Once upon a time I had two little girls who loved to sit quietly and listen to stories. We read volume upon volume, and “hard” books, at that. (As proof, I offer exhibit A: I read them Padraic Colum’s The Children’s Homer when they were eight and almost-seven, and they listened!) Oh, it’s not that I don’t believe that young children are capable of following long and complex stories; it’s just that my current primary-aged student is a busy fellow, and he would much prefer physical activity over mental activity that requires a modicum of stillness and quiet. Each day offers several small-ish windows of opportunity for us to engage our brains in reading, writing, and arithmetic, so I try to make them count. What that means is that while I’m still referring to my own list of chapter books for the youngest listeners, I’m finding a need to lengthen my list with some new busy boy-friendly titles.
Enter Dick King-Smith.
You all probably already know him from Babe: The Gallant Pig, but before I met his acquaintance with my boys, he was merely a name to me. It turns out he is quite prolific! I had picked up two of his books at our library bookstore, and having finished our last read-aloud, I cast about for our next story and discovered these two titles on one of our shelves: Lady Lollipop and Clever Lollipop. These are short chapter books with abundant illustrations by Jill Barton, illustrator of one of our favorite picture books of all time, Rattletrap Car. It’s the perfect combination for children who enjoy animal stories but haven’t the ability yet to sit still for longer animal stories like Ginger Pye, Pinky Pye, or A Cricket in Times Square.
Lady Lollipop opens with one very spoiled Princess Penelope, just before her eighth birthday. Her father, King Theophilus (the most guilty party in her spoiling), promises to give her whatever she wants for her birthday, and he is much surprised when she demands, of all things, a pig. A pig! Well, her wish is his command, so King Theo issues a Royal Proclamation that each and every pig keeper in the kingdom has to bring one pig to the palace on Princess Penelope’s eighth birthday. On that day, Princess Penelope chooses for herself the last pig in a long, long line of pigs. This pig happens to be the skinniest, scruffiest, ugliest pig of the lot, but as her pig keeper, a boy just as skinny and scruffy as she, says, “she’s the brightest, cleverest pig you ever did see.” It proves to be true, too! However, even though Lollipop (for that is her name) can do all manner of tricks on command, she will only obey her keeper, Johnny Skinner. Thus, Lollipop and Johnny are a package deal, so they both move into the palace environs. Princess Penelope will only be happy if Lollipop lives in the palace, not merely in the Royal Mews. This does not set well with her mother, Queen Ethelwynne. This, in turn, places King Theo in the unenviable position of trying to satisfy both his spoiled daughter and his determined wife. He calls upon Johnny Skinner to help him, and Johnny figures out a way to solve the problem and secure for himself a position as a royal gardener, as well. Thanks so Johnny Skinner’s influence, Princess Penelope also becomes a nicer child.
Clever Lollipop picks up where Lady Lollipop leaves off, with a much happier royal family, including a practically-adopted Johnny Skinner. King Theo and Queen Eth realize now that Princess Penelope is quite reasonable, she is in need of educating. Thus, King Theo goes about choosing a governess for her in much the same manner as he chose her pig. However, the chosen governess doesn’t count on a pig being in her schoolroom, so Princess Penelope doesn’t even have a day’s worth of lessons before she is without a governess once again. Their quandary over a governess is interrupted by Lollipop succumbing to a sudden illness. However, when Johnny Skinner brings back the Conjurer Collie Cob, he solves both their problems, for not only can Collie Cob make Lollipop well, he can also teach Penelope and Johnny and Lollipop. (It turns out taht Collie Cob isn’t so much a conjurer as he is a herbalist, veterinarian, and jack-of-all-trades.) Collie Cob is also quite an eccentric little tutor: first he takes the children and Lollipop on all of his veterinary rounds, and then he takes them out for a reading lesson comprised entirely of reading what today would be called “environmental print”–signs and notices and such. Penelope and Johnny recite this chant together at the end of each lesson, whether it’s reading or geography or math:
The facts I’m going to learn today
Will find it hard to go away
Most will remain inside my brain
I shan’t need to be told again. (76)
I got a real kick out of reading Collie Cob’s unorthodox methods. 🙂 The complication of the story arises when first King Theo and then Lollipop herself get sick, but Collie Cob has both the knowledge and skills to help them both. The story ends with the happy excitement of the royal family growing yet again, this time with the birth of nine piglets just in time for Penelope’s ninth birthday.
The DLM is quite a fan of Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson, so I thought this little duo might be a hit with him, and I was right. He really appreciated the fact that King Theo often eats scrambled eggs on fried bread (similar to our friend Mercy Watson, who loves buttered toast). His request at breakfast one day while we were reading these books was–you guessed it–fried bread. Louise happily obliged him. And that, my friends, is proof that these books deserve a Highly Recommended from the House of Hope. We’ll be giving Dick King-Smith more of our read-aloud time. (2000, 2003)