Everyone loves a rebel. Someone who stands up for what they believe in even if they might be afraid of what the consequences might be. In children’s literature they are often the moral compass of the tale. They are the character standing up for what is right. It is these characters that are at the heart of an exhibition currently running at the British Library.
Marvellous and Mischievous displays texts, old and new, that feature rebellious characters in children’s literature. The exhibition is designed for families. So while you are looking at the pages of your own childhood favourites there is plenty of interesting interactive stuff for the kids to do including a dress up area and a reading nook.
There are a lot of interesting items in the exhibition and one that I felt particularly drawn to was a copy of Pippi Longstocking. It is a book I remember reading with my great aunt Annie when I was a little girl. It brought back a flood of memories as I stood looking at the red braids on the cover. This copy of the book was printed in Sweden in 1945. Those of us who read about Pippi’s adventures as a child love her because she is so unconventional and unruly. She stands up to the bullies she encounters and defends the vulnerable.
The oldest item in the exhibition is a Latin text book from 1680. It was a very common text book of its time but the copy at the British Library is the only known surviving copy in the world. There are doodles from past students on the pages around the printed text. You can see their names and little pictures they have drawn as well as general notes. This links in with one of the more up to date texts on display which is a notebook used by author Zanib Mian who wrote the children’s book Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet. She uses doodles to tell the story and create a backstory.
An instantly recognisable rebel in the collection is Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. When we think about Oliver we have to consider is he a rebel because he stands up to those oppressing him and the other orphans he lives with or because he is so desperately hungry. The edition of Oliver Twist in this collection dates back to 1911 and it is the first to show the illustrations of George Cruikshank in colour. A lot of the success of children’s books comes from the magic that is created when illustrators and writers work together. For example, you couldn’t really imagine Roald Dahl’s books being illustrated by anyone other than Quentin Blake. It is the same for the books written by Dickens. It is hard to imagine them without those classic Victorian illustrations but Dickens and Cruikshank’s relationship was a rocky one. They actually had a big argument over who was the bigger influence in the success of Oliver Twist. It became so heated that it was featured in the press.
It is not just the traditional texts on display. There is art work on display from When the Bell Rings, a comic strip, which is more commonly known as The Bash Street Kids. It was drawn by Leo Baxendale and published in 1957 in The Beano. When Baxendale drew his characters he took inspiration from the children that passed his office window on their way home from the school nearby. He wanted to shift the focus of children’s stories from being primarily about boarding or private schools. Drawing about kids from public schools felt like a bit of rebellious move in itself and a bit of a two fingered salute to the establishment.
One text that I love seeing on display in the exhibition is Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. The story is one that seems so important to modern audiences. Julian is on the underground with his grandma when he see these women in beautiful fish tale dresses. When he gets home he announces to his grandmother that he is actually a mermaid. He uses bits and pieces from his grandma’s home, like curtains and her old jewellery, to transform himself into a mermaid. The author, Jessica Love, wanted to write something for transgender children. In a society in which the media seems to be constantly demonising the plight of transgender kids it is quite a radical topic to cover. It is a real comfort to see a text that supports transgender children trying to understand their identity in a world that doesn’t always portray them kindly.
Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels runs from 8th November 2019 – 1st March 2020 at the British Library. The exhibition is free but booking is recommended in advance. Click here to go to the British Library website for more information.
Thumbnail information:Matilda and Miss Trunchbull from Matilda by Roald Dahl 1988, © Roald Dahl Story Company Quentin Blake 2019