Characters in storybooks can be many things – heroes, villains, friends, and mentors. But they can also serve as a guide – not only through a story, but in a story as they help us explore different aspects of life beyond our experience. James Mayhew’s Katie is just this, ushering us simultaneously through Katie’s Picture Show (2014) and the National Gallery, London. Two tours for the price of one. She is the ultimate tour guide as she models how to experience museums and art.
Museums make a real effort these days to engage with children – themed tours, storytimes, family trails, workshops, and school visits. But a good museum guide tops them all when they model the experience of art. No one wants to be presented with a dry list of facts. It is the guide’s enthusiasm and engagement that brings things to life, and this is as important for children as it is for adults. Perfect knowledge without high-quality delivery can render the museum inaccessible for children and with no role model to emulate. Recent research in psychology speaks of there being three unique features of an exemplary guide: to be inspiring, relevant, and attainable. Enter, Katie – a guide to adventure.
This competent young girl is a role model, leading a guided tour like no other. Role models are vital for our children, and as adults in their lives we have the power to choose them. One way this manifests itself is in the choice of books they can access, and those we read to them. So, as you read on, consider whether you will add Katie to the list of role models for your little ones.
Named after Mayhew’s own sister, Katie made her first appearance in 1989. On their arrival at the National Gallery, Grandma conveniently has a nap and tells Katie to be back in half an hour. This is the age-old writer’s trick to remove the grown-up out of the picture, allowing Katie the freedom of adventure without a prying adult. From the outset she is inspiring. Katie quickly overcomes any fears and embarks on an amazing adventure.
Dressed in her trademark hooded red coat, red ribbons and red shoes that draws attention to herself on every page, she is Constable’s red dot. The British artist John Constable (1776-1837) notably had touches of red on the focal points in his paintings. So, in the midst of the crowds and the maze of galleries, Katie is impossible to lose, inviting readers to immerse themselves in a parallel universe.
As for being a relevant role model, Katie is ideal for children. One early edition mentions that “Katie Louise is six and a half years old…” (1993). But it seems Mayhew was quick to realise that her precise age is not important and deleted it from subsequent editions. She is real and childlike, with her scruffy bunches, undone shoelace, and cheeky smile. She used to wear a skirt, but now you’ll find her in trousers. A seemingly small change that was made for the latest 2014 edition of Katie’s Picture Show. However, she is still purposefully female. In a recent interview Mayhew explained how he wanted to balance out the galleries that are full of predominately male artists and show that the art world is for both girls and boys. These are subtle but significant ideological changes marking out Katie as a 21st century child.
As Katie navigates her way through the galleries and strays off the path into paintings, there are echoes of Red Riding Hood and her adventurous spirit. Every time Katie is confronted with a sign saying, “NO ENTRY” or “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH”, Katie doesn’t listen. Commotion ensues as Katie jumps from painting to painting – running away from the farmer’s barking dog, spilling tea and smearing mud onto the carpet, making another girl cry, and losing her hoopla, angering crocodiles or getting covered in splodges of paint. Such realistic scenarios merged with fantasy.
However, the adventure is short and sweet. Remember Katie only has 30 minutes without Grandma, but whilst inside the paintings she crams in – 1 apple pie, 4 cups of tea with 3 sugar lumps in each, some cream cakes and 1 banana. Not forgetting the tea and cake Katie has with Grandma afterwards. An appetite my children can definitely relate to.
However, although Katie is both inspiring and relevant for our children, she is also attainable for her young followers. Mayhew has not placed her on a pedestal. She questions authority – disobeying signs and creeping around. She is no goody two shoes politely staring in restrained admiration at famous artworks. Neither is she a know-it-all. She does not studiously retain all the names and dates and rush back to Grandma to download all her new-found facts. She is the kid next door. Because of this, her magical adventures inside the actual paintings make her enthusiasm infectious and desirable. After reading Katie’s Picture Show and being taken round the National Gallery with Katie, children want to be like Katie and realise that they could be. Katie models how to respond to the paintings – fully immersing herself and having great fun. To be like Katie is not out of reach.
So as the next museum trip is planned, read Katie’s Picture Show. She is the guide we all need – a fun art-loving little girl. We need more guides like Katie, but perhaps from different backgrounds? Regardless, Katie will inspire your children and give a fresh perspective on how to make art an adventure.