Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Over and Over Again by Paul May

'It's a book that will be read over and over again,' said a review in Child Education. 

They were right. I've read EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM, Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s classic picture book, many hundreds of times. Even now, each time I read it I find something new in it. 

For instance, today I find myself wondering about Robin Hood and the Wicked Witch and those arrows Robin fires at her as she flies past on her broomstick. They are very sharp arrows; the witch looks anxious and the cat seems scared and angry; the little blue birds look as if they’re putting the brakes on to stay out of the way. But Robin is smiling. And his victims must know that Robin is the world’s best shot. He's aiming to miss. Surely it’s a game? But maybe, just maybe, it’s not.

Because, in this book, bears go hunting with their guns (not very effectively, to be sure) and Robin may be reading a book in his den, with picture of Maid Marian hanging from a tree above that fabulous little shelf on which sits a vase of flowers, but what is he planning to cook on that little fire of his? And look at the darkness between the tree trunks in the forest. 

EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM was published in year my daughter was born, and for a long time I read it to her more than once a day.  That probably accounts for the first hundred or so readings. Then, when I took up teaching, it was an essential part of my classroom library, and was a book I turned to again and again when I started working intensively with children who had problems with reading.

One of the first instances I had of the book’s power concerned a boy named Luke. Luke was eight years old and lived with his alcoholic mother who had great difficulty looking after him. He was thin, angry and difficult and the sleeves of his second-hand school sweatshirt were chewed to pieces. The rhyme on the book’s title page invites you to play, rather than to read, so that’s what we’d been doing. Mostly, we’d been looking at the pictures and discussing them. After a week or so of this Luke stopped me in the corridor one day. ‘Hey, Mr May, you know that book? I can read it with my eyes closed. Listen!’ And he did. I think it was the first time in his life he’d ever been excited about a book.

Many children that I worked with at that time lived in homes where they had no books at all. I have visited these homes and I should mention that they are not the sole province of the socially deprived and the working classes. I've been in nice middle-class homes with no sign of a book anywhere. 

An extreme example of the effect this can have was the case of Andrew, a five-year-old who was already deemed to be failing at reading. There's nothing stops people learning like failure. We had read EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM quite a few times before Andrew noticed one day that there were three consecutive pictures with a dog in them—the same dog. ‘Why is that dog in all those pictures?’ he asked. It turned out that he had no idea that the pictures in the book were connected to each other—that the book told a story. It had never occurred to me that this was a possibility and it was a lesson to me to never make assumptions about children’s knowledge of books. 

Children ask dozens of different questions about this book and they often used to surprise me, though not in the same way Andrew did.  ‘How did Tom Thumb get in the tree?’ ‘Did someone move the ladder?’ ‘Is Tom Thumb allowed to be in the cupboard?’ ‘Is Cinderella the same person as Goldilocks?’ ‘Why is the baby tied to the tree?’ 

Today I’ve been wondering, whose baby is it anyway? From the way Robin is feeding it at the end with that proud smile on his face I think it might be his. And that portrait of Maid Marian in Robin’s den. It’s small and not too clear, but could it possibly be Cinderella? She is tickling him with her duster in a very familiar way as he feeds the baby.

I’m with Elaine Moss, quoted in the copy I’m currently reading:

‘Deceptively simple. EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM is a work of genius.’


Susan Price said...

Wonderful blog! -- And very wise. How can a five-year old be said to be failing at anything? Especially by teachers?

Penny Dolan said...

What a beautiful post, Paul, bringing back so many memories of that particularly delightful book and of children learning about how books and reading work.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely, Paul! This classic was part of my kids childhood too, but your insights are very moving.

Paul May said...

Thanks all. A pleasure to pay tribute to the late, great Janet Ahlberg. And to Allan too, of course.