I realise that in moving seamlessly from Roald Dahl to the Ahlbergs I'm not exactly in the territory of hidden gems or New Worlds but a glass or two of red wine with a friend in the pub last night reinvigorated a debate about the back story of 'Peepo'. This dominated my sleep deprived, raddled brain in the early days of parenthood to such an extent I thought it worth visiting. Plus, you know, they're the Ahlbergs, they've got to to get an early starring part.
Board book 'Peepo' was given to Bill when he was about 3 months old and as we were just embarking on the crazed idea that we might get him into some sort of bedtime routine, it was the book I picked to read to him nightly to introduce the concept of a full stop to the day. To be frank, advanced and genius-like though he obviously was, he wasn't going to get much more out of it at that stage than listening to the rather nice lullaby lilt of the rhyming text. It reads aloud well (of course it does, it's the Ahlbergs). It was our 'Go the f*** to sleep' book.
The book tells the story of a day-in-the-life of a family during the second world war from the perspective of a baby. Each spread contains a cutout peephole which when turned reveals a lovingly rendered vignette of family life, rich in detail and tiny new things to spot. This is a great book for going through with an 18 month old or so, who's going through a language spurt and wants to point at tiny ladybirds, bricks, or teacups etc. on pages (although in the case of 'Peepo' some of the language they may acquire may be of little practical use to them, 'hairnets' and 'stocking nets' anyone?)
Reading it night in and night out however the detail began to torture me in unexpected ways. There is a backstory revealed here which the casual reader might miss at first. Dad starts the day in his civvy clothes and is doing dad type jobs around the house but the book ends with him in full soldier garb kissing his baby goodnight and ...goodbye? NOOOooo! I became increasingly concerned that this was a first tragedy for the very young; 'When did you last see your father?' in picture book form. I did like the fact that in the middle page, Grandma takes the baby and his big sisters to the park- presumably to give Mum and Dad a bit of a break- nudge nudge- and in the next panel on their return Dad has changed his clothes and Mum has fallen asleep. As long as she's not pregnant again... NOOOooo!!
Sharing these worries with my husband I began to dig deeper. He entered fully into the spirit of the inquiry and reassured me with the fact that a particular silhouette of an aeroplane in the distance (we're talking miniscule here) of the park scene is clearly of a model that wasn't introduced until late 1944 so we must be nearing the end of the war. Comforting nerdery. There's also a nice picture of Mr. Churchill on the wall with Union Jack and USA flags entwined so the Yanks are in. In one picture there's a calendar on the wall that I squinted at repeatedly to get an angle...without much joy for my unravelling mind. I started trawling the internet to look for interviews about the book to reassure me but came up with nothing. I even went as far as looking through back issues of Picture Post to try and identify the cover that Mum is holding while she dozes.
At some point I suppose, Bill began to sleep better, so did I, and we all wanted a bit more variety in our reading matter. Few texts can survive the level of scrutiny and unpicking that I subjected 'Peepo' to and remain fresh. I pore over it more happily now still appreciative of the detail. I can see it will have a second life as soon as Bill gets onto the Second World War as inevitable school topic- it's a great recreation of the home front. And, after all, as my friend remarked in the pub last night..'Maybe he's just in the home guard?'
Still, if you're planning an Ahlberg baby gift for a new parent you know...to save potential trauma you might like to go for 'The Baby Catalogue' or 'Each Peach, Pear, Plum' instead?
'Peepo', Janet and Allan Ahlberg, pub Penguin Books, isbn 0-670-87176-1