Bookworm is a feature whereby I follow a trail of children’s books – linking them by author, illustrator, subject or any other random connection that takes my fancy. Sometimes they will be books I know and love, sometimes books I track down to read for the first time. A good excuse for re-reading favourites and rooting around in secondhand stores – hurrah!
I start my journey at the magnificent. In case you’ve never read it, it features the lonely Quangle Wangle, who sits on top of the Crumpety tree, wearing an enormous beaver hat. He isn’t lonely for long though, as he is joined by many strange creatures who come to build their homes in his hat. It is a simple story, written in verse – brilliant to read out loud and with lots of strange sounding words and interesting creatures to capture children’s imagination.
Lear was a pretty talented bloke. He was not only a brilliant writer and linguist, he was also an accomplished musician and an amazing artist. You might be familiar with some of the sketches that accompanied his work:
But he was also a talented painter and worked for the Zoological Society for a time, as well as for the Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall, which had a private menagerie. Some people get all the talent.
Lear wrote hundreds of nonsense poems, songs and stories. They are all in the public domain now, so you can read them all at Project Gutenberg. Whilst I was having a browse through them, I found out that both the Dong With The Luminous Nose and the Pobble Who Has No Toes have their own poems (both published in Laughable Lyrics, 1877) Who knew the Pobble’s toes were lost somewhere in the Bristol Channel? I didn’t.
Do also have a look at the story of the The Story of the Four little Children who went Round the World, which features an earlier appearance of an ‘elderly Quangle Wangle’ (published in Nonsense Songs, 1871). It is well worth reading, chock full of absolute nonsense gems, such as the Co-operative Cauliflower who “had no feet at all, being able to walk tolerably well with a fluctuating and graceful movement on a single cabbage-stalk,—an accomplishment which naturally saved him the expense of stockings and shoes.”
So why is it that with so many amazing poems and stories, most people are only really familiar with two of Lear’s works – The Owl and the Pussycat, and The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat? How come we don’t all know the Duck and the Kangeroo or the Akond of Swat off by heart?
Well as far as the Quangle-Wangle is concerned, I think that this edition with illustrations by Helen Oxenbury has a lot to do with it. Her pictures do an amazing job of bringing the text to life – so much so that it won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1969.
It was one of my favourite books when I was small. I don’t own it anymore, and probably haven’t looked at it for at least 20 years, but I can still quite clearly picture the drawings – particularly the Fimble-fowl with the corkscrew leg, for some reason. Someone bought a different edition for my sons, and no offence to the illustrator of that copy, but it never really seemed quite right to me. It was like trying to read Roald Dahl books without Quentin Blake.
The different illustrations didn’t put my son off though. I think he knew it off by heart by the time he was about three. We read it so many times that the book fell to pieces and was beyond the capabilities of sticky tape, so had to sadly be binned. Must get a new one soon.