Today my youngest child is twenty-one. It seems a good moment to look back on childhood, so I put Susie on the spot, asking her to name a favourite childhood book.
“That elephant one where the mum gets paint on her bottom,” she said.
I knew exactly what that was; All In One Piece by Jill Murphy, first published in 1987 and still very much in print and selling well. It’s lasted the test of time for very good reason. Both text and pictures are absolutely wonderful.
Jill Murphy knows real families, and her observational humour is spot-on, albeit that the family happen to be elephants leading human lives. The drama here is on a domestic level, but none the less exciting or funny for that. Mrs Large has been looking forward to the annual dinner dance all year, and she wants to look nice for it. Granny is coming to babysit, and she gives the four children painting to do so that Mr and Mrs Large can get ready in peace. But of course that’s now how it works out. Luke wants to play with Mr Large’s shaving cream. The baby plays with Mrs Large’s make-up, and Mrs Large doesn’t notice ‘until it was too late’. (We, of course, have, noticed what Baby was up to because we can see in the pictures what’s happening the other side of Mrs Large’s mirror). Laura is clomping about in her mum’s shoes, and Lester and Luke are seeing how many toys they can stuff into mum’s tights. And suddenly it’s all too much for Mrs Large.
“Downstairs at once!” bellowed Mrs Large. “Can’t I have just one night in the whole year to myself? One night when I am not covered in jam and poster-paint? One night when I can put on my new dress and walk through the front door all in one piece?” And, oh, we can see in the picture how very sorry the four little elephants are! But then Mrs Large does sort herself out, and goes off with Mr Large being told that she looks ‘like a film star’. Mr Large gallantly tells her that she’d look wonderful to him, even if she was covered with paint. ‘Which was perfectly true, and just as well really’ … because we can see that she’s sat on the paintbox and the bum area of the back of her dress is a patchwork of paint colours!
One Amazon reviewer feels that Mrs Large telling off her children is a terrible message about squashing children’s creativity. Not a bit of it! It is recognising, and smiling at, the real dramas and tensions in real families, where love is never in doubt even when people get, understandably, cross. It is a funny book that gives the child audience the upper hand in knowing what’s really going on. And I think it’s a romantic book that celebrates parental love for each other in midst of family chaos.
It’s also a book that for us will be forever associated with repeated holidays in a particularly lovely spot of the Lake District, where that book lived and was brought out at bedtime many many times. Place and people associated with books has a strong influence on how fondly they are remembered.
Happy birthday, Susie!
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