Tag Archives: imaginary friends

Come away from the water, Shirley


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




Aldo is the Harvey-esque imaginary best friend to a little girl. As is often the case with John Burningham a lot of the story is told through the illustrations rather than the text. We learn that she is bullied, her parents argue and that above all she is very lonely. But whenever she is at her darkest Aldo comes to whisk her off on an adventure: playing on the swings, ice skating, tightrope walking across the city at night…or simply to read her a bedtime story when she can’t sleep.

The heroine is never named and I’m only guessing that she’s a she because she wears a skirt (if the main character is actually a cross dressing boy then Burningham gets even more points!) Her gender is not relevant to the story which, as I’ve said, is often my favourite heroine.

I’ll have to wait a few years to see if my son warms to Aldo but I suspect that it is a story that appeals more to adults then children – which is no bad thing, we’re the ones spending our evenings reading them aloud. I also like that it is slightly maudlin, I think that children shouldn’t just read hyperactive fun books (although they definitely have their place.) And it has a wonderful message: that if you have imagination you will never be alone because “Aldo will always be there.”


Heroine rating 4/5