Shirley extols the value of imagination. A simple interpretation of the book is that it is a story about a little girl’s trip to the seaside and the imaginary games that she plays there. But scratch the surface and there is a lot more going on
As is often the case in John Burningham’s work there are two parallel narratives. On the left hand page we have the parents. They are drawn in washed-out pastel colours and sit on their deckchairs ignoring their child except to chastise her and relay commands. These are the kind of parents none of us want to become; those who jab and pester their children to become part of their own joyless world.
The other narrative, on the right hand page, is Shirley’s make-believe adventure. She is drawn in vivid colours rowing out to sea, fighting pirates, finding hidden treasure. She has escaped to a dream world. Although, who would want to insist that Shirley’s world is the make-believe and her parents’ is the ‘real’ one.
In a conventional picture-book Shirley’s adventure with the pirates would be at the forefront, with illustrations backing up the words of the narrative. Yet here Burningham places the adventure to one side and narrates it purely with his pictures. The only words we read are the tedious sentiments of Shirley’s parents. This is a book in which language, or certain forms of it, is subtly accused of disenchanting the world. It asks us, and particularly those of us with the responsibilities of parenthood, to think about what we do with words.
The most chilling line in the book is ‘Your father might have a game with you when he’s had a little rest’, as if play can only be at a prescribed time in a fashion that is recognisable to adults. Shirley reminds us to re-enchant the world.
Heroine rating: 5/5