Poking Fires | Newberry

Poking Fires

So she took exams and got a degree, even though women weren’t allowed to do that in her part of the world in those days. She married a doctor, went off to India with him for thirty years, and in her spare time wrote books for her four children. One of her grandchildren became a wildly important physicist.

And if anyone mentions her, in the main, they do so with a grimace.

She basically understood what kind of stories children enjoy, and wrote that kind. But they have, um, problems. Let me tell you about the extremely rare one which came in last week, her 1904 tale, the Story of Little Kettle-Head (which seems to be adapted from a previous book by taking out the words from India that American children wouldn’t recognize.)

The little girl is warned by her parents that her favorite hobby, poking up the fires in the kitchen, is dangerous. One day, to reach the fires so she can poke them up with a stick, she puts a kettle on the floor and stands on it. Alas, the kettle is hardly a stable surface, and she tumbles forward into the flames, burning her head off.

Grown-ups, hearing the noise, rush in, see what has happened, and take immediate action. They take the kettle and put it on her shoulder and paint a face on it. They seem to like Little Kettle-Head so much better than the original little girl. (She can’t really talk back, after all.)

But Kettle-head writes to Santa Claus (Father Christmas) for a new head, and, coming through, he leaves her one. She carries it very carefully, so as not to drop it, to where her mother keeps the paste, and pastes it to her neck. The scene where she tips her head to make sure the new head won’t fall off is priceless. The head stays on and she lives happily ever after, except that she is now absolutely terrified of fire and has to be dragged in that direction when she MUST go past flames. The End.

Hey, the story has everything. The lesson is “Don’t Play With Fire”, the violence is ghoulish without being graphic, and there is a happy ending. It may lack a little in the area of anatomical education, but one has to hope very few children will try to burn off their heads so they can wear a kettle. If reissued, it would have to include a line about “Don’t try this at home”.

The author wrote a number of these stories, the most famous being a real rouser about a little boy who is nearly eaten by tigers but winds up eating them (on pancakes) instead. Yes, Little Kettle-Head is the work of Helen Bannerman, whose books about adventurous children (almost always called “Little” something) were all overshadowed by her very first one, Little Black Sambo.

I have read only these two of her works (though, as I say, I suspect Little Kettle-Head is just an Americanized version of Little Degchie-Head, published the year before.) I suspect they all have that in common: great story, but with just enough off-putting details to make grown-ups cringe. I have yet to tell the story of Kettle-Head without seeing shudders, whereas the experts agree that Sambo is a great story ruined by the names and the illustrations. (Some of them claim Sambo was the first positive depiction of a child of color in American or English books for children.)

I hope some enterprising library somewhere has collected all the revisions which tried to make that classic easier on the eye. I have seen Little Brave Sam, The Boy and the Tigers, Little Babachi, Little Kim, and Sam and the Tigers. In Japan, the book was published with the hero as a black Labrador puppy. None of these have especially caught on: it’s hard to look beyond Sambo (and his parents, Mumbo and Jumbo.) And I have not seen a Collected Works volume including her other books, Little Black Quibba, Little Black Bobtail, Little Black Mingo, or Little Black Quasha. You can see a nagging problem here.

Mind you, just as a note, Little Kettle-Head is white. And blonde.

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