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Monday, 29 May 2017

Puddle Lane: The Magic Box

Written By: Shelia McCullagh
Illustrated by Gavin Rowe
Publisher: Ladybird Books, 1985

Weird books stay in children's imaginations, or so I'm concluding. Associations around feeling slightly afraid seem to impinge harder, more deliberately in the memory. I don't proclaim to know anything about the psychology behind this, 'fight or flight' related I'm tentatively guessing, but from my own experience, when I saw this book in the charity shop last year, I smiled, picked it up, flicked through the pages with trepidation, put it back - should I buy this? It freaked me out as a child...the Griffle, a vanishing green monster, the mice, they come to life, a magic box... 

Puddle Lane was a popular British pre-school reading scheme in second half of the 1980's, that accompanied a part- animated children's television series made by Yorkshire Television in Leeds for ITV. In the television programme the main character, the magician, who lived in the big house at the end of Puddle Lane (see picture above), was played by Monty Python actor and musician, Neil Innes. In the reading scheme, published by Ladybird (but incidentally not adopting the classic 52 page Ladybird standard), the magician comes and goes as a plot device, and is sometimes absent from the stories altogether. 

Now Puddle Lane seemed quite dated, and stiff in style, even back when I was using the scheme to learn to read in the 1980s. The dress sense, toys and townscape were all very Victorian, and certainly the children's expansive right to roam (and walk purposefully into an old man's garden when they know he's away) and talk to strangers and busy-bodies in the street, indeed sat very uneasily with me as a four year old, but I did remember this all, vividly, well. 
Now thirty years later I'm sharing the same small, hardback books with my daughter, and she equally delights in them, holding her breath, worrying where the strange little stories might be going.  

In this particular title, The Magic Box, which was on stage 1 of the scheme (each stage had a different cover colour), the children fend off the unwanted advice of Mrs Pitter-Patter, neighbourhood nosey-parker, and head to the magician's garden to pick up a birthday present left by the magician for Sarah. When Sarah and Davy arrive they find a big box in the hollow of a tree with a message attached saying, 'Don't open the box. Push the red button.' Bizarre indeed!  The children press the button, music plays from the box, and the children uncontrollably dance. The music box is of course magical, and casts a spell on anyone who hears the music to dance along. The children then try out the box on sleepy Mr Gotobed, and then who should return, but interfering Mrs Pitter-Patter. The box plays a further trick on Mrs Pitter Patter, singing a silly rhyme about her, and forcing her to dance despite as she tries to protest. The outcome is as implausible and fantastical as the rest of the story, but funny and unexpected.  

Over the past year I've managed to acquire a good collection of the Puddle Lane series from charity shops, exclusively of the titles I remember, such as The Vanishing Monster, and The Wideawake Mice, and my all time favourite, Puddle Lane at Christmas. My daughter, surprisingly I think, given that this is a generation being taught to read through phonics,loves to try to read (or more appropriately try to remember) the emboldened key words on the right hand page of the double page spread. The reading notes page in each Puddle Lane book seems archaic in some respects, instructing parents to read aloud first following with a finger, but the satisfaction my daughter gets from committing these short sentences to rote, surprises me more. She loves the pictures in the books, especially all the British mammals and birds, such as mice and owls, with their human characteristics. Edie also likes the characters, slightly wayward children, but always doing something kind, helping out animals in crisis, thinking about others. She's captivated by the eeriness, the weirdness of the stories, the fear, just as I was. 
All in all then, Puddle Lane is a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and well worth a revisit. 

And if you like this, you might also like The Tale of the Tooth Fairy, based on a shared eeriness and fear. 

You might also remember the television series (I have only a vague recollection of this myself, though watched a lot of ITV children's programmes as a child!):

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