Recently, with my cataloguing hat on, I stumbled across one of my favourite childhood books, La Corona and the Tin Frog, written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Nicola Bayley. It was waiting on my desk one day, and when I saw it I was immediately transported back in my mind to my childhood, when I used to go into the front room and take this book off the shelf. It’s quite a tall book, although not very fat, so it lives on the bottom shelf at home – easy for a child to get to.
The book is a inter-connected collection of stories about various seemingly inanimate objects who actually have hopes, dreams and adventures of their own, but they can only come alive and pursue these just before the clock strikes midnight. Although this book might sound quite tame, when I saw it lying on my desk the feeling I had was a mixture of nostalgia and ominousness, because, as a child, I found bits of it quite frightening – so much so that I remembered the feelings quite clearly, twenty-odd years later.
The main thing that frightened me about it was in the story ‘The Tin Horseman’, which is (as you might expect) about a horseman made of tin, who is in love with the beautiful lady in the weather-castle. He sees her looking out through the weather-castle window and vows to rescue her from her entrapment there, but he is very afraid of the monkey inside the puzzle box. [It's one of those puzzles where you have to roll the little box with the ball-bearings in it and try and get the ball-bearings to stay in the eyes of whatever animal is drawn in the box - hopefully you know the kind I mean!] Eventually, he overcomes his fear and rescues the lady, and the evil sorcerer (who, it turns out, was keeping the lady prisoner by means of enchantment involving fear of the monkey puzzle box (if I remember rightly)) ends up trapped in the puzzle box instead of the monkey.
The book is beautifully illustrated, but it was (and is, still, a bit) the pictures that made me afraid. Well, I don’t know if afraid is the right word – more discomfited, somehow. The picture of the monkey looking out of the puzzle box was one that I didn’t really linger on, because they monkey in it looks rather malevolent, but the picture of the sorcerer trapped in the puzzle box (which I think might be the only way you find out the final conclusion of the story) made me very uneasy indeed. I didn’t like looking at it at all.
This probably all sounds a bit weird. I suspect that when you’re a child things like book illustrations have a bigger effect on you than they would do had you read the same book as an adult, but I find that the feelings I had about books as a child, whether good or bad, have stayed with me into adulthood. The power of a good book, I suppose.