The Puffin Challenge
So, as if my TBR wasn't completely unmanagable already, I've decided to give myself the challenge of tracking down and reading the first 200 Puffin Story Books. I know, I know, it probably isn't at all sensible for a number of reasons - I already have far too much to do, and it might prove difficult to get hold of some of the titles. But I can't help it, I like a good list that I can tick things off...
Besides, I'm genuinely curious - so many of the titles are books I've never heard of and I want to know why they have fallen out of favour. Why do some books stand the test of time and continue to be read, where others are largely forgotten? Are we all missing out on some absolute bangers? Or have they been overlooked because they just aren't that great or they no longer resonate in today's world?
There are HUNDREDS of Puffin Story Books - I'm not sure when they stopped giving them PS numbers, but I seem to remember seeing ones in the 800s?? So I've limited myself to the first 200 - which I figure will give me plenty to be getting on with for now! I don't care about reading them in order, and I'm not bothered about finding first editions - a later copy will do just as well.
Without further ado, I'm kicking off with PS8 - The Microbe Man by Eleanor Doorly. I chose this one for no other reason than because it is the oldest Puffin I currently have in the bookshop. So, is it unjustly ignored, or best left in the past?...
The Microbe Man
No, The Microbe Man is not about a man the size of a microbe, who explores uncharted worlds inside the human body, fighting off diseases like Donald Pleasence in Fantastic Voyage. Which is a shame really. I can't help but picture little Jimmy, in 1943, receiving this book as a present and being heartily disappointed to discover that it's actually about the life of Louis Pasteur. Not that Louis Pasteur isn't interesting and worth reading about, you understand. But he's not Ant Man.
However, it is still a Puffin Story book afterall. Yes, it's biography, but there's no reason it shouldn't be a cracking read - I mean, Louis Pasteur must have had a pretty interesting life, right? The Puffin editors at the time must surely have chosen books that children would enjoy as well as ones they would learn from. Or so you would think.
Did I learn anything?
It wouldn't be hard to sum up what I knew about Pasteur before reading this book. I knew he invented pasturisation, which is basically where you heat something up to kill off any nasties lurking within. I also vaguely remembered that smallpox and cowpox were somehow connected to Pasteur, but couldn't remember why. Well, he didn't discover the fact that cowpox provided immunity against smallpox (that was Edward Jenner) but Pasteur was the one who explained why it worked, almost 100 years later.
By the end of the book, I had definitely increased my knowledge about Pasteur's work. As well as preventing everyone's milk, beer and wine from going bad, he basically saved the silk trade when it was devastated by silk worm diseases; developed vaccines for chicken cholera, rabies and anthrax; and introduced the radical notion that handwashing and sterilisation before surgery might actually be a good idea.
As informative as the book was, I did find it inconsistent. Sure it can't be an easy thing, trying to explain complex science to a young audience. But half the time the author just assumes you understand all the science and talks as if you already have an A-Level in Chemistry. The editorial in the front of the book suggests that it is suitable for ages 12 and up, but if I came away from the book having absolutely no idea what racemic is and why it was so important, I'm fairly sure a 12 year old would be equally stumped. Perhaps 12 year olds were smarter in 1943.
The rest of the time Doorly skims over things she assumes you won't understand, or over explains things that are fairly straightforward. These days of course, non-fiction books for children are full of glossy colour photographs and fancy infographics to help explain the complex subject matter. The woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings are lovely, but they didn't really help illumate anything. In terms of explaining things to children, non-fiction publishing has definitely come a long way.
Are you not entertained?
Doorly does make an effort to make things interesting to a child. She attempts to engage the reader by talking to them directly - there's lots of "did you know?" and "can you believe?". And she throws in a lot of exclamation marks in an attempt to make things sound exciting: "Pasteur had an idea! Suppose he planted the microbe in something alive, not in soup!"
She also spends a lot of time bigging up the importance of Pasteur's work and the danger of working with diseases. Of his studies on rabies she says: "There have been few braver deeds than that told in any tale of adventure; but there was coming a day when Pasteur would do another deed that needed more courage". It's true of course, Pasteur was a brave and intrepid explorer in the world of Chemistry. But you can't help but think that little Jimmy would definitely prefer it if he was reading about the brave and intrepid adventures of Tarzan or Doc Savage.
I also found it a bit frustating that there was very little in the book about Pasteur's life beyond the science. It briefly mentions his marriage and the death of his daughter, but doesn't really go into much detail. Whether, this is because sources are limited, or because Doorly felt children wouldn't be interested, I don't know. But I found it all a bit one sided. Why bother reading a biography if it is only going to talk about one aspect of a man's life?
This is actually the second of Doorly's works that Penguin chose for its burgeoning Puffin Story Books series. They had published The Insect Man, about the life of Jean Henry Fabre, a year earlier in 1942. Either The Insect Man was so successful as a Puffin they went ahead and printed this one, or they were both commissioned at the same time. Either way, a third book from Doorly was published in Puffin in 1953 (this one about Marie Curie), which does suggest that her work had sold fairly well.
The cynic in me says that perhaps this was down to well intending parents buying the books for their children, as opposed to kids saving up their hard earned pocket money for them. But perhaps I'm being harsh. I guess there were far fewer entertainments available back then. No internet. No video games. Very little TV and nothing for children until Children's Hour appeared in 1946. And some kids just do prefer non-fiction. Not everyone wants high adventure and swashbuckling action.
But certainly for today's 12 year old, The Microbe Man is almost definitely best left on the shelf. Anything you want to know about Pasteur's work can be explained much more clearly (and succinctly) with a quick Google search, and I just can't see the story of his life holding their attention for 112 pages. Like I said, he's not Ant Man.
About the author
Victoria Eleanor Louise Doorly was born in Jamaica in 1880, but moved to Leamington Spa in 1887 after the sudden death of her father. She spoke several languages, travelled extensively and also found the time to be headmistress of King's High School in Warwick for 22 years. Her book on Marie Curie The Radium Woman won the Carnegie Medal in 1939. You can read more about her here.
Robert Gibbings was an Irish artist from Cork, who illustrated over 60 books. He focused largely on natural history, travelled throughout the south seas for inspiration, and was the first person to draw underwater. You can see more of his gorgeous work here.
Informative and not entirely dull, but probably not that appealing to today's kids.
The Microbe Man is out of print, but you can get hold of a secondhand copy reasonably cheaply.