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!

Friday, 27 November 2009

A Pleasant Surprise by Mary Mayfield

A fascinating revisitation of a childhood book from Mary Mayfield. It raises interesting questions about what is suitable for children, and whether some older ideas would get published today. Thanks Mary for letting me share this!

Toby and his Little Dog Tan or the Great Detective of Fairy-land.

Written by Gilbert James and illustrated by Chas Pears.

"This is one of my mother's favourite books from her childhood, in the 1920s. The hero, Toby, is woken in the night by a little red man come to summon him to help retrieve the stolen pearls of the Queen of Fairyland. He is transported, through a badgers' set and along an underground river, to meet the Fairy Queen and then off, via the bad fairies town and an escape on a stork's back,
meeting a variety of talking animals along the way, to track down the thief, rescue the pearls and prevent wolves invading England.

I've always found it be a terrifying book. My mother tried to persuade me how wonderful it was but I was frightened by the illustrations, particularly the little red men.
When, years later, she's tried to get my daughters to read it, I've always said "Don't. It's horrible".
So, I went to find it, intent on sharing with you the horrors of early 20th century children's literature and was amazed to discover that the writing is actually quite funny. It starts by describing Toby as a very clever boy but adding "His teacher did not think so but then she wore eye glasses".
The little red man explains to Toby that when the Queen's pearls are lost or stolen "all the fairies get stupid, and cross, and sleepy". "I suppose" said Toby, "you are stupid though you don't seem cross, or - but you do look crosser now than you did before"
Later on, little dog Tan is trying to sniff out a field mouse "and putting his nose in the air and waving it - his nose I mean - of course, he could not wave the air, at least, I don't think he could, but one never knows"

Some of the illustrations I'm sure would never find their way into a modern children's book. The little red men still look like devils to me, even after all these years, and the picture of Toby, armed with a pick-axe, and Tan fighting the fox is bloodthirsty.
Even so, I'm really pleased to have gone back to this book and eventually enjoyed it - thanks to James and his Dusty Old Books."

Mary Mayfield


  1. Some children's books are best enjoyed from the safety of adulthood! Most of what I read as a child has stayed with me, especially the "Little Red Hen" with a sickle in her talons! It must be the colour.

  2. I think the little red devils were inspired by Gustav Dore's famous illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy. How fitting that they should be posted on this blog! James is brilliant at bringing the old masters' work to young readers.

  3. This is a glimpse of another world. I can well imagine you were scared by it.

  4. I think you may be right Saviour - although those Dore pictures are even darker, quite incredibly so. Stories for children were a curious mix of sentmental and gruesomely moral in bygone days it seems to me. I wonder if the fluff most publishers publish today will be remembered as vividly into adulthood?

  5. The Dore pictures of hell were VERY scary, James, but also addictive. I used to spend hours poring over them, wondering if I'd turn into a muscled tree if I did end up in hell! The pictures of heaven were tame by comparison.