On the outside, this is one of those books that looks a little dated. But open it up, and we think I’ll Take You To Mrs Cole is one of the most beautifully illustrated and movingly written picture books we’ve ever read. Take a peek inside and see if you agree!
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When my children and I were looking for picture books that star BAME boys, one of the first I thought of was this amazing book from Nigel Gray and Michael Foremen. Published in 1985, it is both beautifully illustrated and wonderfully told, and is just as relevant today as it was then. In fact only this summer (2019), Polka Theatre produced a musical version of it for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
I’ll Take You to Mrs Cole is about a young boy with a working mother, who is therefore often alone. While his mum is out at work, his imaginative antics invariably cause a mess. So when she gets home, his tired mother scolds him continually with the threat of ‘taking him to Mrs Cole’. Mrs Cole who lives down the road in a chaotic and scary-looking house.
The boy imagines the horrors that may be going on. He pictures Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-worthy scenes of children locked in dungeons while Mrs Cole cracks a whip. Crocodiles snap their teeth and monsters lurk in corners…
But, one day, the boy finds himself on Mrs Cole’s doorstep. She takes him in and he finds that her home is actually full of laughter and fun. The children do run riot and the house is a mess, it’s true, but there is great warmth and love there too. Afterwards, ‘Taking him to Mrs Cole’ becomes something of a promise, not a threat.
One of the things I love about the book are the beautiful illustrations of inner city life. The book is not specifically set in London, it could be any large UK city or town. It really reminds me of London places I’ve lived or worked, but I can also see echoes of places I’ve lived in Coventry and Birmingham too. My partner grew up on a council estate in West London, and this book makes a real connection with him too. The images capture the grey concrete and towering blocks, but also splashes of colour and life.
And Mrs Cole’s house is the kind of Victorian terrace that you’ll find all over Britain. Little touches like the broken-but-colourful sunrise gate, and the glowing yellow windows hint at the happy home inside. So the boy finds himself drawn closer, despite the large shadow of Mrs Cole at the door.
Inside the house is the kind of chaos that most children love, and most adults tolerate. Teenagers crash on sofas covered in granny squares and toys. While small children totter around in borrowed high heels and bare bottoms. This is child-centred living taken to the extreme. The place reminds me more of an ’80s youth centre or the club house from Why Don’t You or Byker Grove than a grown-up person’s home. You can see why the boy’s mother thought it a horror-house!
Yet the contrast with the boy’s neat and tidy but empty home is stark. The cold greys and blues replaced by warm and bright pink and purple, red and orange. You think this is a house ruled by children, until you meet Mrs Cole herself. Then you realise that it is all actually a reflection of her own, larger-than-life and colourful personality.
The inimitable Mrs Cole
Mrs Cole has huge and gravity-defying orange hair, a Mick Jagger apron, a West-Country accent and an ever-present smile. She toasts bread on an old fashioned toasting fork while singing into a whisk and dodging children tumbled on the floor. And they all look like they are having the time of their life.
The text makes clear the contrast between Mrs Cole’s household, and the boy’s home. Mrs Cole sings loudly “without getting a headache” and when the boy asks for three sausages, he gets them. This is a woman who loves life, and children, and lives it with gusto. Though she probably doesn’t do much hoovering.
The party continues outside, with a cage full of rabbits and a horde of dressed-up children. Mrs Cole looks on fondly from above with a baby in her arms. It seems impossible that all these kids could be hers (or if so, that she could still be smiling). But all of them seem happy and at home. And that the chaos isn’t all consuming is hinted at, when we’re told that two of the children even help the boy do his homework.
An open invitation
The boy plays all day. And when it’s time to go home, Mrs Cole says ‘Come back and play, me lover, any time you like’. You get the feeling that most of the children in her house have, at one time or another, found refuge there, and received much the same invitation.
While the book draws a sharp contrast between the boy’s home and mother, and the playful wonderland of Mrs Cole’s, I don’t feel that it makes any judgements. The boy’s mother is clearly working long, hard hours. And though she cares for her son deeply, she is unable to give him the expressive outlet he needs. But by the end of the book, both he and his mother have found a friend in Mrs Cole. And he has a safe, happy place where he can be looked after and loved while his mother is at work. All proving that you should never prejudge a person by their unkept gardens… which is good news for me!
I’ll Take You To Mrs Cole is a warm and wonderful book, and one of the few picture books that paints a convincing portrait of life for inner city kids. Unfortunately it seems to be out of print, but it is still possible to find second-hand copies. So if you can, do get a hold of this for yourself!
By the same author:
A gem from the ’80s, this book has parallel pictures showing similarities between the lives of two boys, one in a western country, one in a rural African village.
by Nigel Gray and Philippe Dupasquier
Another legendary illustrator. He’s written and illustrated many great books either as an author/illustrator or in collaboration with other authors. This one, done in partnership with the equally legendary author, Michael Morpurgo is a classic that is sure to delight.
by Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman
Picture Books with Diverse Characters
Have you seen my full list of the best 23 picture books with diverse characters? Just like I’ll Take You to Mrs Cole, all of these picture books feature black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) boys as main characters. Something that’s as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth in children’s books, and a problem I’ve written about here.
Check out the list to find out more about our favourites, and take a peek inside. If you like the look of this book, I’m sure you’ll find some others to love there too!