Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Lulu and the Flying Babies

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of Lulu and the Flying Babies by Posy Simmonds (London: Penguin, 1991).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 13(4): 1.

Lulu, her baby brother, Willy, and her parents are getting dressed warmly to go out into the winter cold. Lulu is impatient. As it turns out, Lulu is always impatient. She already has her red jacket and red-and-white cap on. “When are we going to the Park?” she shouts. Eventually everyone is ready for the outing.

On the way to the park Lulu’s parents stop to chat with friends, who want a chance to admire little Willy. Lulu tries to hurry her family along. “When are we going to the park?” she keeps asking.

By the time the little group finally arrives at the park, snow has started to fall. Lulu’s father announces that they can’t stay outside in the park but must go into the museum next door instead. Lulu protests: “Don’t want to see the dinosaur. Don’t want to see the pictures.” Protest or not, Lulu has to go inside.

Once inside the museum, Lulu sulks. Her parents decide to leave her sitting uncomfortably on a couch. She starts up a monologue of protest that seems to be directed at no one in particular. A little winged cherub in a picture over Lulu’s head hears Lulu’s protests and comes down out of the picture to reprimand her. “Don’t pick your nose,” the cherub scolds her.

Then a second little angel flies down from an artwork and offers to fly off with Lulu into another gallery of the museum, where they can enter the winter scene of a Flemish painting that hangs there and her new friends play together in the winter scene they have entered. When they have had enough of winter, they go into the summer seascape of a picture in another gallery, to splash in the sea. They enter yet another picture to growl at a tiger, another to ride a horse, and still another to fall off a cliff. When they finally enter a totally desolate landscape Lulu becomes scared and cries for her daddy.

It is the museum guard who manages to unite Lulu with her father and baby brother. Happily reunited with her family, Lulu recounts her wild adventures while the museum guard returns the flying angels to the works of art in which they belong.

Lewis Carroll made memorable for all of us the fantasy of crawling into the reverse space revealed by a mirror on the wall. Entering the winter scene of a Flemish landscape painter requires a little more imagination than making the imaginative step through the mirror, but perhaps not much-especially if one is as bored as Lulu was.

In Book X of the Republic, Plato has Socrates suggest that paintings and other works of art are something like mirrors, as if the artist’s primary aim were simply to imitate the appearance of things. From what is said there, it might seem that, say, the mirrors on the wall of a restaurant that seem to double the size of the space should count as significant art. The artist would be, primarily, a trickster. But that can’t be right.

We don’t get the impression that Lulu was being fooled by the art she found in the museum. She seems to have entered those pictures willingly, imaginatively, much as one might enter the world depicted in a novel, or a movie.

What was her reward? What did she gain from the art in the museum? Art is sometimes said to offer us only substitute gratification, a Flemish painter’s wintery scene when the real winter outside is what we want, but it is forbidden to us.

There is certainly something to the idea of substitute gratification. But, of course, the pictures Lulu was able to enter imaginatively didn’t just replicate the world that was closed to her by the snowfall; they expanded it. Perhaps she had never seen a tiger before, or been able to ride a horse. Certainly she had never visited a 16th Century Flemish ice­ skating scene.

So art and literature expand one’s world. But it’s not just that either. The artist doesn’t just take us imaginatively to another place. The artist also gets us to see that other place in a certain way, per­haps in a way we wouldn’t see it without the artist’s help, even if we could travel there.

It is a theme of Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Invention of Love, that it was the poets that invented romantic love. People had sex before they heard or read romantic poetry. But they had no experience of romantic love until the poets gave them a way of thinking about their sexual relationships in that way.

Artists, poets, and writers do give us ways of escaping our world. Certainly Lulu was glad for the chance to escape hers. But they also give us ways to under­stand and appreciate our world, and to give meaning to it. Perhaps when Lulu left the museum she was guided by her own art experience to see, for the first time, a winter landscape before her-not exactly like the Flemish landscape she had visited in the museum, but then not totally different either. Posy Simmonds’s delightfully illustrated story doesn’t exactly tell us that this is what happened. But it may make us wonder.