Revisiting a children’s classic from 1958

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

In the Puffin edition (left), this book was my favourite contemporary children’s novel as I was growing up.  I read it in the late 1960s, not once, not twice, but countless times.  The story of a bed-bound girl whose drawings came to life in her dreams both entranced and scared me witless (more on that later).  Luckily the illustrations by Marjorie-Ann Watts are an integral part of the story and remain with it in later editions (right).

Marianne is confined to bed with an illness that will take several months to recuperate from. She starts to draw to pass the time, using an old pencil she found in her Grannie’s workbox.  She draws a house with a garden and a fence around it. That night, she dreams and she is at the house she drew – but she can’t get in – there’s no door handle..

Meanwhile Marianne is getting a little better, and starts lessons with Miss Chesterfield who is also teaching a boy called Mark who has had polio.  Marianne returns to her drawing, adds a door handle, and a boy at the upstairs window.  She dreams again, but there are no stairs in the house, so she can’t get up to him.  Rectifying this she meets the boy in the upstairs room when she dreams. He’s ill and can’t use his legs properly.

Things start to take on a creepy turn when the real-life Mark outdoes Marianne with a birthday present for their teacher. She imprisons him in her drawing and tries to scribble him out. But when she dreams she realises she has made a prison for them both – they will need to escape, but Mark can’t walk …

It was the eyes on the stones that did it for me as a kid. They’re the bookish equivalent of Dr Who’s Weeping Angels – Blink and these killer statues move superfast – and have terrified my daughter ever since she first saw them. Reading this story as a child it’s this sense of danger that takes over from the fascination that you might be able to control your dreams. From the moment the stones start watching, it becomes a race against time for Marianne and Mark to get to safety.

Reading the book as an adult, a diffrerent story emerges. We are less concerned with the stones and more concerned with the ups and downs in the children’s conditions in both real and imaginary worlds.  At one stage Mark gets an infection and ends up in hospital on an iron lung, and it’s a long road to recovery for him, in the house he doesn’t want to learn to use his legs again.  There are many other subtle parallels too.

I can’t believe those double-decker iron lungs!

This book earned its place in my Desert Island Library ages ago, and I’m glad I finally re-read it, as it’s more than just a children’s classic.  It has subtlety and depth – suitable for 8 to 80+ as they say. (10/10)

P.S. I’ve yet to see it, but a film was made of the story called Paperhouse, which concentrated on the horror aspects and made the children young teens instead of ten year olds.

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, Faber paperback, 179 pages.
Paperhouse [DVD]
Doctor Who – The Complete Series 3 Box Set [DVD] [2007] (includes ‘Blink’ with the Weeping Angels)

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11 thoughts on “Revisiting a children’s classic from 1958

  1. I still have my original copy of Marianne Dreams, along with Silver Snaffles, Pony From Fire, Anne of Green Gables and a few other books I read as a child that I knew even then were permanent keepers. I think the eyes on the stones were some of the most haunting and spooky things I ever read about. My daughters were as frightened and entranced by it as I was.

    • I haven’t been able to persuade my 11yr old daughter to read it – Dr Who and those bloomin’ weeping angels have made the stones a complete no-no sadly.

  2. I’d never heard of it, but it sounds fantastic. Not being a native English-speaker, I’ve only started reading the US/British children’s classics (that are a given to most people in the book blogsphere) already in the early-20s.

    Thanks for flagging this one!

    • Alex – this was my absolute favourite, I’d really recommend it. Personally, I love re-reading the children’s classics. The real classics can be read by any age, so I’d say you have some real treats ahead of you if you’re reading them now.

  3. I haven’t heard of this one before either. I’ve recently started collecting childrens books for my boys, but this one sounds a bit scary for them at the moment. I’ll just have to get a copy and hide it from them for the time being. Thanks for drawing it to my attention!

    • You’ll have a treat in store Jackie. It’s also interesting to read a bit about polio which is all but eradicated now in the Western world.

  4. Oooo, I love it! Sounds so so creepy and wonderful. Stuff with pictures coming to life has always been very scary to me — the scariest thing about Roald Dahl’s pretty frightening The Witches was the story about how the witches took a kid and imprisoned her in a picture. IMPRISONED HER IN A PICTURE. Brrrrrr.

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  6. It was one of my wife’s favourite stories when she was a girl. I saw a wonderful television adaptation in the early 70s which scared the living daylights out of me. Sadly, I’ve read that it has been wiped.

    I shall definitely add it to the bedtime story pile.

    • Once you’ve read this book, it does stay with you, aided by the drawings. I missed the TV adaptation (having checked it out, it was on ITV, which we didn’t watch in our house – pretentious nous?!) – shame.

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