I Have This Little Daughter: In Praise of Charlie and Lola
Daughter and friend waiting for Lauren Child
at Sydney Writers Festival 2017
This morning I asked my daughter to close her eyes and imagine flowers. This should not be too difficult as she tells me that flowers – along with butterflies, lovehearts and secrets – are among the things she likes best. So I run through imagining sunflowers, then roses then irises. Her nose scrunches up and she says “But Dad I only close my eyes to see TV programs.”
This chimes a parental alarm bell. Does TV possess any empty moment in her head? Has she already lost the mental blank canvas that can be filled with dreams, self-created illusions and those made-up stories we used to do in the bath? Her mind buzzes with televisual static so much that there are no ellipses of what could be. Into this comes Charlie and Lola.
For the uninitiated, this British brother-sister duo live in an urban apartment that is rendered magical by creator Lauren Child’s artwork and imagination. My daughter and I have developed a ritual of watching their adventures snuggled in bed before dinner at the end of busy Saturdays. There’s much to love in Child’s stories that began as books then evolved into three TV series (we have two on high rotation on the iPad), audiobooks (a reliable car quietener), underpants (sometimes the only way a 2-year-old could be convinced to wear any undies) and a stage show (this year’s Christmas present from Grandma).
I could be defensive about the tentacles of the media octopus that we’ve allowed to encircle our family. We’ve avoided the grip of most licensed clothing and when my daughter asked about playing Barbies I said “Okay let’s both be sausages and the couch is the barbie.” This will allow us a few months without the blonde’s marketing campaign.
But it would be hypocritical and naïve to believe we could raise a media-free child. She knew, for example, characters and songs from Frozen long before she saw it and the Disney epic seems to be one of the more viral germs we’ve brought home from childcare. Nits can be shampooed and combed out but a small girl’s impassioned singing “Let it go…” is harder.
So we say Charlie and Lola are okay. From under Saturday afternoon covers, I appreciate that a lot of the action of straw-haired pair happens away from the eyes of parents (helicopter or otherwise). The sweet siblings have problems – what to do for a school project or how to repair their DIY rocket – that they have to solve themselves.
When they do consult parents, the oldsters are predictably rubbish, having no good ideas to advance the plot. And you never see the parents, even when they mete out discipline like sitting in “simmer down chairs”. There are no cute illustrations of the parents, teachers or other grown-ups. Even when driving somewhere the perspective is all from the backseat with not a single waggling finger or cautioning word from the front.
This may just be well-placed parental wish fulfilment: kids who play by themselves. Imagine it. But this also gives Charlie and Lola their blank canvas. They escape their apartment through the wormhole of imagination into an animated and enhanced life. Child’s lets her artistry run wild here to echo the experience of the kids. A snakes and ladders game puts Lola on the head of an asp as she upends the rules by snakecharming and riding to the finish line. Or Lola crams into that DIY rocketship with her imaginary friend Soren Lorenson and Elly the Elephant. Special mention should be made of Soren Lorenson as he gives Lola courage on the first day of school and becomes the confessor of untellable secrets. For my daughter this is an alternative to playground politics of “you’re not my friend, she’s my best friend” that she’s already perplexed by. Try talking to your inner friend when the ones outside don’t make sense.
In all the fanciful imagination that happens when Charlie and Lola’s parents are out of eyeshot there is lots of laughter. The two kids get into trouble, scared by thunder or heckled by two hyenas. But they enjoy their imaginative world and use it to solve their own problems.
In his Manhood for Amateurs collection of essays, Michael Chabon looks at how Lego has been criticised for limiting kids creativity with pre-created playsets. You know the ones that have you trying to build a Millennium Falcon long after your nephew has lost interest on Christmas mornings. But Chabon argues that kids soon bust up those syndicated spaceships in favour of building their own rockets, then race tracks, zoos and pirate ships. The pre-formed sets are not limiters of creativity but just a spark.
So we incorporate Charlie and Lola into our dinner conversations (“Can you imagine giants’ tummies rumbling in the sky when there is thunder?”), backyard games (“Hey this is just like the race where Charlie lets Lola win.”) and exhortations to get out the door quickly (“Remember how quickly Lola can get her shoes on.”) But most of all we use the imaginative sequences. When we need to imagine those flowers my girl squeezes her eyes tighter to go into her own blank world. She tells me roses are “ red and… curly”. And so they are: intricate, bending into each other and whatever else she finds in her mind’s eye.
This post was originally posted in The Big Issue, no 510, 21 April 2016 as "I Have This Little Daughter".