An illustrated book without which... 'Smiler's Pram Ride'

Continuing our occasional series on books that have inspired the careers of SCBWI illustrator members, Catherine Lindow has chosen the picture book Smiler's Pram Ride by Sylvia Caveney and Simon Stern, first published by Methuen in 1974.

I have a sort-of-godmother named Robin, and she's in her eighties now. When I was three she was a knee-bouncing, song-singing person who had a perfect understanding of what children like. In her house you were in the company of special woolly egg-cosies shaped like crinolined ladies. You were served delicious cordials served in amber glasses through which the sunny garden could be observed. She gave me many books which were cornerstones of my childhood, and this treasured book is one of those. I loved peering into its weird little world, close to our own and yet somehow not, and so I've chosen Smiler's Pram Ride (written by Sylvia Caveney and illustrated by Simon Stern*) both as a relic and as an influence... it sends me back but it brings me forward, too. There's nostalgia there, for sure, but also a delicious feeling of agreeing with my very young self... the things I loved then are things I love now, and I feel them with me every time I put pencil to paper.

This is the simple story of a runaway pram with a cheery infant passenger – Smiler. It's not really a name but Smiler is not really a character. We don't even discover whether Smiler is male or female. The important thing is that something very unusual is happening to Smiler – and it's actually OK. He or she is able to enjoy the adventure, and end up bouncing back to Mum at the end of it all.

As far as I was concerned, this was a picture of MY mum in her trademark brown polo-neck and cords

 The pram - and Smiler – roll down the street, bounce down some stairs and onto a car, are hooked up by a crane, are dropped in a tree and carried off by a swan. They splosh down into a pond and finally trundle down a hill only to end up in the same street as they started off in.

 What's really glorious about the book is the way the illustrations describe this perfect circular journey. The world Smiler trundles around is like a friendly little island with its own miniature brick-built townscape and cast of characters. And each time Smiler's pram enters a new environment, you get a little peep back at the place they've just left. The boatman is distantly visible on the hill, and the swan's feather remains clutched in Smiler's pudgy hand. It's full of narrative integrity and it stitches the story together brilliantly. I adored it then and I relish it now. And just for extra fun, a little white bird appears on every page – you can spot it each time.

The story concludes at the point where Smiler rejoins his/her mother, but the illustrations give the big pay-out in the centre spread, where you see the whole route of the pram through the streets and up to the boating pond. It's a bird's-eye view where you can see right down into the streets at certain points, to spy the perplexed car-owner watching as the crane whisks the pram aloft, and the mother chatting in blissful ignorance as her baby soars overhead.

This illustration has left an indelible stain on me. I love to draw townscapes, especially when there's a chance to show a cluster of streets with peep-holes between them where you can spy a little vignette of humanity playing out below your bird's eye. Steps to bounce down? Oh, yes please. Hilltops in amongst the chimneys? Well, quite. Cranes? Mmmm. Even the funny misregistration effects in some of the pictures have a certain resonance. It's difficult to say which elements of this book just had natural appeal for me, and which appeal to me now because I remember them from the past. But whenever I draw something that reminds me of this book and its illustrations I feel a little bit of extra satisfaction. It's like dropping a secret portrait of a family member into a scene.

Strange forces at work

But here's the thing – loving this book, and remembering what I loved about it, also acts as a driving force in my own work. When I draw for children I draw for my own childhood. I link what I remember loving as a little reader, with what I love to draw now. And it turns out the two have a lot in common. No surprises there.

There's that  rod of connectivity that joins adults with children, and if you love reading with children you're holding onto that rod, and if you sing with children you're holding it too, just like my sort-of-godmother Robin did with me. Memory feeds creativity. Whenever you write or draw for children you're sending messages right down that rod like a sort of electricity, linking your own present with your own past and maybe their futures too. Who were Simon Stern (*see below) and Sylvia Caveney? What pictures in books fed their imaginations as children, and who bounced them on knees and bought them books? In the chattering hubbub of a shelf groaning with picture-books I can hear adults talking to adults, adults talking to children, adults talking to the children they once were, children's voices, imagined or transposed – and in the middle of all this white noise, the simple message inscribed in the fly leaf of  my favourite book still whispering to me...

* From your Ed: In addition to a 30 year career as an illustrator, Simon Stern (1943–2009) was a key figure with the Association of Illustrators, known as a champion of illustrators and their rights. He was a patron of the AOI, writing The Illustrators Guide to Law and Business Practice and served as a board member of DACS (Design & Artists Copyright Society) from 1992-2008. (John)

Do you have a book on your shelf that inspired you as an illustrator? We love to showcase members' inspirations, so get in touch!! 


 Catherine Lindow is an artist/illustrator/sometimes writer, and alumnus of the Picture Hooks mentoring scheme, currently based in Fife and attending SE Scotland critique groups.

1 comment:

  1. Rosemary Lynch2 June 2023 at 22:48

    This was a favourite library book of my daughter, Kirstin, born in 1975. It was also my favourite and when my second daughter was born I requested it again from the library but it had been withdrawn from stock and I never saw it again. We had little money to spare then and rarely bought books. I have often looked online for a copy but never found one, so I am envious of Catherine but also delighted to read how this delightful story and illustrations influenced her and it’s wonderful to see the extracts from the original - many thanks


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