Paddington and Me

When you grow up (don’t be in too much of a hurry – kids get better books!), you will probably find that “favourite book” means something different to you. I’ll try and explain. When I read an adult book, let’s say a cool murder mystery, I’m lost in its pages for a few days, then *poof*, it’s done … on to the next one. I can probably read it again a year later because I’ll forget the ending, however clever-surprise-plot-twisty it may have been.

But children’s books – well they’re a whole different, ahem, story. Your favourite children’s books will stay with you for life, and their characters will be your best friends forever. Mine still have pride of place on my bookshelves, along with their old-book smell, tatty pages and battered covers. They are my special friends and I won’t part with them – ever! I’m not the only one. Try asking your mum or dad what their favourite adult book is, and they’ll think for a bit and then tell you, perhaps with a smile. But ask them what their favourite book was as a child, and you’ll see them really light up as they tell you all about it.

Why is this? Is it because children’s books are better? Yes! Well, maybe. Well actually no, they’re just different, but more importantly, when you’re a child you respond to books in a different way. Your favourite reads have the power to spirit you away to worlds that become as real to you as the ordinary everyday world. My favourite other worlds included Moominland, the Hundred Acre Wood, Narnia, and Kirrin Island. And the characters in those worlds will be as real to you as your friends, family and pets.

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Moominland

One of my favourite childhood companions was Paddington Bear. I hope you have made Paddington’s acquaintance (that’s how Paddington would say it – making his acquaintance, not just “meeting” him. He’s quite formal like that.) He wears a duffle coat and felt hat, under which he keeps his emergency marmalade sandwiches. He’s very kind and thoughtful, but often his good turns go horribly wrong. However, nobody can be cross with Paddington for long, no matter how much of the family house he destroys in his DIY projects, because he’s such a sweet bear.

Now then, imagine how excited you’d be if you got the chance to meet Paddington, or your own storytime best-friend. Well, I didn’t meet Paddington himself, but I did the next best thing – actually the two next best things. Firstly, I got to spend a day with Paddington’s creator, Michael Bond, at London Zoo. And secondly, I got to BE Paddington for a day!

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Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear

I used to work at London Zoo, and part of my job was to organise special events. A new gift shop called The Teddy Bear Shop was opening, and in pride of place in the window was, of course, Paddington. So I wrote to Michael Bond and asked if he’d like to come and open it for us. I wondered what Paddington’s creator would be like, and it turned out he was exactly what you’d expect: twinkly eyed with a gentle smile, just like everyone’s favourite grandad. I’d always wanted to write for children, so as I showed him around the zoo I bombarded him with questions about how he came up with his ideas. He was kind and patient, just like Paddington. He told me that once you get to know your character (he spoke of him as a real bear, not a made-up one), you just drop him into a situation and the story writes itself. We kept in touch after his visit – he lived not far from the zoo – and he sent me a special copy of Paddington at the Zoo, which has pride of place on my bookshelf.

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The inscription reads: “For Sue, On a sunny day at the Zoo …”

Not long after this, we held a party with the publishers of the Winnie-the-Pooh books to celebrate Pooh’s 60th birthday. Every famous bear you can think of was invited, and we needed volunteers to wear some of the costumes. Of course I decided I would be Paddington for the day. I have never been so popular in my life! I was hugged almost to death by hoards of children who believed I actually WAS Paddington. Eventually I decided I needed a break – it was a hot day and I was wearing a fur head, a duffle coat, and big red wellington boots. I headed back through the zoo towards my office, and was nearly there when I heard a voice behind me: “Paddington, stop!” I turned to see a breathless little boy with tears running down his cheeks. “You didn’t say goodbye!” he said. I gave the boy a hug and took him by the hand back to his parents. I bet he still thinks I was the real Paddington. Thinking about this experience reminds me how real the worlds and characters created by children’s authors are to their readers. So my message to you here is, in your world of fabulous apps and cool video games and YouTubers and all the rest of it, don’t forget the world of books where friends for life are waiting for you. Go read one – now! (Oh yes, and did you know … there’s a Paddington movie coming soon – can’t wait!)

 

 

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