New Zealand picture book author-illustrator, Pamela Allen, has written 30-some picture books for toddlers, and they are, in Australia at least, ubiquitous - most people who read to their kids at all have heard of Allen, and have sampled at least some of her books.
Our first exposure to this children's publishing lion was in the form of one of her less salubrious efforts (to my mind, anyway) - Daisy All-Sorts, the story of a dog whose owner acquires a bicycle and thus changes her daily walk routine to a daily-chase-along-behind-a-bike routine. All becomes well in Daisy's world, however, when a kindly neighbour provides her with an incentive to keep up - licorice all-sorts. We had the book from the library when my oldest child was about 20 months old or so, and while she liked it, she didn't love it, and I found the story a bit ho-hum.
However, I quickly discovered that a) Pamela Allen is an acquired taste (the illustrative style and language use does grow on you) and b) This is by no means her best book. For Daughter #1's second birthday, we were given the much more charming Cuthbert's Babies, the story of a little boy, Cuthbert, struggling to adapt to the arrival of a set of quintuplets in his house through the use of imaginary friends and controlled naughtiness. We really liked this one, especially as Daughter #1's life had been interrupted only 3 months earlier by the arrival of Daughter #2. I thought the choice of quintuplets was a quirky and interesting take on the usual "new sibling in the house" story, and Cuthbert's story was funny, whimsical and enjoyable.
From Cuthbert's Babies, our Pamela Allen habit grew in leaps and bounds. Brown Bread and Honey, a Christmas present in 2007, is a very endearing and amusing story about how a gluttonous and rude king learns to appreciate the simple things in life (and on the table). Bertie and the Bear, first borrowed from the library but later purchased, is a fantastic cacophony of sound and motion, very rhythmic, and enjoyed by younger children than some of the others (my youngest daughter, now 15 months old, loves this one). Who Sank the Boat?,
possibly her best-known title, is a wonderful, funny, and narratively deceptively simple mystery story of toddlers, and it's fun to read, there is scope to do a lot with it (voices and so on).
Still, I had some reservations. The Mr McGee books, of which there are 6, still struck me as a bit too odd, even for children's books (who IS this character who lives under a tree?) My oldest daughter was lukewarm on Share Said the Rooster, borrowed from the library, and none of us really went for Alexander's Outing.
However, Pamela Allen's place in the pantheon of our literary house was established beyond doubt in June 2006, when I took my oldest child to see a production by Patch Theatre Company of Who Sank the Boat?, a children's performance based on 8 of Allen's stories. The production was wonderful - lyrical, funny, engaging, odd moments of sadness and darkness, many moments of hilarity and colour and light. My then-almost-3-year-old was transfixed for the entire hour. And the play introduced us to two Allen titles we hadn't encountered until then - Black Dog and Herbert & Harry.
Both of these books are sad and quite challenging in a way for toddlers, carrying themes of loss and the consequences of poor (in particular, callous) choices. My older daughter is still, 4 years later, attached to these stories in ways that don't seem quite explicable only by their familiar illustrative style and typically musical use of language. She likes to think about them and talk about them, often at moments when she herself is feeling a bit sad or reflective.
So, unusual drawing style, mixed themes and all, we are definitely a Pamela Allen fanhousehold. (Within limitation). I would highly recommend her books for toddlers aged 2 and up, with a caution that the beautiful and thought-provoking Black Dog be introduced only at a time when one is ready to field questions.
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