In adult books delight is in the artistry of the language, the subtlety of ideas, a poetic unfolding. In children’s books delight is (breaking into song) ‘a whole new world, a whole enchanting point of view’, an inner smile, unfurled magic. Open the book, receive the hookah from Carroll’s psyche-delighting caterpillar. Inhale.
Exhale and what spills out? Streams of magical motifs.
Such motifs abound in children’s literature: teapots, umbrellas, acorns, brooms, ladybirds, bees, butterflies, bells, hives, humming birds, harps, seahorses, eggs, wells, archetypal seasons and their symbols, angels, gifts, seashells, frogs, bats, hats, cats, stars, moons, whiskers and wings.
Chimneys are on my list of magical things. They inspired one of the plot threads in Oy Yew. In my talks I ask what makes a teapot magical and a coffee pot not? Why are owls magical and pigeons less so? What are the qualities of the intrinsically magical?
Here's my take. Objects of delight are:
Asymmetric, irregular. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: All things counter, original, spare, strange;/ Whatever is fickle, freckled... The geometric tiling of mosques is deliberately flawed since only Allah is perfect. Created things are flawed. God, Eve and Snow White would reject supermarket apples.
It's hard to mistake the silhouette of a teapot or a giraffe, not so a blade of grass. A magical object often makes an unambiguous hieroglyph of itself. Spots, stripes, lustre and texture are magical.
There are formal similarities in objects of delight. Scales, scallops, webs and spirals recur. Bats, umbrellas, holly, frogs, fans and wings have webs in their design. Spiralling horns and shells are wondrous; right angles - never.
Hidden potential is magical. Eggs and seeds are like wrapped gifts. Magical things excite curiosity; they have the capacity to surprise. Dahl would never have written Tales of the Expected.
Caterpillars and chameleons are magical shape changers. Water is all change. It moves, it reflects, it freezes and melts. Butter is intrinsically magical for its colour, its unique taste, its foamy melting, its mystery as metamorphosed grass. Lard is somewhat static. Vegetable oil is the lipid equivalent of a right angle.
Magical children's books draw out and explore distinctions, characteristics and idiosyncrasies, in objects and people. Like eggs full of knockings, they excite curiosity and give birth to the fickle, freckled, strange.