How do you define a “classic”? Does it have to be an old book? Is it one that remains fresh and meaningful despite the passage of years? We can all point to books we’d call classics, but is there a set of common characteristics? I’ve definitely been mulling these questions over recently (with help from @Luvzi12 and @Chaletfan amongst other), but it’s still easier for me to pick up a book and say “Here, this is a classic.”
And a set of such “classics” that we’ve recently enjoyed is the triumphant trio of books by Tomi Ungerer about a family of pigs, the Mellops, who get up to all sorts of adventures and who have a penchant for cream cakes (exactly the sort of family I try to cultivate around me!).
Recently republished, 50+ years after they originally entertained children, I had not previously heard of them, but they’ve now become established favourites in our home, definitely part of our personal library of books we’ll return to again and again.
You do not need to have read any of them to enjoy the other books – each stands on its own as a delightful slice of life from Mr and Mrs Mellops and their four sons, Casimir, Isidor, Felix and Ferdinand.
In the story set at Christmas, Christmas Eve at the Mellops’, the boys each separately wish to surprise their father and so cut down a Christmas tree in the forest. But four Christmas trees are too many for any family and thus the boys try to find homes for their trees. It seems that no-one needs them, until at last they find a family down on its luck and the boys all pull together to fill that family’s home full of Christmas cheer. The high moral tone of the book is tempered with plenty of humour, so rather than coming across as preachy, it reads as just a jolly nice story about what Christmas really ought to be about – kindness and generosity (and the discovery of a universal truth: “there is no such thing as too many Christmas trees!“)
Another story, The Mellops Strike Oil, beings when one summer picnic the Mellops notice that the stream’s water tastes of oil. Having done their research on where oil is generally found, they return to their picnic spot and set about drilling for liquid gold. They do strike lucky, but a smouldering cigar thrown from a passing car results in fiery disaster and so the family return home, perhaps beaten, but definitely not downhearted. With lovely understatement, “Oil drilling is quite exciting,” Father sighed. “But from now on, let’s leave it to the professionals.” The idea that the journey, the adventure, not the final destination or the end result is what really matters is also a theme in The Mellops Go Diving For Treasure.
This third caper involves searching for treasure in an underwater shipwreck, meeting merpigs and a dangerous octopus along the way. After initial failure to find the gold, they do then discover a full treasure chest. But are the jewels really worth more than friendship and the exciting experiences they’ve shared along the way? Once again, what could be rather worthy moral overtones are soften by light-hearted and warm humour, making the message all the more believable and meaningful.
The stories are each a lot of fun – they pack a punch and make you smile. The illustrations are pared down, with minimal use of colour and sparing use of detail – which makes them seem suprisingly fresh and modern.
Ultimately these stories are about a family with big hearts. They live life to the full, they live hopefully and adventurously, and know how to dust themselves down and appreciate what they do have even when things do not go quite according to plan. It’s definitely a modus operandi I’d like to adopt for my family! Here’s hoping that Phaidon will also re-issue the two remaining Mellops’ stories, The Mellops Go Spelunking and The Mellops go Flying.
One more reason why we aspire to be like the Mellops is that each story ends with the happy Mellops family sitting down to enjoy cream cakes together, and of course this idea appealed to M, J and me. So armed with a can of squirty cream each, plenty of paper cake cases and a tempting array of sprinkles, we set about spending an afternoon creating our own cream cakes.
This was an edible twist on the sensory play with shaving foam idea that I’ve seen all over the web but my kids haven’t enjoyed the times I’ve tried because the scent of the shaving foam has been too strong.
For J’s little hands it was rather hard work pressing the can hard enough for the cream to squirt out, but she found it easy enough to enjoy the sprinkles!
An indulgent, wickedly enjoyable afternoon of playing and making and eating was had by all
Whilst we made our cream cakes and played patisseries we listened to:
Other fun activities you could try along side these lovely stories from Tomi Ungerer include:
What’s the most fun you’ve ever had playing with your food? (By the way, I see a theme developing this week on the blog – Monday saw the edible books, today it’s cream cakes, and on Friday I hope to be back with a post featuring Maltesers…)
Disclosure: I received my copies of these books from the publisher. This review, however, remains my own and honest opinion.