Picture book geography

Dot writes: I have a little game I play when I read picture books to the boys. Actually, it’s more of a hypersensitivity that I’ve developed, like when you learn to notice the blip that appears in the corner of the screen shortly before the reel-change at the cinema, and after that you can never help noticing it, even though you never saw it before. Or perhaps it’s just an annoying habit, equivalent to a verbal tic. Anyway, I can’t help trying to work out where each children’s picture book is set, and noticing any anomalies.

Some books have a very strong and consistent sense of their geographical and historical setting. For example, though admittedly I don’t really remember the seventies, I don’t think there can be many more socially and visually acute depictions of English small-town life in the seventies than the Church Mouse books. But others waver a bit. A couple that bother me are When the Dragons Came by Naomi Kefford and Lynne Moore, illustrated by Benji Davies, and Stan and Mabel by Jason Chapman (and by the way, while When the Dragons Came is only OK, I would heartily recommend Stan and Mabel as an enjoyably batty little story that has also been something of a hit with Hugh).

In When the Dragons Came the dragons arrive in what is supposed to be an idyllically twee little English town. Well, I think it’s supposed to be English. It’s called Poppledown, which sounds as though it should be in Somerset or Dorset. The one really concrete indicator of place is a price label in the shop, which says ’50p’. Exhibit A:
(The label is there in the middle, by the way: sorry if it’s rather small.) But the shop is called ‘Poppledown Market’, and I can’t help thinking that something of that name in an English town usually would be an actual market, with stalls and stallholders, not a small supermarket as this seems to be. And why is the woman shopping there earlier in the story mostly buying doughnuts? That’s not very English. The house styles look odd too; exhibit B:
To me these have a colonial air, particularly the clapboard houses visible in the background. The driver of the camper van is more to the left than the right of the vehicle and apparently driving on the right-hand side of the road, though he could conceivably have just crossed the road to park. So, altogether, the evidence seems to point to a New England town thinly disguised as old England; but the copyright date and the British publication date are the same and there is no mention of an American address for the publisher.

Turning to Stan and Mabel, I think we may have the opposite situation. Again, this (or at least our copy) is a British publication, and the artist/author is artist in residence at Battersea Dogs’ Home. Most indications are that the book is set in the US, however. The title characters (a dog and cat) live in a city-centre highrise that in close-up has a New York character to me:

Other indications also point to the US: characters have American-sounding names like Roady and Houston; the journey to Italy is described as ‘a long flight’; and there’s a big yellow taxi:

Only, I can’t help noticing that the taxi driver is sitting on the right-hand side, even though the animals are boarding their bus from the right in the image just below.

I think about this sort of stuff, especially when asked to read these books again and again. There are egregious examples like the bear who turns up to cuddle little leopard in The Cuddliest Cuddle in the World, a book generally set in the African savannah. But it’s books like the ones I’ve mentioned, where the anomalies are subtle, that niggle at me more. Is it just me or does this kind of thing bother you too?


One thought on “Picture book geography

  1. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    It only goes to show even children’s book authors should write about what they know (accepting some of them do know dragons intimately – albeit obviously not the author of the above mentioned book – it is a well-known fact dragons are very pro-education.). Some children’s books are perhaps the best introductions to a time and place – my father-in-law said if anyone wanted to understand Dublin in the late 40’s and 50’s a hundred years hence they should read ‘The Book Shop on the Quays’. For West Virginia and the Ohio river towns – ‘The Summer of the Swans’ and – even if it is a fantasy – ‘The Stone Bird’ catch the world as it was mid-century.
    By the way, well done All Blacks!

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