"How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none ... And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.”
When I visited my daughter at Christmas I took the familiar volume down from the shelf and many happy memories were revived. The story itself was rather more shadowy, except that I remember reading and re-reading the book, just as I imagine my mother must have done.
The book possibly fell out of favour largely due to its prejudices, common at the time; however, it seems Kingsley had set out to write it as part satire and part tract against child labour and ill-treatment of the poor, as well as introducing lessons in morality and spirituality with a theme of Christian redemption. I’m sure as child readers we weren’t aware of these underlying themes, just as the book didn’t turn my mother, my daughter or me, into intolerant and racial bigots. We enjoyed the story and the beautiful pictures; in my mother’s case, in an age when reading was the pastime of choice for nine or ten year-olds, and in mine and my daughter’s, long before iPads and Kindles had been invented.
|Mum, top right, c1930|
This isn’t the place to debate the influence of childen’s literature but as a parent and a teacher I know that many stories, shared with children in the right way, can be used for good. I don’t believe we should shelter children from the real world and a healthy discussion with a caring adult can be part of a chid’s education. I’d like to think that my grandchildren will be able to enjoy The Water Babies too in time. I know that if they do read it and ask questions they will be met with sensible answers which will help them to realise that there is a balance to be struck in all things.
My grandchildren were given two books for Christmas by us; Floella Benjamin’s My Two Grandads, and Jamila Gavin’s Blackberry Blue, a brand new collection of folk tales with black and mixed race rôle models. Yes, there will be some lessons between the pages (love, sacrifice, endurance), but also, I’m hoping they’ll be lost in the ‘spooky, engaging and refreshing’ stories and the ‘atmospheric’ illustrations; everything a good book should have for young children. Shared with a loving adult to both answer and encourage questions, the experience will, I hope, be as joyful as that of the three generations who have enjoyed The Water Babies. I’m looking forward to their response - once they’ve finished Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine, which they’re sharing with Daddy. That’s another book with a lesson, but oh what fun!
The Water Babies can be read online, where many versions of the illustrations can also be seen; the ones I’ve shared with you come from that very copy, now 83 years-old and holding pride of place on my daughter’s shelf; the one between the pages of which we were able to lose ourselves in a world of make-believe and fairyland. My grandfather had written my mother’s name and address inside, so the volume has an added reason to be treasured.
Between the pages of this week’s Sepia Saturday book you’re bound to find some wonderful stories. Why not join us over there? If you have any of your own we’d love to hear them.