The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden

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The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden

Category: For Sharing
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The Peppermint Pig is a book full of realism and down-to-earth humour. It's also about adults keeping children in the dark. Full of wonderful writing, there are a lot of life lessons contained within, yet the book is never preachy. It may not be something children will want to read over and over, but it certainly worth a library trip.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: March 1977
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: 0140309446

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Now here's a Mummy who can tell good stories:

Old Granny Greengrass had her finger chopped off in the butcher's when she was buying half a leg of lamb. She had pointed to the place where she wanted her joint to be cut but then she decided she needed a bigger piece and pointed again. Unfortunately, Mr Grummett, the butcher, was already bringing his sharp chopper down. He chopped straight through her finger and it flew like a snapped twig into a pile of sawdust in the corner of the shop. It was hard to tell who was more surprised, Granny Greengrass or the butcher. But she didn't blame him. She said, 'I could never make up my mind and stick to it Mr Grummett, that's always been my trouble.'

Ooh, I wish I could tell stories like that!

It's the very first paragraph from The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden. It's so funny. And what a hook it is too. Well, it is if you're under ten, anyway. 'Did it bleed much?' asked Theo Greengrass on the very next page. As it happens, there wasn't much blood at all, although no one thought to sew the finger back on. The book is filled with robust, earthy humour like that.

There are four Greengrass children; George, Lily, Theo and Polly. They live in London with their mother, she of the blood curdling stories, and their happy-go-lucky, twinkly-eyed father. Father is a coachpainter by trade, and at Christmas time he brings home shavings of precious gold leaf so that the children can make beautiful cards to send. All is well in their lives until one day Father is unjustly accused of stealing money from his employer. Of course it wasn't him at all, but he's prepared to take the blame to save an old man from finding out his only son is a thief and a liar. So Father is off to America to join Uncle Edmund and make his fortune. When that day comes then he'll send for his family, but until then they must stay with Aunt Sarah and Aunt Harriet in Norfolk.

Poll is afraid that she'll never see her father again. But there's no helping it and Mother and the children find themselves staying with Aunt Sarah and Aunt Harriet within weeks. It's awkward and uncomfortable at first because, young as they are, Theo and Poll realise that they've no longer any money of their own and they're living on charity. Their aunts are kind and never make them feel beholden but somehow they know things aren't quite right. And they miss their father. Still, Norfolk life can be fun; they learn to skate and slide on the iced over village pond, they go to school and make friends and they discover the joys of country fairs, but best of all they find Johnnie, the peppermint pig.

Mother buys Johnnie, the runt, or the peppermint, of the litter, from the milkman for a shilling. "Pigs are a poor man's investment," she says, but Theo and Poll have no idea what this means. They only know that Johnnie is the best thing to have happened to them since Father left. He's so tiny that he can fit into a pint glass and he feels smooth if he's stroked one way and scratchy if he's stroked the other. "Pigs are more intelligent than any dog" pronounces Mother and she's quite right. Under the care of Theo and Poll Johnnie grows big and fat and strong. Johnnie comes when he's called and sits still when he's told, he waits outside shops for them and doesn't need to be tied like a dog would. He becomes the famous pet pig - he's the talk of the town. One day Poll and Mother even take him to tea with Lady March, much to the amusement of her servants. And on another occasion he causes mayhem when the fair comes to town and he's left behind. Lonely and miserable, he crashes after the Greengrasses leaving a trail of disasters in his wake. The Bearded Lady isn't at all impressed.

Of course, Johnnie isn't really a pet; he's that "poor man's investment" and I'll leave you to ponder for yourselves what that would have meant in turn-of-the-century Norfolk. In a way I suppose The Peppermint Pig is like Charlotte's Web, another children's classic. It demonstrates the birth, life and death cycle in the same way, a way that children can understand and come to terms with. But it's also very different. There is no fantasy element to Nina Bawden's writing, she drew from her own life in most of her tales. Her books are real, filled with real people and real events but above all real emotional reactions.

Children need realism in the books they read almost as much as they need fantasy, I think. The problems of poverty, the truths of mortality, the complicated and hard-to-understand motives of adults all have their place in children's books just as they have in books for adults. But it needs to be as part of a fully realised story, not just dragged in to satisfy some educational or social theory. And that's what's so great about The Peppermint Pig - Poll and Theo have only the scantiest understanding of what's really going on in the adult world about them, but they know enough to pick up on the tensions and the conflicts. And they know they're not being told the full story all of the time. Bawden creates an emotional landscape that children can recognise whether they live in a tower block or a palace; the child's eye view of being kept in the dark, of being powerless to affect events that concern them, if you like. But it's also a great story.

Poll and Theo know that Mother disapproves of Father's going to America but they can't quite understand why. And it's only the arrival of their grandfather, a man who's chosen the life of a tramp, which gives them a clue to their own father's foot-loose nature. I think that to discount children from the ranks of the people who are told the truth is always a mistake. If anything children feel MORE than adults do; because they're so young, events take on an enormous magnitude in their minds (just remember how long the summer holidays used to be, for example) and to scale down their reactions or to not take them seriously because they're "just children" is a crashing injustice. Bawden knows this and shows it in the way Poll often reacts to confusing events; with frustration, anger and bad behaviour.

Good fiction, whether it is intended for adults or for children, engages us both heart and soul; the reader responds not only to the imaginary things - places, events, people - as though they were real, but also to fictional problems as though they were real. We, whether we are adult or child, sympathise, think and judge those problems so that it not only entertains and distracts us but also helps us know, adult or child, what we think and believe. But my good fiction for children doesn't lecture so much and isn't so worthy that the child is crushed, it plants a little, little seed that will develop from the inside in the child's own time. This is exactly what The Peppermint Pig does; it tells the story of a difficult yet happy year for the Greengrass children with both earthy humour and matter-of-fact truth. But it never, ever stops being first and foremost a great story. And when, finally, it all comes right for Poll, it's not because everything has a saccharine and happy ending but because she's beginning to understand for herself not only the truths of her own life, but the truths of life in general.

I really do wish I could tell a story like Nina Bawden, or her Mrs Greengrass!

For another realistic book about a child and an animal, try our review of One Eyed Cat, by Paula Fox.

Buy The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden at Amazon.com.


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