as it was (left) and as it could be (right)

We can tackle this by framing everything we do in the context of nature, but also we have to step back a bit – leave more land unclaimed, leave the Antarctic Krill for the Antarctic animals. This needs regulation and legislation, otherwise a tragedy of the commons always happens. The National Planning Policy Statement of 2012 put ‘sustainable development’ (is that not an impossible thing?) at the heart of the planning system. Here’s my dictionary’s definition of ‘sustainable’:

Sustainable adj 1 able to be sustained. 2 able to be maintained at a fixed level without exhausting natural resources or damaging the environment: sustainable development.

So – sustainable development means development at a level which can be continued indefinitely without environmental degradation. If you systematically convert unbuilt-on land into built-on land so the overall balance of land-use changes – this is not sustainable if carried on indefinitely even at a low level.

There’s a new draft National Planning Policy Statement out for consultation right now. We should make sure that putting space for Nature is at the heart of everything we plan. Here’s how you can give feedback. (And also here.)24 Election Manifesto

Winter trees in Grosvenor Square, London

Winter trees in Grosvenor Square, London

Trees are multi-level, they make habitats more three dimensional.  Trees seem especially important in cities. The challenge is: can we create our buildings in sympathy with trees, plan around big trees, be generous and build with enough space for big trees? Can we value big old trees as special individual entities – to be valued like national treasures, like St Paul’s Cathedral? A big old tree gives vastly more to us than a young sapling. They are not interchangeable. We have to factor in time, put a value on time so it is not affordable to cut down a big tree. It seems that Sheffield City Council’s destruction of their street trees at the moment is demonstrating exactly how not to do things.

Plane tree in Grosvenor Square, London

Plane tree in Grosvenor Square, London

Chestnut tree near Iffley Lock, Oxford

Chestnut tree near Iffley Lock, Oxford

MAKING SPACE FOR NATURE

If you give animals space and habitat to live in they bounce back. Rewilding Yellowstone Park with wolves boosted the whole dimensions of biodiversity there, by returning a missing keystone species – changing the behaviour of their prey and enabling woodland to grow back. Pine martins, red kites, beavers are all coming back from the brink in the UK. Rewilding can make more for all of us by restoring a balance of predators and prey and a more complex natural world.

Every little bit of wilderness helps.28 Cut out & keep

Here’s a useful cut-out-and-keep Wild Verges Award – if you see a particularly lovely roadside verge of cow parsley and wild flowers later in the year you could award it to the council concerned. Or give it to your own garden.

Nice bit of Cow Parsley in Regent’s Park

Nice bit of Cow Parsley in Regent’s Park

PS: The Last Wolf is out now, published by Penguin Random House. Catch it if you can!30 LastWolf Cover

Mollusc Frenzy

It’s been raining and the molluscs are on the move, charging up the garden path, swarming up stalks and flinging themselves acrobatically from leaf to leaf as they circle in on Sketching Weakly’s prize Campanula Pendula. Which is now a sad-looking stalk.

Mollusc FrenzyThe flies have been busy too.

fliesSnails seem to really love tree climbing.

climbing snails

Pie Cycling in Somerset

Sketching Weakly couldn’t help but admire this pie cycling shirt while at large near Exmoor.IMG_3120Here is Tony in a shady gazebo scanning for bird life.

IMG_3113Here’s a bit of the Shady Gazebo. But technically speaking it is probably a Bower.IMG_3121A small gathering in the Shady Bower.

IMG_3122

 

 

Sweltering on the Paddington train…

…in the carriage where the air-conditioning was broken and the designer hadn’t thought to include any blinds. Trying to draw the reflection of the man in front, he became a hallucinatingly large apparition.

IMG_3128

So had a go at some (largely imaginary) trees seen from the window. The train helpfully stopped quite often due to signalling problems near Hayes and Harlington.

IMG_3127

In the Lower Cast Gallery

It is quite spooky here. But on some Wednesdays you can get in & sketch battered statues.

cast-gallery-01Here’s a line up of guys – the one on the end is a hermaphrodite.

cast-gallery-02

And here are the lovely ladies.

cast-gallery-03

and some shop dummies on the way home…

shop-dummies