I’m currently reading an adorable book called The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm by Norman Hunter. The cover caught my eye when I was wandering through my old bookstore:
I wanted to read it before I found out that it was on the 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up because the cover was so lovely. It was just coincidental that it was on the list, and therefore I had to, by my own rules, read it. And let me tell you, it is as quaint and as wonderfully old-fashioned as the cover sets it out to be.
Professor Branestawn is a brilliant but absent-minded inventor whose inventions always seem to go wrong, to the most amusing consequences. He has a bit of Mr Twiddle in him, as well as Amelia-Bedelia’s ability to take everything literally. He is an adult, but there is something so deliciously childish about him – I suppose that is why he is the hero of a children’s book.
This got me thinking about adult protagonists in children’s books – like Mr Twiddle, Amelia-Bedelia, or even secondary characters like Professor Calculus from The Adventures of Tintin. These ‘grown up’ characters are not like grown ups we are used to in ‘real life’. They are forgetful, absent-minded, easily muddled, take things the wrong way… they aren’t children, exactly, but more a caricature of what some grown ups must seem like to children – pretty silly in the way they forget things, or easily mix up, important details to children. It might seem, to a child (or a twenty-three year old) reading one of these books they they could easily fool one of these characters, or, at the same time, easily be friends with one of these characters, even if they are grown up. Because these characters aren’t scary or intimidating, like some adults can be. They are funny, and silly, and – while Professor Branestawn and Professor Calculus may be brilliant – they forget where they put something, just like we do, and they have to call for their housekeeper, or their friend (like we call for mum to help us find something misplaced) to help them find it.
Grown up main characters in children’s books are strange, and quite rare, creatures. They have to be written right, so not to seem ridiculous, or patronising, or too dull. Just a child’s voice has to ring true to children in a children’s book, so does an adult’s voice. In a different way. I suppose, what I mean is that a grown up’s voice has to have a pinch of a child in it to make it enjoyable for children, but a pinch of a certain type of grown up to. It’s getting the mix of pinches right that’s hard.