Wednesday 24 July 2019

Telling stories the Naughty Little Sister way

I am certain that I was already familiar with Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories when I came across them as an adult, but I have no concrete memory of them from my childhood. I suppose my mother read them to me. Perhaps she knew them from the radio, not when she was a child as they were first broadcast on the BBC’s Listen with Mother in 1950, but possibly from her younger brother’s childhood. Thinking about it, maybe they were also read on the BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) radio programmes I listened to as a child. These seem to have been modelled on the BBC’s early radio programmes for children like Children’s Hour and Listen with Mother.

I wonder if the Naughty Little Sister stories seemed like something from another age to my mother or if that world was still close enough to hers. In so many ways, they seem like a historical document - the clothes and the milkman’s horse and the extraordinariness of the day when the father is left to childmind. But none of this stopped me reading them to my children. The stories are too alive to seem old-fahsioned.

The narrative voice is one I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get away with today. It’s the voice of an adult talking directly to the child listener about her own childhood and her little sister – unnamed – who was always doing silly things. The adult narrator addresses the listening child with comments to make them see how silly and funny her naughty little sister was – ‘wasn’t she silly?” “wasn’t that naughty?” The narrator also references the listener’s own behaviour – “You would never do anything as silly as that” – to make the listener feel cleverer or to be gently instructive, or maybe just to reinforce how funny it was. Even though the narrator’s focus is absolutely on the little sister, there are occasional comments that reveal the narrator herself as a big sister – she is occasionally embarrassed, sometimes affectionate but mostly superior. You can tell that the adult narrator, looking back at herself sees that she was a harsh judge of her younger sister. I know it’s very old-fashioned for a book to talk down to children in this way, but I have huge affection for this narrator. I think these stories perfectly mimic the way adults tell children stories about things that have happened and people they know . It’s certainly pretty near the way I told stories to my own young children, although it’s possible that I was unconsciously aping My Naughty Little Sister.

Although the stories come from a time far away from ours, they still work because the narrow world of small children has changed relatively little. The stories are all about the little things that happen in children’s lives – losing teeth, playing islands on a newly washed floor, posting bread crusts into a drawer, getting bored when you’re told to sit still and be good, making a mess of your smart clothes.

Cherry on the cake are the gorgeous illustrations by the wonderful Shirley Hughes whose naughty little sister is right out of the world of her own Alfie stories. Plus from my point of view the stories are the perfect length for reading aloud – that probably betrays their origin on radio.

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