Hobbies and Crafts in Children’s Books

Did you have a hobby as a child? Stamp collecting perhaps, maybe making something or perhaps you were a railway enthusiast, collecting engine numbers and running your own branch line in the attic. These are perhaps the most obvious ones to spring to mind and may still be a focus for young interests; certainly the specialist magazines displayed on supermarket racks suggest that hobbies are pursued with passion. However, looking at many of these publications, it would seem the audience will be adult. Those aimed at the young tend to feature the collecting of Pokémon figures, painting Warhammer armies or developing Minecraft skills – all in the safety of their own homes.

However, not so long ago hobbies and craft activities could show a singular disregard for health and safety. Nicholas Tucker in his article describes instructions for building a boat for oneself – and not a model but a real craft in which the reader was then encouraged to sail on the sea if not a lake. There are no instructions for making a life jacket! Swimming it was suggested would be a good skill to have if embarking on this particular interest. What the author is recommending is making something, developing a real skill – though there may be more than an element of wishful thinking involved. However, encouraging practical skills is very much part of the ethos of the radical literature aimed at young people in the early twentieth century as Kim Reynolds reveals. Hiking certainly, but also creating a newspaper were activities young people could indulge in with enthusiasm – and did.

If we may look somewhat askance at some of the activities suggested in the books aimed at young readers, dolls and sewing are still very much part of our world. Susan Bailes and Pat Pinsent explore the role played by dolls and, in the case of Pat Pinsent, patchwork in books for children. In her article ‘Fashioning Dolls’, Susan Bailes traces the way in which dolls and the place they had in the nursery – and out of it – as presented in texts reveal real-life attitudes and ideas about the role, behaviour and position that a girl might be expected to have within society. Perhaps not something of the past as Barbie flourishes – and is now, I believe, allowed to wear a space suit. Patchwork plays a different role in Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe books as Pat Pinsent shows. Here it is the means to establish character and create contact with the past. One is, perhaps, reminded of the Freedom Quilts believed to have been created by slaves as subversive, abstract – but visual – maps of the route to freedom.

Once again, play and a hobby are seen to have a very practical underpinning which is disseminated through the books being published for the young. Nor is this something confined to the past. Maxine March points to the enduring use of patchwork, whether to conjure up a sense of warmth and homeliness or, as for Boston, a way of telling a story itself, while Jemma Westing, herself a practitioner, talks about what motivates her not just to be a creator but to encourage children to create. She may not be encouraging her young readers to build a sea-going craft (or even a raft) but she is encouraging them to harness skills and imagination.

Ferelith Hordon