Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Sleepy Water Vole

Who are the best illustraters of children's books? The names that immediately spring to my mind are Ernest Shepherd, who did the illustrations for the Winnie-the-Pooh books amongst others (and a pox on whoever Disneyfied them): the superb Quentin Blake, who writes books as well as illustrates them: the wonderful Edward Ardizzone: and P.B.Hickling, whom you've never heard of.

Neither had I, until I checked the name, but he - or she- drew the very first illustrations that really meant something to me.

They were in an early-nineteen-sixties Ladybird Book called The Sleepy Water Vole, by Noel Barr (no, we haven't heard of him either). Straightforward, clear, prose, and not much plot. The water vole is lazy and goes to sleep. It starts to rain. The river rises and his wife and babies are under threat in their burrow. Mrs Water Vole wakes him up. He rescues the babies. The rain stops. All is well.

I didn't like stories that were too scary and so this was my kind of story.

And I absolutely loved the illustrations, which were mostly English summer countryside in the rain. I marvelled at how convincingly the water was painted - how was that possible?

I wanted to play on that riverbank, like those boys, and I loved the secret life of the water vole and the fact that the boys couldn't see the vole while they climbed on the bank.

And finally, when the rain stopped, I yearned to be one of those swimmers along the river:

Which came first, my love of the English summer countryside and its rivers, or The Sleepy Water Vole? It's difficult now to remember, because I've had this book since I was very young and it was one of the first books I read to myself.

I still think of this book whenever I see a summer river. Hurrah for the never-famous P.B. Hickling.


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