There are many forgotten toys down the back of the fictional sofa.
My favourites: the absent pink rabbit in Judith Kerr’s memoir; Shirley Hughes’s Jonadab (Jonadab and Rita); the Toy Story films — and this succinct wonder, Clever Bill, first published in 1926 and now reissued in a beautiful edition. Maurice Sendak described it as “among the few perfect picture books for children”.
Clever Bill is a simple but potentially devastating story about Mary, a young girl who is invited to stay with her aunt in Dover (“Dearest Child . . .”). She replies with a perfectly imperfect typewritten note and sets about packing the essentials: Apple Grey, her wooden horse, “gloves with the thumbs”, a doll (“dear Susan”), a trumpet, red shoes with buttons, a blue teapot, a hair brush with her name on it and “of course I can’t leave clever Bill Davis . . .”, she says.
We can guess the fate of the handsome toy soldier in red jacket, royal blue trousers, bearskin hat, with cymbals for hands. Mary tries to squeeze everything into a travelling “box” and, in her panic, she “forgot poor Bill Davis”. He follows her train and, they are, eventually, reunited in Dover thanks to the toy’s ingenuity. Clever Bill. And clever Will. William Nicholson wrote only two children’s books. Yet he has a deep understanding of jeopardy and pace, there’s a cliffhanger on almost every page, and his illustrations are stunning period pieces that would have pride of place on any nursery wall. Be a good little soldier and look up Clever Bill so he’s not left behind again.
Clever Bill (2+) by William Nicholson; Egmont, £9.99