In her mission to understand how the books she read as a child, and those she now reads to her own children operate, Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children’s Picture Books is more than just a trip down memory lane. It’s also an enlightening, perceptive analysis of – to invoke Francis Spufford, whose bibliomemoir of childhood reading is a cornerstone of the genre – the books that build us... Pollard likens the lands Hargreaves created to the 55 fictitious cities described by Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Some might scoff, but her sincerity is everything. When she describes Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s “masterpiece” Stick Man as “a kind of nursery version of The Odyssey”, I was moved. “We are lucky,” she writes at the end of this splendid book, “that some of the geniuses in this history knew that picture books are not a minor form, but the most important of all.” We are just as lucky, I should add, that Pollard recognises this too.
We might not agree with all of Pollard’s conclusions. (Does the fact that Babar the Elephant is seen procuring his shirts from a department store amount to ‘a kind of genesis myth’?) But the combination of vast scholarly research and witty writing makes for a thoroughly enjoyable book. By the final chapter, Pollard has managed to dissect all our favourite stories with her scalpel, while leaving their magic intact. She also solves a mystery that has long puzzled me. Why is it so often acceptable for characters in picture books to be eaten alive? ‘As a death, at least, to be eaten is not wasteful,’ she writes. ‘It has a kind of rationale to it. And being eaten leaves — usefully for the illustrator — no corpse.’
The poet Clare Pollard has identified a gap in the history of literature. While there have recently been plenty of beautifully presented coffee-book career appraisals of individual children’s authors such as Kerr and Helen Oxenbury, as well as academic studies, few have attempted to sift out the most influential picture books and tell their genesis stories in an accessible way... There are some odd omissions — Fortunately by Remy Charlip, Who Will Comfort Toffle? by Tove Jansson and, from more recent times, Katherine Rundell and Emma Chichester Clark — but I also sympathise with the task of whittling down. Call me Eeyore, but the copy editing could have been better... Little matter, this book is a happy way to reconnect with old friends, and Pollard’s helpful list of her 50 favourites at the end will be fuel for families.