By Philippa Bougeard
Who can remember learning to read? As a child, I loved books, and from an early age, was as much entranced by the words as I was by the pictures that illustrated them.
But I can’t recall that definitive moment when the wiggly black letter shapes jumped out at me from the page and suddenly started to make sense.
On starting school, I brought home preliminary, learn-to-read Biff, Chip and Kipper books. I’m sure that anybody in their twenties will remember learning to read in these carefully laid-out stages. I liked the illustrations of the children, wearing ordinary jeans and t-shirts in their safe pastel world. But their adventures were tedious, a family of four going about their daily chores in a boring believable way. The world that had been created seemed just too average to be set out on a storybook page.
What else could I read? It was then that I discovered the Kipper stories.
Kipper is a lovable pup that has succeeded in stealing the hearts of parents and kids alike for over a quarter of a decade. Illustrator and author Mick Inkpen brought his dog character sharply into focus - and into children's picture books - by giving Kipper his own series; '...I stood him up on his back legs, essentially made him a kind of substitute for a child and that's how it all started.'
Kipper doesn't have any parents (or, at least, there is no mention of them in his stories) He is allowed to do things that most young children are not yet able or allowed to do; which makes the things that he gets up to altogether more exciting and a bit mischievous!
He goes camping and fishing with his friends (it is necessary to point out here that any kids' book these days writing about this kind of activity would come with an accompanying Health & Safety Warning for parents reading over their kids' shoulders), he goes to the beach, and ventures out in the snow - and without a coat, hat or gloves! Best of all, he has lots of toys and is very messy!
In creating Kipper, did Mick Inkpen have an inkling of the popularity it would have with kids? He claims not. 'Kipper was a character I came to build up over a number of years...I thought, 'What character do I want to draw?', and realized that dogs gave me a lot of latitude; so I made a list of names and chose one that struck the right balance between oddness and familiarity.' Kipper is a curious character: he looks like a dog, but he acts like a playful child; an 'honorary toddler', as his creator puts it. It’s not difficult to imagine him as your favourite friendly pet.
This year, Kipper celebrates his 26th birthday, yet it is impossible to think of him as any older than about four of five years of age. He'll continue to grow up with the next generations of children who will read his books with fresh eyes, forever giggling at his antics, as he auspiciously tries to track down a mouse in his toy box, and tries to have a good night sleep in a flowerpot.
Surprisingly, Mick Inkpen has said that he never sets out with a specific story for Kipper. Armed with his trusty pen and pad of paper, he frequently ponders about what Kipper is going to do next before he has even drawn it. With every new blank page, a new adventure can take page on an imaginary stage he calls a ‘Whiteworld’. The words come after the pictures, and with that, a heightened sense of anticipation shared between storyteller and reader with each turn of the page: 'What happens next? Well, you sit down and I'll tell you.'
We can feel this type of excitement when we are sat in the stalls of the theatre, waiting for the show to begin. The drawing back of the dusty red and gold curtain is the unveiling of an entirely conjured up world, before your very eyes onstage. What better place than the theatre to make cherished childhood stories come to life?
This December at Worthing Theatres, the much-loved tale of 'Kipper's Snowy Day' will be played out to us with the expert help of puppets and an ingenious magical set. Come along to Worthing Theatres from 19-29 December (it is advised that you bring a child), and participate in a truly magical performance experience with your favourite dog book-character and friends. I know I’ll be there. Having grown up with the Kipper stories myself, I am still somewhat enchanted by them. And it’s strange to think that, after all this time, I am only two years’ younger than Kipper!