Friday, November 5, 2010


I'm off to Brisbane for the weekend to visit my grand-daughter... and, of course, her parents. Mostly when I visit I take a book for her as a small gift and this time I'm taking 'Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories'.

MMM cover

I remember Milly-Molly-Mandy with great fondness from my 1940s and 50s childhood. My daughter enjoyed them in the 1970s and I'm interested to see how my three-and-a-half year old grand-daughter - who loves books but is very much a child of the electronic age - responds to them now.

A bit of back-story for those unacquainted with Milly-Molly-Mandy. There are four books, each of them a collection of around a dozen short stories, that describe the daily life of Milly-Molly-Mandy (full name Millicent Margaret Amanda), her family, her friends, and her neighbours. The first of the books was written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley in 1928, and they've never been out of print since - the kind of publishing phenomenon most publishers would love to be associated with.

It's hard to know where the appeal lies. The stories are simple, highly moral, and contained within a stable and knowable world. The illustrations are open, inviting and archetypal representations of a rather old-fashioned, safe community. The stories have a wealth of detail - of what people eat (I'd totally forgotten about bread soaked in milk, which Milly-Molly-Mandy often has for supper), what they do in domestic situations, what they wear, and how much things cost. There's lots of repetition (Milly-Molly-Mandy's house is always referred to as 'the nice white cottage with the thatched roof'; her best friend is always 'little-friend-Susan') which delights young readers and listeners and drives grown-ups mad.

For me a very important element of the appeal was the map of Milly-Molly-Mandy's unnamed English village that appears at the beginning of each collection of stories. I think most young children love maps and graphic representations of how things fit together.

MMM map

I can remember tracing the movements of the characters in each of the stories across the streets and fields of the maps and deriving satisfaction from my precise knowledge of how things fitted together spatially.

The village of the stories is old-fashioned even for its time. There's no electricity and no cars. People work as grocers and shopkeepers and bakers and postmen and blacksmiths and teachers, and they grow vegetables and flowers. It's a world where small children run errands unsupervised, everyone walks everywhere, strangers are kind, all treats other than 'sweeties' are home-baked, and recycling and reuse are unthinkingly the order of the day. Gender roles are rigidly divided - we learn in the very first story that within Milly-Molly-Mandy's multi-generational family household Mother cooks the dinners and does the washing; Grandma knits socks and mittens and nice warm woollies for them all; and Aunty sews frocks and shirts and does the sweeping and dusting. But I don't think I am being unduly kind to the books, or too biased by my fondness in saying that the female characters are valued no less than the men. They often play a leading role in events, and their activities are seen to be important.

Implicitly, and often explicitly, all the stories have a moral or are 'improving'. Almost always, the morality or the learning is obvious - sharing with friends, whether it's work or sweeties, brings pleasure; delaying gratification often brings longer-term rewards; judging people by their appearance is unfair; winning first prize is less important than acquiring a skill. It's hard to question any of these gentle values, even today.

Finally in this morass of reminiscence, an incident for the knitters among us. Milly-Molly-Mandy wants to make her money go as far as possible and asks Grandma to teach her to knit. After several attempts she knits 'quite a nice kettle-holder' and asks her mother if she thinks it is worth a penny. The story then continues
Why, Milly-Molly-Mandy,' said Mother, 'that is exactly what I am wanting, for my old one is all worn out! But the penny only pays for the wool, so you are making me a present of all your trouble.'And Mother gave Milly-Molly-Mandy a penny and a kiss, and Milly-Molly-Mandy felt well-paid.

So Milly-Molly-Mandy had done a nice thing, had spent her penny, and learnt to knit, and she still had her penny!

There's a moral there, somewhere!


missfee said...

I love these books and still have my set - they were my favorite as a child.
The map was pored over and the drawings too - a great book to learn to read as well

Alison said...

'you are making me a present of all your trouble' is such a lovely phrase. I read it two ways - it thanks the person for taking the trouble and acknowledges that their effort is valued, but it also has a sense of passing over all your 'troubles' to someone else, to the trusted and loved adult.

Thank you for the post - I liked Milly Molly Mandy when I was little too, though I never had the books - I remember reading them at the baby-sitter's house on her dark spooky staircase.

Jan said...

I grew up in the 1950s too. I read those books in second class but didn't like them. I preferred the Folk of the Faraway Tree, a series now reprinted. My teacher lent me all the Anne books, one by one, and I went from there to Nora Grant Bruce and the Billabong series. I can't remember the last series she lent me.

Apart from the Faraway Tree books, I hated Enid Blyton with a passion. Fortunately, there were only two books in the house which I was not allowed to read. Anything else was fair game. Mum complained that I wiped only one plate dry to ten pages read when I had to wipe up.

I read those two books many years later and agreed with dad. One was on MauMau atrocities and the other was a book by Havelock Ellis, the sex therapist.

Lie you, I buy books for the grandchildren, the latest being on Wednesday at Grandparents' Day at the school of three of them. I also buy books for them as a souvenir when I have been away and write the occasion in the book.

Jan said...

Well, that would be "like you I buy..." Sorry about that.

jp said...

I love books with maps and layouts. I was always happy to pore over them for hours

Rose Red said...

Another lover of books with maps! I remember these maps (from Milly Molly Mandy) more than I remember the stories, although I know I read them as a child.

I hope the dotee loves them as much as you - and that one day she is buying them as a special gift for her own granddaughter.

Sally said...

I had never heard of Milly Molly Mandy until we happened upon her with my youngest (4th child, now 14). She LOVED these stories, as did I. I can still hear Elinor laughing out loud at Milly Molly Mandy's cleverness and joining in on those repetitious parts. The story of how far that penny goes was a special favorite. Thanks for the lovely reminder.

metal and knit said...

Oh I loved Milly Molly Mandy they were a YP Anniversary ( Sunday School Prize) item I got in the 80's.

M-H said...

I loved MMM too, and so did my daughter and so did my granddaughters. And I remember the maps.

I buy my grandaughters books - I get them to email me with ones that they've had out of the library that they'd like to own. And I also buy them DVDs (fishpond is a good source) of the books they've enjoyed, like Secret Garden, Mary Poppins and Charlotte's Web, and they love to watch and read and discuss the differences. Wallace and Gromit is a great favourite too, and they love Shaun the Sheep, although they're getting a bit old for him now.

Bells said...

what a memory lane post. How wonderful.

We used to have bread and milk. Mum would put raw sugar over it and it was all crunchy on top. I must revisit it!

Unknown said...

Thank you Lyn. Enjoy Brisbane and the wonderous pleasure of being with the dotee (and her parents).

Caffeine Girl said...

Thank you so much for pointing me toward these stories. I've never seen them here in America, but my library has the book and I'm going to stop by and get it!