The 633rd book on Virago’s wonderful Modern Classics list is Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children, Mossy Trotter. First published in 1967, the new edition comes with lively Tony Ross illustrations, and an introduction written by Taylor’s son, Renny, who says: ‘… some of it is based on my childhood… She must have made notes of things that I got up to because you’ll read about some of my adventures in Mossy Trotter‘.
The blurb of Mossy Trotter – which has been praised by prolific children’s authors Jacqueline Wilson and Kate Saunders – says that within its pages, Taylor ‘perfectly captures the temptations and terrors of a mischievous boy – and just how illogical, frustrating and inconsistent adults are’. It then goes on to compare the book to such classics as Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and Clive King’s Stig of the Dump.
The premise of the book is almost Roald Dahl-esque, and it is sure to appeal to both adults and children: ‘When Mossy moves to the country, life is full of delights… But every now and then his happiness is disturbed – chiefly by his mother’s meddling friend, Miss Silkin. And a dreaded event casts a shadow over even the sunniest of days – being a page-boy at her wedding’.
Mossy is a curious, likeable and amusing child, whose inquisitiveness often gets the better of him, and leads him into sticky – sometimes quite literally – situations. He is particularly fond of tar, and finds himself playing in it when the workmen have been, despite knowing that his mother will be cross with him: ‘… to begin with, he would stand in the tar-splashed grass at the side of the road; then he would drop a few stones on to the tar to see if they stuck; then he would put out his toe and prod an oozy patch, and in no time at all he was stamping in it, picking bits up and rolling them into rubbery balls, and his legs would be smeared, and so would his jeans and his shirt’.
An understanding Taylor bestows the role of confidante upon her young audience almost immediately: ‘Where things had been was what grown-ups worried about all the time.’ She outlines, in the tale’s very beginning, the vast differences which exist between children and adults. The character of Miss Silkin opens proceedings by talking about her concept of paradise: ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken. This had been his private paradise from the moment he discovered it. It was a shallow pit filled with broken treasures from which, sometimes, other treasures could be made… If he could only find two old wheels, he could build himself a whole bicycle, he thought’.
I was reminded throughout of Astrid Lindgren’s charming Pippi Longstocking; Mossy Trotter feels almost as though it was written by the same author, just with a more masculine young audience in mind. Mossy’s adventures, much like Pippi’s – a birthday party, a visit from his grandfather, and being a page boy, for example – are lovingly relayed by Taylor, and are certain to leave children wanting more. The whole has been so well crafted, and interlinking tales wind through from one chapter to the next. Mossy Trotter is rather a charming read, which is sure to drum up childhood nostalgia in the adults who come across it due to Virago’s reprint.