How to Be More Paddington was the book that I knew I wanted but never knew I needed. Tiny books of potted quotes from various pieces of classic literature are ten a penny, particularly if the characters originate from the Hundred Acre Wood. This is both literally and figuratively more substantial. I have read this by myself and also with my two year old; it is a gift to the both of us and one to be treasured always.
I have always been particular about Paddington. It is a running joke between me and my partner that I so frequently dismissed the stuffed toy Paddingtons sold in shops as ‘wrong’. While I love the films, the associated merchandise does tend to fall into the ‘unacceptable’ category for me. A lot of research went into the Paddington effigy that I received for Christmas 2017. My son has a ‘My First Paddington’ gifted by some lovely friends and a Paddington car seat toy which he has found variously amusing and terrifying. Despite Paddington and his duffle coat being quite so iconic, he has gone through quite considerable change.
Over the past few years of seeking out Paddington stories for my own child, I have found the newer R W Alley illustrations strangely jarring – this is not the bear that I grew up with. It was not that face on my cassette tape. It’s not even the bear that I remember seeing onscreen in the television series. Imagine how comforting it is then to read How to Be More Paddington and to return to the original pictures – Peggy Fortnum did it first and best. I have gathered up postcard images of some of my favourite Fortnum illustrations but it is wonderful to finally have them in one place. She captures Paddington’s energy and chaos so perfectly without ever making him seem twee.
How to Be More Paddington also makes you realise quite how long he has been around. I recognised images that clearly accompanied stories from my son’s own collection – I do understand why publishers felt the need to modernise. Jonathan and Judy have changed completely since their earliest days. Indeed, so many of the values and points of manners which are so important to Paddington feel like they belong to a different age. Who touches their hat these days? Indeed, who wears a hat?
But while it would be easy for Paddington to have become hopelessly dated, instead he seems to represent us at our best. He takes delight in the small things, he is always grateful, he gives everything his best shot, he is unfailingly polite. The one aspect that I wish that the book had captured was the way that Paddington also stands up for himself. Paddington was brought up to show good manners and he will not engage with those who fail to treat him with the same – he knows how to employ a good Hard Stare. This is an extremely minor point though and I can understand why this aspect of his character would be trickier to include in a book that is just a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.
The key to Paddington’s success is that he is such a portable character. Unlike so many fictional creations, he can be dreamed into almost every situation. You can picture Paddington at the swimming baths, at the park, on a bus. You can even imagine him getting in a muddle with the hand sanitiser and the face masks of the pandemic. Because of that, Michael Bond’s description of Paddington as a ‘built-in resident guru’ is a very apt one. To quote Bond further, ‘Although [Paddington’s] head is often in the clouds, he has his feet firmly on the ground and he has a strong sense of right and wrong. Confronted by a problem, I often find myself wondering how he would deal with it, and mentally take note of his advice.’ How to Be More Paddington is more celebration of this fantastic character’s warmth than sincere self-help but it is incredibly special nonetheless. I felt teary as I read the lovely words and remembered again why I have loved this little bear for over thirty years. A literary balm in a weary world.
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Published by HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks on October 29th 2020
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