Sunday, 12 April 2015

Frightened of a Ladybird - part 1

Children's responses to things can often be surprising.  My son, for example, would sit cheerfully through the most alarming scenes of Doctor Who but then was kept awake for night after night after a particular episode of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Recently on Twitter I ran a 'contest' to establish which Ladybird villain had proved the scariest in childhood.  I ran the contest as a knock-out challenge, presenting people with the villains two by two, eliminating one at a time. Feelings ran high - everyone seemed convinced that the character that scared them most MUST have awakened a similar response in everyone else.  Almost everyone who 'voted' ended their message with something like: 'obviously' 'naturally' or 'no contest'.  There WAS a contest;  almost all these 'knock-out rounds' were extremely close.

Here's a poll so you can register your vote too.  This time it's an open, 8-way choice.  It will be interesting to see if an 'open' vote reaches the same conclusion as did the 'knock-out' vote.

Click here to vote

So what themes emerged from this about the nature of childhood fears (she says, trying to clothe this utterly pointless but pretty enjoyable exercise in a thin layer of psychological analysis)?

1) Fear of the wolf, especially of wolves that lie deep in a dark forest and that disguise themselves as people we love.  I'll leave further analysis of this one to the grown-ups.

2) The pointy, waspiness of Rumpelstiltskin seemed to trouble people.  His skinny little legs and pointy features in those stripy tights.  Is that about getting a wasp sting in early life?

3) Things that lie under bridges.  The Bridge Troll seemed to be many people's big fear.  Even though he had big, soft round eyes and a rather daft expression many people said that they still feel uncomfortable crossing bridges even today.  Maybe another manifestation of the fear of the creature lurking under the bed?
4) Anger.  People seemed to be very troubled by the furious anger of some characters, even when those characters didn't seem to have any particular power to do harm.  There was the pointy finger of the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty, the furious stamping of Rumpelstiltskin. But the most notable example of this was the angry dwarf in Snow White and Rose Red.  When I put him into the contest I didn't really expect him to put up much of a challenge - but the response to him surprised me.  He lost his particular round (to the eventual overall winner) but those people who voted for him responded very badly to his elimination: there was much sulking and verbal huffing, (all very unLadybird).  By eliminating the angry dwarf, it was tantamount to deriding his power over our emotions  - and to some, that mattered.

I had to think about this one.  Why did that ill-tempered but pretty useless little hominid provoke such a strong reaction in so many?  I wonder if it's got something to do with the powerlessness a child feels when confronted with (what seems like) irrational and uncontrolled anger in adults; ie from the people we expect to be rational and controlled?

Enough!  I don't mean to give you nightmares. Here is a soothing picture to end on.  

It's from many people's favourite childhood book: Tootles the Taxi. Illustrations by John Kenney, who also illustrated Thomas the ... Tank ... Engi.. ...


Unknown said...

All very interesting, and very visual. The assumption seems to be that the pictures are the big thing, and for many they are. Rumplestiltskin however pointy and waspy didn't bother us too much though, compared to the concept of 'something nasty under the bridge'. Which as a responsible parent I milked every time we came to a little bridge on a walk...

So what I am saying, is that the words of the story are there too, not just the illustrations. A point I could make about all the 'Peter and Jane' worship as well, but don't get me started.

Helen said...

Ah but I'm afraid the point you're making is as an adult reading the story, not as a child. If you didn't grow up struggling to read these stories by yourself, I don't think you can quite appreciate the impact of the pictures. Similarly you didn't learn to read with Peter and Jane. By using the word 'worship' then you appreciate that it is a real and widespread response. It may not be one you share, not having had quite the same experience, but that doesn't make it invalid.

Unknown said...

Nothing invalid about adults valuing the Peter and Jane illustrations for their skill, charm, nostalgia value etc. But as a reading scheme (here I have experience as a reading specialist in the seventies and eighties) Peter and Jane bored most children, and today's adults blank that out in the rush to coo over Jane's little white cardigan.

So my original point about disregarding the text in your fear sample reminded me of the prevalence of visual focus elsewhere.

Helen said...

Wow! No sweeping generalisations there!

Some 'specialists' felt as you did, others did not. At the time, most did not. Hence the phenomenal success of the scheme over the decades with teachers, parents and children. But of course, approaches and tastes evolve over the years.

Aside from that, let's not forget that today's nostalgia-filled adults are almost exclusively the same children who, like myself, learnt to read with these books themselves. Rushing to recapture a miserable experience of childhood?

As for your broader point, we will have to beg to differ too. For me the prevalence of visual focus is appropriate.

Unknown said...

Cheeky, with the 'sweeping generalisations'!

Happily my memories of teacher training, staffrooms etc at the end of the seventies/early eighties is intact. And did you have these - Dorothy Butler's Babies Need Books,Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook?

Anyway, as you well know, I love Ladybird illustrations but also, in the non-fiction especially, their text.Just hoping to redress the balance a little.

Helen said...

I know you love the illustrations - and I realise you’re just correcting what, to you, seems like an imbalance. To me, responses to such books are bound to be very subjective.

As you say, your memories are of 70s/80s staffrooms (by which time even LB had realised the books were outdated). Jane's emblematic yellow cardigan was painted in 1963.

(That said, and to my surprise, I receive an email every other week from someone who wants to get hold of the Key Word series because it "captures their child's imagination" as, apparently, nothing else has).

But in general this sort of response seems very dependent ...

Helen said...

(cont.) ...on the age that you were when you used the books as a child. I can't love the 1970s P&J , for example (even though the text doesn't really change) also because I was a bit too old for them. The same goes for The Garden Gang. I never liked the illustrations - but they were successful with kids a bit younger than me - and now are fondly remembered by those children - now adults.
Whether I personally agree or not, your point that there’s too much emphasis on the visual may be a good one. But in the case of the 606d tales, it is the original 1964-74 versions that excite such nostalgia today, not the late-70s, 80s revisions – even though the text remains, in many cases, unchanged.

Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more, level of enthusiasm depends so much on the age of the enthuser, and their age when the books were current. Astonishing as it may be that this even works for The Garden Gang.

Apologies to Jane for getting her dress and cardigan colours mixed!