Cataloguing Tower Project books can be much like opening a box that has been languishing in someone’s attic for an indeterminate number of years: you have to sift through a lot of worthy of but unexciting material to get to the real gems. One of those gems is the author and illustrator Mabel Dearmer. I was immediately struck by the bright colours and imaginative adventures in her books, which are very different from many overly sentimental and moralizing Victorian children’s books. Dearmer’s pictures are as far removed from the cliché of the “chocolate-boxy” illustrations of that era as it is possible to be.       

Kit meeting the duck-billed platypus with the Cockyolly Bird in the background.

The illustrations shown here are taken from “A Noah’s Ark geography” (1901.9.9). Kit, the main protagonist, is bored by the dry facts of his geography lessons (having seen the geography books of the time, I can understand why!) and cannot concentrate on his work because he would much rather be playing with his toys. One of these toys is the Cockyolly Bird, a recurring character in Mabel Dearmer’s books. To escape the tedium of lessons with his governess, Kit and his toys, which include a model of Noah’s Ark and the animals inside it, go on an imaginary tour of the world and meet people and animals from foreign countries. 

Kit and friends riding an elephant in India.

Kit suddenly discovers that geography is about real people and places after all and begins to take an interest in geography. In his next lesson he startles his teacher with the knowledge he has gained from his travels and his lessons. In many ways this book is as much a critique of the governess’ teaching methods as it is an exciting adventure about a boy and his toys!