Friday, 27 January 2012

My Naughty Little Sister

When I was little girl, (begins all Dorothy Edwards' lovely stories- but also me today) we didn't have such things as MP3 players or even CDs or even tapes. There was an old portable record player in the playroom and a choice of about 6  singles to play on it. We had Johnny Morris reading Thomas the Tank engine stories. We had Joyce Grenfell doing her 'George Don't Do That' nursery school monologues (please follow this link if you don't know them - perfection). We had 'Lilly the Pink' by The Scaffolds and some honkytonk piano sung to by a man with a gravelly voice who's name I can't remember.

And we had two stories from 'My Naughty Little Sister' by Dorothy Edwards. It was a bit of a treat to listen to any of these records in my memory. As I was the youngest of four, they'd already seen some duty and were inclined to jump about through scratching if you moved; so I had to remain perfectly still whilst they played. They were something brought out when confined poorly to bed (along with the juice beaker shaped like an orange) and thus had Special Status.

The stories were written in the fifties and early sixties and fictionalise the pre-war childhood exploits of Dorothy Edwards and her little sister Phyllis (although neither girl's name is ever used in the books). Written in the first person, the narrator takes on the persona of the wise older sibling commenting with benign superiority on the mischief making and scrapes of her lovable little sister. It's a very clever device because any child listening to or reading the stories is directly addressed and immediately given the status of the Wise and Good themselves. New concepts and ideas are often introduced with 'Now, I know, you would never do this but...' or 'You know what I am describing but my naughty little sister didn't so I am going to tell you...'

The story I particularly remember listening to was called 'The Birthday Party' and describes my Naughty little sister going to a party at her friend Bad Harry's house. The children sneak downstairs whilst all the 'good' children are playing 'ring-o'-roses' to have a look at the Birthday Tea.
They admire the table set out with sandwiches, cakes, blancmanges, jellies and biscuits and then:

"Bad Harry said, 'There's something else in the larder. It's going to be a surprise treat but you shall see it because you are my best girlfriend.'
So Bad Harry took my Naughty little sister out into the kitchen and they took chairs and climbed up to the larder shelf; which is a dangerous thing to do and it would have been their own fault if they had fallen down.
And Bad Harry showed my Naughty little sister a lovely, spongey trifle covered with creamy stuff and with silver balls and jelly sweets on the top."

The children proceed to dare each other to steal first sweets and silver balls from the trifle, and then the cream and sponge, until finally they are forced to eat the whole thing.

"Bad Harry said; 'Now we've made the trifle so untidy, no one else will want any so we might as well finish it all up'"

They are discovered, my Naughty little sister runs all the way home and both she and Bad Harry are so ill in the night that they never want trifle again.

As quite a good little girl myself, the transgression of this story and others sent frissons of excited appall down my spine. Vicarious naughtiness was very satisying. But despite having loved these books myself, it took me a while to introduce them to Bill and Eddie. I thought they might be too girly or feel dated to revisit. I bought an audio CD as much as out of nostalgia for myself as for them.

I was wrong; they loved them and still love them. They were of course a period piece when I was little and they don't feel any more so now. Bill is both wistful and admiring of the freedom of their childhood (as am I): My Naughty little sister is allowed to roam the local streets and visit her friends houses entirely independently from the age of 3 or 4. She travels on the train in the company of the guard alone at the same age to go and stay in the country. She goes fishing just with her big sister. Their world is populated by helpful adults; postmen, chimney seeps, window cleaners etc. who befriend and look out for them As an adult reader, I am less wistful about the sheer amount of drudgery and female labour described within: Much of their exploits occur when the sisters are left to amuse themselves whilst their mother boils the washing, beats the carpets and scrubs the floors in a seemingly continuous loop.

These books are typeset in such a way as to make them ideal transitions from picture to chapter books for new readers. They also have the added bonus of illustrations (pretty early in her career I think) by Shirley Hughes. I can't remember who read the version that I listened to, a fair few years ago, but I can say that Jan Francis does a great job on our current versions- a big recommendation for audio book fans.

'My Naughty Little Sister's Friends' written Dorothy Edwards, illus. Shirley Hughes, pub. egmont,
 isbn 978-1-4052-5335-2
I should say this is not the volume with 'The Birthday Party' in it- which I've lent out I think- but they're all good!


  1. Edited thanks to my brother...who pointed out that it was Johnny Morris who narrated the Thomas. A snippet now linked to which I think recreates my childhood audio experiences very well.

  2. We had lots of tape stories when I was little too. Johnny Morris reading his own very funny sories in his very funny voices was a big favourite - also Little Grey Rabbit...

    I'm so glad to have found your blog - thank you so much for commenting on PaperTigers. Little Woodedn Horse and Gobbolino were absolutely in my top ten books as a child too and I loved reading them to my two. It was such a thrill to see a letter about Gobbolino with drawings in the recent Puffin Books exhibition at Seven Stories. Not sure if it's still on...

  3. I'd never heard of Seven Stories (terrible London centricity). Looks like a fab place. I wanna go now! Can I persuade the family to a weekend in Newcastle perhaps?

  4. I loved the books as a child, which our mum read to me and my younger sister in the 1960s, and we still have them. That trifle story is the first one I remember her reading to us and I can still remember all those details and how they were sick all night! I always wondered what happened to the little sister and bad Harry when they grew up. The internet provides scant information. Illustrator Shirley Hughes was on Women's Hour yesterday and I would love to ask her if she knew the author (do illustrators always know the authors?) and what was she like?