Thursday, 21 September 2017

Pook-A-Noo: a Forgotten Childhood Classic

     I was only a few months older than three at the time, so I don't remember a single thing about my Uncle Charles except my aunt standing at the top of the stairs, shouting: "He's dead!" (My parents didn't know I knew. According to my mother, they tried to keep the truth from me by telling me he had gone away. It must have been confusing for a little boy.) But he did leave me one memento, because the previous Christmas he had given me a large format, 106-page book with a hard green cover, and called Pook-A-Noo. Of course, I was far too young to even have it read to me, but within a few years it had become my favourite.

The original green was much deeper.
     As far as I can determine, it was self-published in 1948, the year before I was born. According to the notice above the chapter index, it may be read to children aged 4 to 7, and by children from 8 upwards. The author, George Spaull (1876-1965) was well placed to understand age specific reading skills, for he had written countless books for children. However, they may not have been appreciated by the readers, for they were school textbooks. He was one of Australia's leading educationalists.
     For the pictures, he chose the 21-year-old comic strip illustrator, June Mendoza. Looking at them again with the eyes of a grown-up, the only criticism I can make is that the sizes of the fantastic beings described are sometimes inconsistent with the text, and on one page she draws a reindeer where the text says ponies. However, it is clear that she was extremely gifted in producing life-like action figures without the use of models, and it is not surprising that she later moved to oils, and became one of Australia's, and later Britain's leading portrait painters.
     What's the book about? According to the author, Pook-a-noo was a nickname applied to the boy by his mother from the song of a bird heard when he was born.

Typical example of June Mendoza's artwork.
   Pook-a-noo's mother could be any mother, and Pook-a-noo any little boy who had strange fancies during the day, and grand dreams at night. So why bother about names?  
     Or, as my mother explained when I was old enough to have it read to me, he was a lonely little boy whose father was absent as a drover and his mother was working in other people's houses, and he had no brothers and sisters to play with. He therefore used to make up fantastic adventures for himself. All this ceased when his father came home and he went to school and met other children.
     In fact, the book consists of four chapters: an imaginary adventure when he was four, and three dreams on his fifth, sixth, and seventh birthdays respectively. And here we see another example of June Mendoza's skill, because the seven year old boy really does look different from, and older than, the same boy at age four.

     Chapter 1 tells how he meets the Raindrop Fairies at the age of four. These are fairies, of undetermined, but presumably small size, who came down in a shower of rain, and who live in the shady recesses of a nearby gully. Should they be struck by the direct rays of the sun, they would immediately sizzle up and vanish - only to reappear during the next rain storm. These are not the sinister spirits of folklore, but the prettified sprites typical of children's literature. We see them organizing a songbird choir (above), having their clothes repaired with spider's webs by their mothers, rolling downhill on golf balls, and so on. And there is a really beautiful drawing of them doing their washing while standing and kneeling on flat lily pads.
     In Chapter 2 Pook-a-noo is in bed on the eve of his fifth birthday, when in through the window climb the Five Little Men of the Forest, who take him to their home in the forest for a birthday party, after being chased by wolves (in Australia!). The Five Little Men ranged in height from 20 inches [51 cm] to 24 inches [61 cm], and lived with their equally diminutive wives and children (five per family) in a clearing in the forest so dense that no human of normal size could possibly get through. Also, each of them had his own peculiarity. For example, Iffy's right ear was much bigger than his left, and with it he could hear every sound in the forest. On the other hand, Effy had one green eye and one yellow, with which he could see in the dark. Not only that, but by working his arms up and down, he could make two streams of light, one green and one yellow, come out of his eyes. Indeed, one image from this book which had clung to my memory for sixty years was that of the Five Little Men, with Pook-a-Noo, now shrunk in size, moving through a tunnel guided by Effy's ocular headlights.

      Each progressive chapter is stranger than the last. Chapter 3 takes place on his sixth birthday down by the seaside. (And, again, the artist depicts him a year older than in the previous chapter, and even older than in the first.) Finding a little cave, he falls asleep, only to watch a large wave surge into the opening, bearing a group of mer-children: human at the top, and fish at the bottom. These were the Little Sea People. Suddenly, he finds himself on a shell the size of a small boat, and dragged out to sea by the mer-children. Even more amazingly, they dive, and he finds himself and the  shell surrounded by a huge bubble of air, until they reach a sandy underwater beach.
As soon as the shell-boat touched the sand the air bubble broke up, and Pook-a-noo found himself in an island under the seas. Above and around was a great dome of water, which looked like a huge glass bowl turned upside down. It seemed to Pook-a-noo as though he had gone from one bubble to another, only the second was much bigger, and very different from the first. High up in the middle of the dome was a bright light. It was like a small sun, but unlike the sun, it was always in the same place.
     At this point, something even more astonishing happens. His companions pull off, and wriggle out of, their fish tails, and stand revealed as possessing legs like you and I. He was in one of the domed submarine islands of the country of Aqualia, the home of the Sea People.
     As a child, the story I found really strange was the last one, Chapter 4, where he meets the Snow Children. It was the day before his seventh birthday, and the day before he was due to start school. (This was interesting. Even in 1948 children started school at the beginning of the year in which they turned six.) He falls alseep at the window, and wakes up to see the land covered with snow. Suddenly, out of the sky fly two fur-clad children on snow mats. They are Albus and Alba, sent by Queen Nivea to bring him to the Snow Lands in the sky. Then follows a long flight on the snow mats to a huge white cloud extending for hundreds of miles, encircling a land inhabited by seven-year-olds, where the heavy agricultural work is performed by bears, and the sun, moon, and stars are all visible in the sky. There he meets, not only the Queen, but the Raindrop Fairies, the Five Little Men, and the Sea People, and he is presented with the equipment for starting school. It is clear that all his adventures are at an end, and a new life is about to begin. Also, his father finally comes home, having made his fortune.
      I wish I could permit you to capture the delightful way he writes to hold the reader's attention. Take, for example, this description of Affy, the leader of the Five Little Men:
Not only was he very wise, but he was kind as well. If any of them were in trouble, all they had to do was to go to Affy, and their worries went as quickly as an ice cream eaten by a hungry boy or girl on a hot day.
     Adult readers with a bit of background knowledge will recognize that Albus and Alba, the names of the Snow Children, are the masculine and feminine forms of the Latin words for "white", and that Aqualia and Nivea refer back to Latin roots for "water" and "snow". But the book is not like the Winnie-the-Pooh books of A. A. Milne, written with inside jokes which only the adult reading to the child will understand. Rather, its main attraction is the sheer wonder it invokes in readers, both old and young.
     If you are the publisher of children's literature, please note that the text is now out of copyright, while the artist, although very old, is still alive, and able to be contacted through her website. If you want to provide a treat for your own children, there are still copies in good condition available on the internet at a reasonable price. I acquired one just recently. (My boyhood copy is in poor condition, because I was a rough little boy.) It is now in the possession of my grandson, and I hope he takes care of it so that, one day, he will be able to read it to his own children.