I thought I had locked myself out this morning. I stood with my shopping outside the door, and panicked. Inside were 2 dogs, all my editing work for the day and my phone. I couldn’t remember if I had given a spare set of keys to the neighbours – I have a suspicion they were claimed back when one of the children lost their keys last time, and I haven’t got round to getting more cut. The locked door filled me with despair. A quick scrabble in my bag revealed my keys, but I had already been reminded of one of my favourite books OF ALL TIME. ‘Alfie Gets in First’ by Shirley Hughes.
I have only ever given one talk at a conference. It was at a conference on children’s literature at a university some years ago, and as at the time I was on the teaching staff there as a sessional lecturer, I was asked if I would like to give a presentation. I chose to do it on Shirley Hughes, as I had done my M.A. dissertation on images of mothering in her books. And I got to the bit where I talked about ‘Alfie Gets in First’ and, the illustrations appeared as if by magic on the projector, and all my nervousness disappeared. I can’t remember much. I remember quite a lot of waving my arms and a sense of divine mission. I may have got a bit carried away. I distinctly remember claiming that ‘Alfie Gets In First’ was more dramatic than any book by Dostoevsky (I’m not even sure if I have ever read an entire book by Dostoevsky). In fact, I know I did proclaim that ‘Alfie Gets in First was the greatest work of literature EVER WRITTEN. The academics in the audience looked a bit startled, and laughed a little nervously. One of them said my lecture was ‘refreshing’ and a welcome change of pace for the end of a conference. In short, I got carried away.
But not much. Because being faced with a locked door is horrible. I remember as a child that I taught myself, care of one of Enid Blyton’s books, to get out of a locked room when the key is in the lock on the other side of the door. It involves sliding a sheet of paper out under the door so that most of it is on the other side, and poking things through the lock so that the key falls out with a satisfying thud on it. You then carefully pull the sheet back in under the door and, provided the gap is big enough, you receive the key and are able to let yourself out and foil any wicked smugglers who have locked you in.
But back to ‘Alfie Gets in First’ – being little and on the other side of a locked door THAT YOU ARE TOO SMALL TO OPEN is a huge problem. Lewis Carroll’s Alice knew that. And Alfie is in the horrible position that his mum and his little sister are on the other side, and his little sister is crying, and although his mum, and his lovely neighbour Mrs McNally and the milkman, and Maureen McNally, and the window cleaner are all calling encouragements through the letter box (beautifully shown in the two page spreads), it is ultimately Alfie who has to be brave and clever enough to decide to get a chair, stand on it, and let everyone in. What an amazing ending! What a triumph!
What I love about ‘Alfie Gets in First’ is that the illustrations and text combine to create a child character, who, loved by everyone, still has to be brave enough to act independently and fix a problem. Shirley Hughes’s work promotes a world where children are valued, where their problems are taken very seriously, and where their victories are properly celebrated. It is full of love. We need more of that. We need that when we look at the huge numbers of powerless refugee children in the world, and ask ourselves what will make the world safer for them, what will truly empower them – education or bombs? We need that care and respect for children when we look at the impact of family homelessness and unemployment and disability on children in our ‘developed’ nation. We need it when children are judged not in a climate of love but by materialistic standards. Wouldn’t it be great if we stopped testing our young children so much, and took more time to listen to their individual problems and celebrate their HUGE victories in navigating the tricky territory of school and playground and family life? Helping children to have the self confidence and bravery to open doors by themselves, both physically and metaphorically, is surely the foundation of true education. Hooray for Alfie and Shirley Hughes!
I believe a new ‘Alfie’ book is coming out soon. I can’t wait!
Here is the link to the official Alfie website http://www.alfiebooks.co.uk/allaboutalfie.asp
where you can actually see the rough drawings for ‘Alfie Gets in First’. Amazing!