Fun With Inanimate Objects
Choosing a children’s book these days is a complicated matter. First there’s the question of age-appropriate levels, and if it’s an old book, the matter of political correctness. If it’s classed as Young Adult you’ll find yourself surrounded by fiction featuring teens in nightmarish dystopias facing the kind of moral challenges that would reduce an adult to jelly.
Yet there’s a huge amount of squeamishness about old children’s books. I’m surprised that ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, with its scenes of fireplace torture, hasn’t faced a call for banning. And with so much talk about body dysmorphia, it’s worth recalling that Billy Bunter, the ‘Fat Owl of Greyfriars’, was supposed to tip the scales at 14 stone, a weight well within reach of many a modern pupil. Clearly, childhood reading was once much simpler.
Herbert Eatton Todd was an Edwardian, the son of a schoolmaster, born in Westminster and raised in the Buckingham Palace Road, never far from the Changing of the Guard. His father always read to him, and instilled a desire to tell stories to others. He didn’t become a teacher, though; he was a travelling salesman who sold ladies’ shoes. In a wonderful essay he compares the selling of shoes to the telling of tales; ‘I could have forced my wares to inexperienced buyers but it would have done me no good. By the same token, the story you tell must be of suitable context and length for the children to whom it is being told.’
In Todd’s 24 ‘Bobby Brewster’ books, inanimate objects often came to life and conversed with the hero. It’s easy now to laugh at titles like ‘Bobby Brewster and the Winker’s Club’ (1950), ‘The Spoon on Holiday’ (1954) or ‘Go And Wash Your Hands’ (1959) but they proved immensely popular. Unusually, he wrote sets of short stories which were gathered into collections, so that ‘Please may I Bang the Gong?’ appeared in ‘Bobby Brewster’s Conker’ (1963) while ‘Marigolds with a Difference’ turned up in ‘Bobby Brewster’s Potato’ (1964). The covers for these collections were, of course, masterpieces of period good taste, the kind of paintings that now turn up on ironic, smutty birthday cards.
Of course it was a more innocent time, when children wore sandals and Oxford toecaps, pigtails and short trousers, teachers chucked lumps of chalk at pupils’ heads and everybody read.
Todd often visited schools to read his stories to children, and delivered talks on storytelling to teachers. At the end of the 1960s he often appeared on the BBC programme Jackanory reading his tales to a rapt audience of anklebiters. Later the stories were offered as ‘Dial-and-Listen Bedtime Stories’ by BT – proof that children always love a good story.