“Oh, immortal classic!” exclaimed an English professor of my acquaintance when I mentioned Each Peach Pear Plum, that perfect concoction of flaky, tender crust written by Allan Ahlberg, with a luscious plum filling drawn by Janet Ahlberg.
I don’t even remember how my copy arrived in our house. Probably from my favourite children’s book shop, but, let’s be honest, it could just as easily have grown up as naturally as those little sheep sprouted in the lower left corner of the cover. Some books just show up and always seem to have been there. “Oh, immortal classic!” Indeed.
I was reminded of how naturally this book just merges into our lives when visiting my cousin and her son this weekend. I think we were the ones to give them Each Peach Pear Plum— unless, of course, it just sprang up in the house one day. I can claim no credit. Either way, her son is now a year old and has already loved the book deeply for a few months. I remember it was the same way with my Changeling. It was the same way with my niece, too. My daughter and niece continue to love it, and my niece would call for “Pehpum” regularly at around 18 months. And nary a one of us is bothered by multiple readings; we are all happy to read it once or twenty times.
Here’s what I’ve spent an awfully long time trying to understand: I absolutely get why we love the book. Cinderella and the three bears and the wicked witch? It’s such a fun and clever story about all of our favourite stories! All of those stories our children definitely didn’t know before a year old! And yet– they genuinely preferred this book to many others ostensibly aimed at their age group. We were all really glad to have the book in board book form because it was cuddled and flipped through by clumsy baby hands. I get why the Changeling, a great lover of Cinderella and Jack and Jill, enjoys the book now: she loves finding her favourite characters. But let’s think for a minute about why this book might be so appealing to even the tiniest of humans.
You know, here’s where I wish I could let you into my head: I want to share some of my cross-referencing with you. Remember when I talked about Cat Valente before? Her Fairyland series and Six-Gun Snow White? I believe I gently intimated that you should drop everything and read them. She has a passage in The Boy Who Lost Fairyland about changelings and how they recognize certain patterns, certain stories, look for certain quests. If you’d read that, you’d connect it with watching that earliest process of book-love as much as I do. I don’t want to go into it too much here because I do still plan to talk about Fairyland at another point, but, without wanting to sound too much like a crazy romantic, I found myself nodding as I thought about how there were certain books which seemed to have an immediate attraction for my daughter. Each Peach Pear Plum was one of these. And, yes, yes, sure, we were going to read it anyway– if you want to be cold and logical and suggest that we indoctrinated her you can go ahead and think that. Make your grocery list at the same time. But I do think there was an attraction, a recognition of “this is for me!” there. Don’t you get that with certain books? Then why shouldn’t a child? The question I want to think about is what creates that attraction, and what is it in Each Peach Pear Plum that makes such a strong attraction for so many children?
All right, let’s start with the easy answer: that luscious plum filling Janet Ahlberg provided by way of illustrations. Aren’t they glorious? On the one hand, they’re so accessible: simple lines, teddy-bear figures for the three bears, clean round faces. On the other hand, they’re so rich in detail: just look at those climbing tendrils all over the cover! If William Morris had decided to draw a children’s book, it might have looked like that cover. Such a clear, regular pattern, so full of detail, but with strong lines and bright colours. Everything about it declares that those pictures are for children, but there’s a lot to look at without being too cluttered.
And what do the children notice from the first? The animals. As soon as she could talk, my daughter would climb on my lap and flip through, page by page, describing every single animal along the way: dog, sheep, cat, birds, frog… every single animal. (I didn’t mind because, well, I do love animals, and, also, there was so much else to look at along the way.) There are animals everywhere, and they look so cuddly on the page. Of course the tiniest children would love them.
But I think, rich and satisfying as the plum pictures are for children, they wouldn’t be so attractive without that flaky and tender crust supporting them: the words. “Each Peach Pear Plum/ I spy Tom Thumb!” Oh, I know there’s no exclamation point in the book, but just you try reading it without an exclamatory ending. Did you try? Did you succeed? Probably not. If you did succeed, you can go back to your grocery list, and don’t forget the dish detergent. It bounces along, stressed syllables all in a row like Mary’s pretty maids in the nursery rhyme, and you need a triumphal ending.
Here’s what I noticed really early on, though: that next page? “Tom Thumb in the cupboard/ I spy Mother Hubbard”? Kids get the “Tom Thumb” link. They really do, from a very early age. I won’t tell you how early I think it goes, because I have no evidence and the children can’t tell me, but I’d be very unsurprised to find out it went earlier than most of us might suspect. I’m not saying they understand the links, but they can definitely hear and recognize it: they get it, to a degree. They get the picture links. They get that the characters they see and hear about early on all come together at the end. That’s exciting, like a first puzzle, or a little maze they solved. I think they love following the characters’ quest to that plum pie– that’s what I think. I think it’s their first introduction to fairy tales through the very best medium for fairy tales: the hunt, the search, the quest!
No wonder our little changelings thrill in recognition to this book. It delineates their own process in life: first we live, and then we strive. In this case, we strive, we quest, for plum pie. I wonder what our kids will strive for?