Jane Nissen Books has recently returned the copyright of some of its back-into-print classic children’s titles to the original publisher, notably in the case of Clever Polly and Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr, written about here by Emma Healey:
One of the joys of revisiting the tales as an adult is discovering that, like all really good children’s fiction (and films too), there are many levels to them. The wolf is simultaneously a dangerous wild animal, a sexual predator and an annoying little brother, slipping from one role to another within the space of a sentence. In the title story he is at one moment saying “I shall be in your bedroom before it’s light tomorrow morning, crunching up the last of your little bones,” and the next proudly telling Polly that he bought half a pound of beans “with my own money … all by myself”. You get a real sense of the wolf being truly threatening, sinister and cunning, but this is almost immediately dispelled, a few lines on, by his childlike pleasure in having managed some shopping on his own.
Halfway through reading the stories I flipped back to a page I would certainly have ignored before – the edition notice or copyright page. This is something that has, unsurprisingly, become more important to me since being published myself, but I was also curious to see when Clever Polly was published. I was surprised to find it was written in 1955. The language doesn’t seem at all tied to that era, whereas some of Storr’s novels for children, Marianne Dreams for example, are full of characters who describe behaviour as “jolly decent” or apologise for being “beastly” to each other, and seem a little more dated.
I had always assumed Clever Polly had come out in the 1980s or 90s, when books with a positive message for girls – such as Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko’s The Paper Bag Princess – or those that reimagined fairytales – for example Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs – were being written. Clever Polly fits so well with these, and 60 years later it still reads like a feminist reworking of Little Red Riding Hood.