Quote: “nothing exciting ever happens to me,” Mr Benn.
With World Book Day Thursday 6th March I thought I’d take on a children’s classic: Mr Benn – Red Knight by David McKee. I acquired a copy from a child I look after and she eyed me with suspicion when I asked to borrow it. I made sure I said ‘borrow’. She said yes but reminded me it was a very special book (as if I didn’t know); I have read it to her loads. But why have I read it to her loads? This tale was first published in 1967 and this girl is 6. So what makes it rise above contemporary stories?
The story goes like this:
Mr Benn, a suited man in a bowler hat, is invited to a fancy dress party. He goes to a fancy dress shop and chooses a red suit of armour to try on. In the changing room there is a second door which leads him into another world. In this world he meets a dragon who used to light the fires for the king but was banished after a matchmaker came to the town. The matchmaker wants to get rich selling his matches so sets a barn on fire and tells everyone it was the dragon. At the same time the king’s horse runs away which makes the king think the dragon has something to do with it (why? I don’t know). The dragon says the horse is living near him but he was too scared to return it to the king.
After telling Mr Benn of his woes he (Mr Benn) rides off on the horse to the castle to explain. The King punishes the matchmaker by imprisoning him in the dungeon and forcing him to make free matches for the people while the dragon returns as the king’s personal firelighter.
Mr Benn has sorted all the problems and returns to the changing room. He decides he’s too tired for the party after all and goes home to dream about all the other adventures he might have.
The idea is genius. It lends itself to vast numbers of adventures for Mr Benn and therefore numerous books and, as we know, television programmes too. The concept of dressing up is a great one for children – they completely understand dressing up and can get to grip with that concept immediately. It crosses the boundary into the wilds of their imagination whilst maintaining a safe familiarity.
An equally important part of this book (and my favourite) is the illustrations. Line drawings, which are akin to doodles, are alternated with bright, child-like, stylised paintings.
Back to the text. When reading out loud to a child you’ll notice the difference in sentence length, structure and language. For example, one sentence I always trip over is:
‘The shop bell tinkled and as if by magic there was suddenly a strange little man, with a moustache and an odd hat, standing in front of Mr Benn.’
I think it is because I’m expecting a full stop after ‘tinkled’ and the next sentence to start ‘As if …’ The sentences do feel longer than the current books and the word usage is different too; words like: desolate, barren and triumphal procession are used. Today’s writers for children are told (by publishers and those in the know)to use language children understand and can potentially read without stumbling or wondering what on earth it means. I also feel when Mr Benn meets the dragon and hears of the dragon’s back story it is ‘telling’ rather than showing (which writers always get told off for) and it’s a long and slightly confusing backstory told like a story within a story. I think it would work better if it was told by the dragon and not by the narrator.
However, what do I know? The story is popular and has been since 1967. This isn’t the first book from years ago that is still being, not just enjoyed, but loved by children; they don’t seem so confused by the language, they seem to take it in their stride and ask what ‘desolate’ means or understand that no one can possibly know all the words. Children don’t seem to care if they’re being ‘told’ a story either. I think they just want something that taps into their imagination and can take them on a jolly good romp. Hoorah! As Enid Blyton would write.
Enjoy World Book Day! Let me know of your interesting reads.