This wordless picturebook has a simple, and very daring, opener: an empty white spread with just a short hand-drawn line on the base of the right-hand page. Nothing else, not even a page number. The line could represent anything – a piece of string, a pavement kerb, the base of a building, who knows? Yet the clue is in the book’s title, The Magic Stick, and this is confirmed on the following spread where we see a black and white outline of a small boy entering on the left and picking up the line/stick on the right.
The Magic Stick is the first children’s title by the Swedish artist Kjell Sörensen Ringi (1939-2010) and it was published in America in 1968, during the era of the Vietnam War, civil rights protests and serious political upheaval around the world. Yet it is a hugely positive, joyful book. The dust jacket blurb – yes, it is old enough to have a dust jacket – quotes Ringi as saying he feels ‘the loss of ability to see things in things as children do’ is an unfortunate aspect of growing up. So in this book he transports us back into the world of a young child, where fantasy is an essential part of everyday play.
As anyone who has been for a woodland walk with kids will know, a stick has an irresistible fascination for young children and may be used in a variety of ways. It can be pulled along a fence to make a repetitive clack-clack noise, it can be waved in the air like a flag, it can be pushed into the ground to form a post, or, perhaps more typically, it can become a sword with which to cut and thrust. A stick can be whatever you choose it to be, in much the same way that Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, in Through the Looking-Glass, pronounces: ‘When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.
The boy protagonist here has the ability to choose what he wants his stick to be in spades, beginning with a magician’s wand. He holds the branch firmly out in front of him – and on the opposite page appears a large magician in a matching pose, conjuring a white rabbit out of a hat with a flourish of his wand. The boy’s imagination has brought the scenario to life.
This format is repeated on subsequent pages, with the boy’s reality shown in black and white on the left, and his fantasy shown in colour on the right. (A similar juxtaposition of reality and fantasy can be seen in Come Away From the Water, Shirley (1977) by John Burningham.) In the boy’s hands, the stick transforms into a strongman’s dumbbells, a balancing rod for an acrobat, a horse whip, an umbrella stick, a telescope, and of course the obligatory sword, though here it’s more ornamental than aggressive. The boy’s magic only comes to an end when a crowd of envious children arrives and he chucks the stick away, his bubble of imagination popped and his fantasy game over as spontaneously as it began.
Apart from black, only two other colours – blue and red – are used for the illustrations. Yet, through the technique of overprinting, they are combined to create vibrant shades of pinks and purples that give the book an intensely bright and colourful feel. Together with the stylised figures of the characters, with their round bodies and huge eyes, there is a hint of 1960s’ anything-is-possible psychedelia, an antidote to all the political harsh truths. This alternative sense of reality is reinforced by the letters of the title, both in terms of the words, which tell us the stick is ‘magic’, and in terms of the type, which is set in an uneven bouncy line (similar to the way some text is set in A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard’s Winnie-the-Pooh books).
Fifty years on, this cheerful, funny book is still a huge pleasure to read. And its message, that children have rich, boundless, inventive imaginations worthy of celebration, is as valid as it ever was. It deserves reprinting for twentieth-century children to rediscover.