Charting Children’s Literature: The Maiden on the Moor, Nungu and the Hippopotamus

There is no genre quite like children’s literature when it comes to the creation and sustenance of our most ethereal, elemental dreams. Even the most notoriously bookshy of us remember the tales of our childhood. Even if your favourite youthful adventure or fantasy is not in any book you know, surely it was told to you…whispered in your ear during a rowdy recess break, or murmured across a campfire. If parents allow themselves to release their grip on adult sobriety, they, too, derive an equal pleasure from reading to their children, as their children delight in the listening and the looking, the reaching out to touch ornately patterned pages.

I have never denied myself the joy of reading a child’s book, of immersing myself in the story, of delighting at the quality and expressiveness of the illustration — and I daresay I am the merrier for it. Deciding to embark on this feature sent me back to the bookshelves of my parents’ house, where I grew up, where I often return. Instinctively, I knew just where to find certain titles; memory drew me back to them unerringly. Others I discovered by searching, rummaging through stacks, disrupting fine layers of dust. The revelry of rediscovery was no less than the satisfied thrill of anticipation. I read; I reread. I traced out lines of familiar faces and places, amazed at how it all came back to me, wondering whether it ever really left.

Beginning now and continuing indefinitely (as far as the road may wind, hopefully), Novel Niche will feature two children’s books each month. Some of these books I read when I was in pinafores, thigh-high white socks and brilliant red ribbons. Some I savoured in a business suit and sensible heels. All are beloved to me, and I am pleased to share them with you.

The Maiden on the Moor, written by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Troy Howell. Published in 1995 by Morrow Junior Books, New York (an imprint of HarperCollins).

This tale first came to me at the age of 21 or so.

On a bitterly cold, windswept night on the moors, two shepherd brothers and their dogs stumble upon a barely-stirring raven haired beauty. Her mystery and fairness of face enchant the younger sibling, who carries her to his humble cottage home to protect her from the unforgiving winter chill. Lonely in the depths of his heart, the young and noble shepherd sings to his slumbering love, in the hope that she will awaken from her frosty reverie and consent to be his constant companion. Awaken she does, when the shepherd is asleep, but it is to take a surprising journey, one nigh-impossible to predict, with both devastating and uplifting results.

What enchanted me?

This book opens with a medieval English verse of “A Maiden on the Moor”, adapted by author Marilyn Singer. The rest of the tale is told in a gracious, gently lilting tongue. Howell’s art is expressively suited to this wintry fable of loss, love and redemption. His hand is at once light and constant; each brushstroke line adds to an interpretation of a landscape both subtle and powerful, peopled by souls governed as much by the magic of the moors as by the demands of their own hearts.

Lines for Life:

“In the evenings, when he returned from his flocks, he sat at her side. At first he, too, was silent. Then he began to talk of his life as a shepherd, his love for the moors. He told her how in the spring the pale yellow flowers perched like birds on the broom brushes. He spoke of summer’s shining days, its sea of heather, purple and green. But he did not speak of the sadness in his heart.”

This book would be best beloved by:

♣ someone who appreciates the beauty of a sad and happy ending, intertwined.

♣ all lonely hearts that long for love.

♣ all bewitched, bewitching maidens who know themselves.

Nungu and the Hippopotamus, written and illustrated by Babette Cole. Published in 1978 by Macdonald and Jane’s, London (now defunct).

I first opened these pages when I was 5 or 6.

An enterprising young boy, Nungu, sets off in search of the mischief-making hippo who has swallowed up the entire Umvuvu River, which once flowed right around Tubu Island in the heart of Africa. Nungu’s grandfather, a fellow Tubu islander, gifts Nungu a special hiccuping medicine, formulated to make Madam Hippo expel the stolen river from her tummy. Armed with this, a particularly tempting pumpkin and his personal store of courage, Nungu sets out with his faithfully lazy donkey Masheety, to find Madam Hippo and restore the Umvuvu to his people.

What enchanted me?

I must have puzzled and puzzled for hours over how an entire river could exist in the belly of a hippo, no matter how magnificent her proportions. Even though I was a wee sceptic, even then, Nungu and the Hippopotamus never failed to delight—it still does. I smile in admiration of Cole’s storytelling, as I contemplate Nungu’s heroic quest: who among us would have gone hippo-hunting in our youth? The author’s illustrations are fine, precise and brimming with charming detail. Each panel is a work of art.

Lines for Life:

“What will you give me in return for this water,” said Madam Hippo.

“Do you like pumpkins?” asked Nungu, as if he didn’t know.

Madam Hippo smiled a great wide smile. “It just so happens that there is nothing I like better,” she said.

This book would be best beloved by:

♣ an adventurous and enterprising spirit.

♣ a lover of fireside tales and folklores.