‘Grandmother Lucy and Her Hats’ by Joyce Wilson; illustrations by Frank Francis

The irony, of course, is that my five-year-old self was entirely comfortable with unanswered questions, and knew the value of ambiguity. You won’t have heard of this book (if you have: mail me! Let’s talk!); it’s been out of print for years. But it haunted me as a child; and as an adult with children of my own, I tracked down a secondhand copy on eBay, at no small expense, in order to pass it on to them. It’s the story, told in the first person, of a young girl who visits her grandmother’s house and climbs with her (and her cat, Tom) into the attic, where Grandmother Lucy tries on her collection of hats, one by one. Then they have tea, and the little girl goes home. That’s it.
The first thing to note is that the illustrations are purely magical: deep and rich; jewel-coloured; filled with mid-20th-century patterns and flowers. But the text that sits alongside these pictures is deeper and richer still: odd and off-kilter; dream-like and – I now feel – psychologically playful. The sentences have an almost synesthetic quality that chimes with childhood, where thoughts and senses bleed into one another more readily, but the subjects are big, weighty, adult ones, albeit glancingly addressed. Love, death, relationships: they’re all in there, but above all the subject is time, and the way in which it doesn’t work; the incomprehensibility of a world in which people age but objects – to the human eye, at least – do not. Grandmother Lucy leads her granddaughter up into the attic – which, with its cases, and piles of old books, and ominous Grandfather Clock in the corner, appears to me now as an unmistakeable metaphor for her memory – and offers her a glimpse into her earlier life. It’s light and deft and gorgeous, and I’ve been wondering about it for nearly four decades now. And if you’re a children’s publisher, can I make a plea for a reprint? It’s one in a series, and the others are just as strange and beautiful.

First published Armada Picture Lions, 1974