The Children Who Changed is the book I’ve been reading to my six-year-old daughter as a bedtime story. I found it in a charity bookshop the last time I was in Ipswich; I am not quite sure why I picked it up as this copy has lost its dust-jacket so I couldn’t really tell what it was about. But I am very glad that I did buy it, and so is my daughter! And since I can find very little information about David Fletcher or his work on the internet, I decided to write about it here, even though I don’t usually write about children’s books.
‘They’ve been in the wars all right. “Two legs detached, one arm missing and also an eye. Most of the hair pulled off, paint badly scratched, clothes badly torn.” Dear me! it would seem you are not very fond of your dolls,’ he continued severely. ‘You must have been using the poor things as footballs or something like that, which is scarcely the way to look after a couple of expensive and beautiful dolls. Even Dr Pulitzer’s Special Composition won’t last long under that sort of treatment.’
He looked at the children so sternly that Tessa felt almost frightened. Lucy, meanwhile, was opening her mouth to explain that it wasn’t them but Turn-up, their new Spaniel puppy, who had done all the damage but before she could speak Mr Moon had gone on.
‘You should put yourselves in their place, then you’d treat them more kindly. Just supposing you were suddenly turned into dolls. You wouldn’t like that, now would you?’
‘I don’t think I’d mind it,’ said Tessa. ‘In fact I might rather like it.’
Mr Moon is the disquieting proprietor of the doll’s hospital in the village where Lucy and Tessa Trevelyan live and, it seems, a champion of dolls’ rights. After he has repaired the sisters’ dolls, Mabel and Margaret, Tessa notices that the dolls’ freshly painted faces no longer look so friendly. She also notices Mr Moon slip a mysterious packet into the dolls’ box. The sisters discover the packet to be a packet of ‘Dolls Tea. Special Magic Brew’ which, when touched to their dolls’ lips, enables them to talk. Margaret and Mabel suggest that they exchange places with Lucy and Tessa, so that the sisters can experience life as dolls. Although they are both uneasy about this, Lucy and Tessa agree. What could possibly go wrong?
The morning’s brightness had faded and thunder was in the air. Dark clouds had swept up from the south, yet the breeze had died down and, in the stillness that tells of approaching thunder, not even the most feathery willow leaf gave a quiver and for once even the sparrows had ceased their squabbling and chirping.
In this moment of stillness Lucy opened the strange black packet with the silver seal and emptied on to the floor four circular counters. Two were of shining silver and two of a dull, dead black. The silvery ones she placed, as Mr Moon had instructed, in front of herself and Tessa, the black ones in front of the dolls. Then, speaking together and with Tessa’s voice little more than a whisper, the two sisters said, ‘First we give all.’ As they spoke each pushed with the tip of a right-hand finger a silver counter across the hanky towards the motionless dolls. Then, and this time the left hand had to be used, they drew the two black counters towards them, saying, ‘Now we take all.’ Lastly, still speaking together but with Tessa’s voice now more of a whisper than ever, they chanted, ‘Let the exchange be complete.’
Crash! A terrible thunderclap, following hard on the heels of a brilliant flash, greeted the word ‘complete.’ Lucy and Tessa felt dizzy. Their heads spun round. It seemed for a moment there was nothing to see except blackness filled with circles of silvery fire. Then, as these finally faded, they found that without a shadow of a doubt – they were dolls.
The basic premise of the book – that the children are changed into dolls – is actually pretty scary. As dolls, they can neither move nor speak if a human is near them or looking at them. They also have little control over their own lives, picked up and dropped at will. Mabel and Margaret, once freed from dollhood by the exchange, have no intention of returning to their proper state ever again. In one chapter, they throw Tessa and Lucy into the mill stream and stand on the bridge watching them float down towards the millwheel, knowing that as long as they are in sight they cannot swim to the bank and save themselves. However, since this a book intended for young children the existential horror is played down (as my daughter said to me sternly, ‘All stories end happily’); the tone is cheery and the girls remain generally optimistic (rightly). While I have a few quibbles about some of the logic, it’s a well-paced story and we both enjoyed it.
Although some of the characters behave cruelly, both children and readers understand their motivations. Within the world of the book, in which toys are actually alive, Mr Moon’s desire to encourage children to take better care of their dolls is entirely moral and praiseworthy, if his method is shocking. Mabel and Margaret’s treachery and attempted murder are born from their terror of returning to a dreadful powerlessness and a life of abuse at the hands of careless children: this powerlessness is something that all children understand well and Tessa and Lucy forgive them (although in the end they give them away because they cannot quite bear to have them nearby after what they have done).
There is an interesting moment in the toy cupboard when Lucy realises that she may have to remain a doll for ever:
‘But what about us? We can’t remain here,’ Lucy cried in dismay.
‘Why ever not?’ asked Blue Bunny. ‘If we can why ever not you?’
‘Because – because we just can’t,’ replied Lucy stamping her foot.
In one sense Lucy is right: the exchange has violated the natural order of things in which you are what you seem, doll, child, dog, flower. Externally a doll while internally a child, Lucy’s outer and inner self are no longer in harmony. This must be reconciled. Yet at the same time, Lucy can only answer Blue Bunny’s question by claiming that she is special and somehow innately more deserving of a privileged existence (as a child, not as a toy) than he (or Mabel or Margaret) is. And Lucy realises that this is impossible to say to Blue Bunny because it is unfair. It is only a sort of accident of birth which places toys where they are and children where they are, and gives one group a powerless existence and bestows privilege and freedom on the other group. And this cannot be justified and yet it is the way of things. But I think that Fletcher is making a point about social justice here.
I have tried to find out a little more about David Fletcher. The Children Who Changed was published by Michael Joseph in 1961, by which time Fletcher had also written three other books for children: Miss Primrose, Angelo Goes to the Circus and The Blue Elephants. Miss Primrose was published by Hutchinson in 1955 and illustrated by Rosalie K. Fry. There is an outline of the story here.
On the quay at Las Palmas, waiting to be bought by passengers coming ashore from visiting ships, stands a row of dolls. Among them is the beautiful, kind hearted but proud Miss Primrose who has run away from home to prove she is "the most beautiful doll in the world". Her vanity receives a rude shock when all the other dolls are sold before her...
I can find no information at all about Angelo Goes to the Circus, but Amazon lists The Blue Elephants as having been published by Hutchinson in 1957 and a sales description states that it was illustrated by Doritie Kettlewell. And that is everything that I’ve managed to find out about David Fletcher: if anyone knows more or can point me to some more information I’d be very grateful! On the strength of The Children Who Changed, it’s a pity that he’s not better known and that his work is out of print. I had a little more luck with his illustrators. Rosalie K. Fry, who did the pictures for Miss Primrose, was also a writer of a number of books including Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry (1959), which was filmed as The Secret of Roan Inish. There is an interesting post about her here.
(The photograph of the book in its original dust-jacket is from here.)