Who (or what) are the best creatures in children's books?
I’m not talking here about beasts and monsters, but about the more benign varieties of creature, the strange, enchanting and mysterious things that kickstart a story or arrive to help rather than hinder the hero.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good monster, but those with less teeth and tentacles have a special power in children’s books, I think perhaps because they are exactly the type of creature that we wish existed when we were children. We’ve all longed for a fairy godmother, or wished that the uncanny was actually real, that there really was magic to make humdrum lives a little less so.
Like E Nesbit’s Psammead, the ‘It’ in Five Children and It. He’s described as having eyes ‘on long horns like a snail's eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes; it had ears like a bat's ears, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider's and covered with thick soft fur; its legs and arms were furry too, and it had hands and feet like a monkey's.’
The essence of the Psammead, or sand-fairy is his vulnerability. He’s the last of his kind, the rest having been carried off by cold and damp. When he’s about to grant a wish, he holds his breath, extends his eye-stalks and swells alarmingly. I love the fact that he’s a grumpy hypochondriac, and despite his seeming wisdom and long life, he remains susceptible to flattery.
Like the Psammead water is a deadly enemy for Falkor, the luckdragon in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. He’s everything you could want in a dragon – wise, friendly, powerful and exceptionally lucky. I love the way he can fly while sleeping and of course he plays a central role in saving Atreyu from the Swamps of Sadness.
The Harry Potter universe has a long list of creatures, both terrifying and benign, but Dobby has to be one of the most memorable. He’s also got one of the most best introductory scenes, in the opening chapters of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: ‘The little creature on the bed had large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls...it was wearing what looked like an old pillowcase, with rips for arm and leg holes.’
He arrives into Harry’s bedroom at precisely the wrong moment. Harry vainly tries to keep him quiet as the house elf continually disciplines himself for his disloyalty to his dark wizard masters by beating himself with whatever comes to hand. He is trying to dissuade Harry from endangering himself by returning to Hogwarts and so wreaks havoc in the Dursley household. He’s a wonderful character, with a very distinct personality and a powerful character arc. His final appearance, in Deathly Hallows, is unforgettable.
Ah, the BFG. Another wonderful entrance: ‘It wasn’t a human. It couldn’t be. It was four times as tall as the tallest human. It was so tall its head was higher than the upstairs windows of the houses.’ Wearing a black cloak, he carries a suitcase in one hand and a long, thin trumpet in the other. When the BFG grabs Sophie and carries her off, we fear the worst, but of course the Big Friendly Giant lives up to his name and turns out to be a big softy. When Sophie tells him how badly the children are treated in the orphanage, he can’t take it at all.
‘That is the horridest thing I is hearing for years! You is making me sadder than ever!’ And he begins to weep huge sad tears.
His vocabulary and idioms are delightful. We’re introduced to snozzcumbers, frobscottle, whizzpoppers and golden phizzwizzards. Here’s how he tells Sophie that among giants, he is actually small: ‘I is the titchy one. I is the runt. Twenty-four feet is puddlenuts in Giant Country.’
Best of all though is his job – catching dreams in a net, bottling them up, then blowing them into the minds of sleeping Children.
Special mention too for the eponymous Bob from Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead’s 2018 Bob, a book which is dedicated to ‘mysterious creatures everywhere’.
Bob has been sitting in a wardrobe for five years awaiting the return of Livy to her grandmother’s house in Australia. Described as ‘a small zombie wearing a chicken suit’, he is as loveable as he is eccentric. I love the way the story builds, becoming much bigger and more universal with each chapter.
What have I missed? Who else should be on the list?