Archive for November, 2019

the-smeds-and-the-smoos-16x9It absolutely baffles me that a new picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – whose previous collaborations have sold many millions of copies and become part of our nursery culture – can be published, and yet there are no substantial reviews of it anywhere in the mainstream media. It’s like not reviewing Frozen II. This is particularly bizarre in the case of their new work, The Smeds and the Smoos, which was explicitly trailed as ‘a Remain book’, and is dedicated ‘To all the children of Europe.’ Donaldson and Scheffler clearly agree that, as I try to argue in Fierce Bad Rabbits, all stories are political.  Yet millions of children will be bought a copy of The Smeds and the Smoos this autumn by adults who haven’t taken a moment to analyse what it says. (Having said that, I do enjoy the thought of those who voted Leave being forced by their children to read this over and over.)

It is, as expected, a lovely and brilliant book. It’s basic premise is a Romeo and Juliet in space, where a red Smed and a blue Smoo fall in love, which ends – not in tragedy – but with a purple baby. Scheffler seems to be enjoying the freedom alien landscapes allow him, and there are some memorable details: lurid orchid-like flowers; a planet knee-deep in neon slime; another fecund with roses; birds with eyes on stalks; a wonky ‘squoon’ instead of a moon. Edward Lear is obviously a deep influence on Donaldson and she has previously written a sequel to ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’, but whereas that tipped more towards (intentional) pastiche, here she uses Lear-esque nonsense to gorgeous, joyful effect, with the Smoo, Bill, living on a ‘humplety hill’ and then meeting our Smed, Janet, in the ‘Wurpular Wood’ to nibble the ‘jellyful fruit’ of the ‘jerberrycoot’.

It’s interesting to think about the story’s moral though. It begins with a border between the Smeds and the Smoos, made up of red and blue pebbles, and with deep seated prejudices (‘Never never play with the Smoos. / They sleep in holes. They wear strange shoes.‘) In the end, simply by being thrown together and getting to know each-other everyone ends up getting along. If it’s a story of Europe then, it’s closest to the story of the founding of the EU – a moment of increased freedom of movement across borders; freedom to fall in love or make a home; a new culture of sharing.

However, Smeds and Smoos are also reds and blues – very political charged colours. It’s hard not to see in them left and right; remain and leave. And it’s very interesting that in the book it is the grandparents who show the most prejudice (it is the grandmother who says ‘Never, never marry a Smed.’) Donaldson and Scheffler seem to be saying something about the generational aspect of Brexit. However, on this level of course, the argument that sharing space with people with different views to yourself will lead to understanding starts to fall down. I think we all know that families split between Leave and Remain do not tend to come over to each-other’s viewpoints when forced to spend time together at Christmas, so believing that Bill and Janet’s grandparents start to get on because they’re cooped up together in a rocket is a stretch.

‘Dream of the Smeds and dream of the Smoos’, the last line of the book informs us, with a picture of reds and blues happily singing and dancing together, but the vision of international friendship and harmony it portrays feels sadly alien. We did take down borders, but closeness bred resentment. Now we’re putting them back up. The book’s optimism seems to belong light years ago.

Read Full Post »