Between covers

Issue 4/1990 | Archives online, Children's books, Fiction

Extracts from Lastenkirja (‘Children’s book’, WSOY, 1990, illustrated by the Estonian animator and graphic artist Priit Pärn)

CHILDREN’S BOOK IS BORN

Children are wafting around the world: they come spilling out of the chimneys and clattering out of the pipes. They worm around cramped places in the nether regions, rise up through stiff roots into the treetops and muss up the clouds. Children just happen anywhere and bring the Adults along with them.

And wherever you find children, they’re always the centre of the universe. The children of Children’s Book belong to Riddlehill, which is the current centre of the universe. The Riddlehill children are three feet tall, and there are 34,567 of them. Only the ones who know who they are came into the book of their own accord – the others had to be thought up. Some didn’t have the time: they’d got other things to do. And it’s not everyone’s idea of fun to squeeze between the covers of a book. In fact, one of them said: ‘I got into a book once and I couldn’t get out. They printed 4,000 copies of the thing, and they were scattered all over the place, in libraries, people’s homes, handbags. I ended up being in thousands of places at once. It gave me the willies and made me giddy. They should have squashed me in one copy, not a whole edition.’

Children’s Book happened through a lot of squashing-out, scouting-out, spilling-out, clattering-out, pruning-out and throwing-out; it wormed round cramped places in the nether regions and rose up through stiff roots into the treetops. There it yoo-hoos to Children and Adults: ‘Come on: into these covers! I promise I won’t shut up!’

CAPO DI TUTTI CAPI

Superpoo lives at the edge of The World. He’s a horror to look at: rotten potato of a nose, face all scabs, pig-iron knees, beetroot eyes that go right through you, feet raking the ground like a mad bull’s; and all the rest of his body’s a numb ill-natured wart. Superpoo doesn’t like thinking about anything, for everything gets him really upset.

There are bags of stories going the rounds about him in Italian: no one dares tell them in any other language. There’s just the odd story that’ll go into English, but even that’s got to be on the quiet, in a whisper.

1

Superpoo killed two birds with one stone, though it was actually two flies. He flattened them with his big hairy paw: their legs flew off, their bones crunched, and there was the most almighty stench. The situation went from bad to worse when Superpoo hummed – during a let-up in the hullabaloo – ‘Get a load of this: now even the walls have ears. ‘

2

Superpoo went on a shopping spree in a big department store. He guzzled the skins off the bananas, put the butcher on special offer, melted the frozen foods, and whipped up a river of milk and ice-cream that flooded all the other departments. He stalked into the snack bar and devoured a mountain of hamburgers, then squirted the whole store with the ketchup-supply and said how sorry he was he’d been too busy to drop in before on a top-notch shopping paradise like this.

3

Superpoo was weighed down with his load. He was toting a haversack full of long-distance lorries, families, villages, a couple of minor towns and a matchbox. A big storm blew up. The going got hard, his legs were dragging. Superpoo threw his haversack into the gaping jaws of an excavating machine. The excavator chewed up the lorries, the families, the villages, the towns, and littered the whole place with matches. Superpoo fell in love with the excavator, but jumped when he realised his mistake and got his anger back.

HANNA TOODAY’S TWO DAYS

Hanna Tooday keeps two days hidden away in a drawer. The first day is one of those winter days when everything looks blue, and that’s the one she’s telling about first. It’s a blue winter’s day, with twilight drifting in like a slow boat. The snow lies quiet as anything on the earth, and a long white feeler of frost-mist is swirling though the air. Your feltboots make a crunchy noise; nothing bad or practical comes into your head. You think how nice it’d be to make a gentle slope in the fresh snow, with little up­ and-down hillocks. Your head’s clear, your thoughts are lined up in double-file, and there’s no need to chivvy them to get them going: under your red cheeks they’re all set. Some Invisible Finger has painted a blue quilt over the world: underneath it the other colours are spanking their children into a huddle and trying to maintain their surface.

Hanna Tooday’s other darlingest day is a white summer’s day with bits of yellow and red.

It’s a blazing-hot day, the sun’s frying in the sky’s egg-white, the light’s everywhere. Big Sweaty Daddy’s lying on the lawn; a ladybird plops off the hair on his chest, tumbles onto its nose and heads off down towards his belly-button. Soft White Mother’s sitting all naked astride a footstool and doing the strawberries. I, Hanna, am sitting up in a tall pinetree and sprinkling pineneedles in Dad’s thinning hair. Every needle that ends standing upright gets me a point. If Dad notices, the points don’t count.

The huge big spring day is ever so light and easy-going: every second is honey, dripping into my mouth from a liquorice-stick.

DAD’S RECORD

When Dad withdraws into himself, he always plays the same record.

Some Invisible Finger once engraved the plaster of Paris record with this scratchy music that slowly winds its way across the worn surface. Dad lies there in his hammock, his eyes closed, letting the music take him. He spurs it on: ‘Take me, take me, music .. .’

It’s a song about a shortsighted bear and a superannuated busdriver. Scrambling out of its winter lair, the beast gets scared by a block of ice that’s turned up in the cave mouth. The bear scrubs it with a wire brush, and little by little the shape of a man starts to hatch out. It’s a sign of spring, thinks the bear, and he brews the block some of his vintage three-year tea.

The block melts and introduces itself as a superannuated busdriver who set off on a rather long journey through the November snow and got forgotten in a snowdrift. The bear and the busdriver share their tea and decide to create a new life together. ‘Here’s to our new life: we’ll be ice-free and warm!’ they declare and clink their cups.

At this point the song starts to wilt away into some chinkings you can hardly make out – which Dad imagines as little ice-crystals frozen in the busdriver’s hair. Dad closes his eyes and swings away from the hammock to the other world where the bear and busdriver are.

At half-past-seven the children come and tickle Dad out of dreamland into the evening news.

STORM

A storm’s brewing. The wind’s rushing from bushy tree to bushy tree, accelerating off the hard bark of the spruce and scampering onto the rocks and the tree­ stumps.

Huge drops of rain are smacking onto the car bonnets and pouring down into the gutters. The eye of the storm stares out of the middle of the forest and tries to look all ways at once.

The wind’s howling, roving, slipping on the mosstods, and then hissing on about it in the pinetop and slanting down to skim the earth before it lunges headlong up again into the heights.

Sheltering in B-entrance with their knees in their mouths, the children sit and stare in wonder. The storm hurls back again and makes their hair stand on end. Norm the Nutter screws up his eyes and grabs Shudderdancer’s hand. If the storm had a steering­ wheel, you could sit in the wind and drive it – all that magnificent sizzling, whistling and hullabaloo! If the storm were a child, it’d be the biggest and wettest of all: you’d not even dare to say hello, you’d have to hiss at it or twitter like a bird!

‘Nice storm, lovely storm, bestest of all the storms!’ Norm the Nutter and Shudderdancer yell as if with one voice. And the lightning-flashes slit the black sky open with a yellow razor!

CHILDREN’S BOOK ENDS

Children’s Book ends with a squashing-out, pruning-out, and throwing-out: it comes spilling, sliding and clattering, half-assembled, out of the garage, or plops onto the street from the Maternity Ward window: It worms round cramped places into the nether regions and rises up through stiff roots into the treetops. There it yoo­hoos to children and Adults: ‘Here I am now, flushed-out and full! Come again – to read and write!’

And the children come skittering out of its pages to go their own ways, into new stories and the world’s winds. Some stay behind as bookmarks or proper stories; others take a poor view of the happenings and think up better ones themselves.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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