The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A Child's Garden of Verse

It was Phyllis Ann Wangui Ramage who reminded me of R.L Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses", and it has been wonderful to rediscover all my various editions. I bet Kindle will never have every illustrated version available. How much will be lost if these higly varied approaches are lost in the rush to homogenise our digital world.

As a child I had just one book of these poems, illustrated by Hilda Boswell, which I still have and love with my sister and I's disrespectful scribbles within... Like a large format ladybird book, it would be easy to dismiss these illustrations as emphatically literal but, notwithstanding nostalgic eyes, I have enormous respect for these illustrations.

Interpreting verse like this "straight" is the hardest thing of all to do, and Boswell does it superbly, and always from a child's point of view. When witches and fairies are asked for (in "From a Railway Carriage" for example - which I can still recite from memory!) then you get exactly that. As a child I really enjoyed that value-for-money approach, and more importantly, it really allowed me to understand the poems very easily and quickly.

By contrast, I have a very old edition, from 1904, with fascinating and exquisitely designed illustrations (in an Art Nouveau manner) by Charles Robinson, full of the expected eccentric detail. Yet would I have been so enchanted by these as a child? I suspect not, although the words remain as wonderful. These are almost too designed, too sophisticated for the playfulness of the verse.

Apart from A. A. Milne, I can think of no other collection of Verse like this for children and that's a surprise now I pause and think about it. This seems to capture childhood with uncanny accuracy. The idea of going to bed in summer when the sun still shines. Hiding behind the sofa and imaging armies in the fire. Building a ship on the stairs out of pieces of furniature or cities out of building blocks. Going dangerously high on a swing.

It all rings brilliantly true, remarkably so for the age of the poems. Of course it's all very white upper middle class (even though other countries and races are mentioned and imagined in some of the verse).I wonder what publishers would make of it all now. No doubt editors would be sharpening their red pencils. But to what benefit? Children should not be underestimated in their ability to understand different worlds and cultures to their own. I understood the context as a child perfectly well.

The other two editions take a more personal view of the verse. Roger Duvoisin, the Swiss illustrator, is one of my all-time heroes. His illustrations date from the 1940s, his heyday, and the black and white drawings in particular have a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere. The colour endpapers are just gorgeous.

With the Provensens we go to the 50s, and in particular to America; their illustrations show the influence of American folk art as much as design practise of the time.

I love these books one and all, and it's wonderful to see all these different interpretations. What I particularly realise as an adult is how very touching and emotional the last few poems are, especially "To any reader". I confess I skipped those as a child. Now I can barely read them as the emotion in them is so potent.

"As you will see, if you look
through the windows of this book
Another child far away
And in another garden play..."

Anyone nostaligic for their own childhood, or who has been through the joy and emotion of raising a child will respond to the touching recognition of time passing, leaving only a trace of a memory:

"And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there."


  1. I still have the Hilda Boswell copy of this with cover intact. It is in pretty good condition considering how much it has been read and re read over the years. It was my most treasured book as a child. How nice to see it here !

  2. This book is timeless.

    I saw the dimpling river pass
    And be the sky's blue looking-glass

    Wonderful! And I still wander off to the pleasant Land of Counterpane every once in a while.

  3. These books are all beautiful! Thank you for sharing them--I love going to used bookstores hoping to stumble across fabulous finds like these.

  4. Popped by to say thanks for joining my blog. I had to read some of your posts and I found this one particularly interesting... I will have to come back and look at more of them later.

    I love Where Go The Boats from A Child's Garden of Verses. The copy I had a as a child (and still have) is illustrated by Tasha Tudor.
    My father read that poem at my wedding, because he knew it was one of my favorites from childhood. He used to gather up my sisters and read all sorts of stories and poems to us... The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Fairy Tales from Hoffman, Songs of the Sourdough, etc...

    I do not have a kindle and hope I never do. There is nothing like holding a real book in your hands and smelling and feeling the paper as you turn the pages. Nothing like holding a child in your lap as you read the story together. Nothing like discovering an old book and finding out from the inscription that it was given to your father by his aunt and uncle when he turned 6 years old.