Friday, 28 August 2015

Summer of Children's Classics - My Favourite Classic by Robin Stevens - Just So Stories

Whenever anyone asks me what my favourite children’s classic is, the choice is easy: it has to be Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. There’s something a bit marvellous about the Just So Stories. They’re funny, they’re vivid and they’re just a little bit magical. They’re creation myths, and like any creation myth they exude certainty and rightness.

When you’re little (or when you’re human) all you really want is for someone to tell you that everything will be OK, and that’s what you get in the Just So Stories. One of my favourite passages is from ‘The Crab That Played With the Sea’, one of the many places in the Just So Stories where a god comes down to earth to congratulate everyone on being delightfully good and nice, and I think it sums up the wonderful feeling the Stories give:

‘He went North, Best Beloved, and he found All-the-Elephant-there-was digging with his tusks and stamping with his feet in the nice new clean earth that had been made ready for him.
'Kun?' said All-the-Elephant-there-was, meaning, 'Is this right?' 
'Payah kun,' said the Eldest Magician, meaning, 'That is quite right'; and he breathed upon the great rocks and lumps of earth that All-the-Elephant-there-was had thrown up, and they became the great Himalayan Mountains, and you can look them out on the map.
He went East, and he found All-the-Cow there-was feeding in the field that had been made ready for her, and she licked her tongue round a whole forest at a time, and swallowed it and sat down to chew her cud.
'Kun?' said All-the-Cow-there-was. 
'Payah kun,' said the Eldest Magician; and he breathed upon the bare patch where she had eaten, and upon the place where she had sat down, and one became the great Indian Desert, and the other became the Desert of Sahara, and you can look them out on the map.

Just So Stories are filled with things like that – simple, lovely words that are built up and repeated into reassuring chants that refuse to leave your head. It’s hard to really appreciate the Stories until you’ve spoken them out loud, or heard them spoken. Try it (it’s hard not to try it – they’re begging to be spoken) and you’ll find the rhythm rolling off of your tongue.

When I was little I had a marvellous tape (in the high and far off times, O my best beloveds, children had tapes) of the Stories, read by an old man who did all of the voices (his cry of ‘BUBBLES?!’ in ‘How the Camel Got his Hump’ was particularly impressive). That’s how I learned them (I played them until the tape snapped), and that’s how I remember them, as something closer to a song than a story. Just listen to yourself speaking the following sentence out loud, and tell me it doesn’t seem like music:

‘In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel.’

When I’m not being an author, I work for Egmont Publishing, and (in the strange, fortuitous way that life sometimes works) I was recently asked to work on a revamp of our children’s Classics range. And of the six titles in the first set, one was the Just So Stories. I got to help create a new edition of my all-time favourite book, and when I came to read through it I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. The words are still in my head, and they’re just as wonderful as I remembered – none of the magic has gone. It’s as perfect now as it was when it was first published in 1902, and I think it’ll carry on being perfect for another hundred years at least.

Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She has been making up stories all her life.

When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up. When it occurred to her that she was never going to be able to grow her own spectacular walrus moustache, she decided that Agatha Christie was the more achieveable option.

She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She then went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and now she works at a children’s publisher, which is pretty much the best day job she can imagine.

Robin is the author of The Wells and Wong Mysteries, Murder Most Unladylike (which won the Waterstones Children's Book Prize - The winner of best young fiction), Arsenic for Tea and First Class Murder.

We are continuing our Summer of Children's Classics throughout August, so do come back to see our other posts!

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