‘So, Mr Allwood, what’s your favourite book of all time?’
As a school librarian, it’s a question I get asked quite a lot, and of course it’s impossible to answer. But on this occasion I headed for my junior fiction section and took C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe off the shelves.
‘When I was your age, the Chronicles of Narnia were a real favourite,’ I said. As I started to tell the story, I opened the book and stopped dead in my tracks. There, on p.130, was an illustration that I probably hadn’t seen for thirty-five years: Aslan and the White Witch, deep in conversation, negotiating Edmund’s fate. Aslan’s maned head is bowed, his ‘arms’ clasped behind his back. The White Witch, wearing an improbably tall crown and with long black hair, stretches out her hand to emphasize a point as she talks.
After the book-club session was over, I sat and flicked through the rest of the book, looking for more memories, and found them in abundance: the White Witch’s dwarf, holding a jewelled cup of something hot and sweet, steam rising; Lucy and Mr Tumnus, walking through a snow-covered wood together; the towers and steeples of the castle of Cair Paravel, which always reminded me of a holiday to Mont St Michel when I was 12.
The Chronicles of Narnia are now re-entering children’s consciousness because of the current series of films, and it often takes some time to convince them that the books came first. For me, however – and, I hope, for others of my generation – what really made the books special were Pauline Baynes’s illustrations.
Pauline Diana Baynes (1922–2008) should sit high at the table of children’s book illustrators who have brought literature to life, for her influence on generations of readers puts her on a par with E. H. Shepard, John Tenniel, Raymond Briggs, Beatrix Potter, Dr Seuss and a particular favourite of mine, George Adamson. Her early life was spent at convent a
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