Beneath [the top tune of the plot of The Battle of Bubble and Squeak] are played variations on the themes of family relationships, developing independence in children, the learning of social give-and-take, and the urgency of emotional desires and compulsions.
It's not hard to see resemblances between this story and the author's earlier novel A Dog So Small…. A boy's desire for a pet, his distress at not being allowed one, a family living on an ordinary housing estate, an act of emotional and psychological withdrawal, and a happy resolution with everyone's honor satisfied—these are common elements in both books. But there is nothing tired or repetitive in the treatment. On the contrary, Bubble and Squeak feels fresh, vigorous, and contemporary and places its emphasis differently—on social interactions rather than on one character's point of view and interior life. The book is primarily about living together.
What one enjoys at once, as with anything she writes, is Philippa Pearce's pellucid style. (p. 229)
Another of the qualities that impresses me about this short book is the way the author opens up an adult's interior life for … young readers…. Mrs. Sparrow is very nearly a central character, along with Sid—it's as much her story as his. She has remarried after the death of her first husband, who was the father of all the children.
Thus, another thread is added to the tale, giving it a richer texture. The delicate position that Bill Sparrow, the new husband, finds himself in as a kind of buffer between his wife and Sid; the way his sympathies are all on Sid's side, while his loyalties lie on his wife's; not to mention the danger of his intruding unasked and ham-fistedly into the battle between mother and son—are all beautifully suggested and handled. And because Bill is not the natural father and must behave circumspectly, Mrs. Sparrow feels all the more keenly her tussle with her family.
Philippa Pearce shows the strength of Mrs. Sparrow's aversion to animals, her hesitancy, her worry, and the inner struggle caused by a mother's instinct to please her children at odds with her natural temperament and fastidiousness. It would have been easier and more sensational—and the line most children's writers would have taken—to let Mrs. Sparrow be seen only in externals, an adult behaving selfishly against her children's entirely reasonable desire to keep pets.
The harder, more worthwhile, and truthful thing is to show why the adult behaves as she does and to gain sympathy and understanding for her without losing any of the young reader's preference for the child hero. The author does this with apparent ease and absorbs it all so completely into the story that at first one doesn't notice what she has achieved. (p. 230)
[We are] persuaded that in this story everyone matters, not just the hero or the other children. Adults have rights and three dimensions, too, and more in them than meets the eye. Most children's novels remind me of the father who told Paul Hazard, "the time will come when men will be oppressed by the children." But not this one. (pp. 231-32)
It is the contemplation of the narrative, the why of life, that this story is really about—not the what. Bravo to that. (p. 232)
No one [creates carefully arranged variations on basic English orchestrated for tunefulness and elegance of line] better than Philippa Pearce, and she produces writing of precisely the kind she told me she is always striving for. What she wants, she said, is that the reader feel her writing is like an...
(This entire section contains 995 words.)
open window through which he can reach and touch what lies on the other side.
She carries that intention through into her plotting and structure. Each chapter is patterned so that we get another satisfying stage in the story and are led on in our understanding of the characters, and through story and characters, to a deepening appreciation of the thematic underlays. Elegant is indeed the modish critical word that comes at once to mind. If you wanted a handbook demonstration of how to arrange and handle narrative material in this dominant traditional manner, you couldn't find a better one than this.
The disadvantages are obvious. Life gets to seem all too neat and sequential. The characters are a mite too trim and explainable. The resolution is overly pat. There's plenty to think about, but the reader is given little room for maneuver within the text. And although the themes are subtly handled, they are finespun, their presence easily ignored. You can read this book without ever breaking through the surface—as no more than an amusing story about a kid who wins his fight to keep a couple of pets—something you cannot do with the story of Tom's Midnight Garden…. There the top tune leads you below the surface; otherwise you might soon find the book unsatisfying, which is why most of us would call it a more difficult and challenging novel. (pp. 232-33)
The Battle of Bubble and Squeak is exactly what it set out to be and is a fine example of that order of novel which begins by accepting children as they are—their likes and dislikes, their superficial preferences, and their predictable tastes—and then takes them on in literary terms by shifting the gears of their reading to match the participation demanded by a multifaceted story.
That's putting it far too pedagogically, and Philippa Pearce won't thank me, I think, for doing so. She doesn't set out to be a writer providing literary training courses for children. And, indeed, what I mainly want to do here is give straightforward expression to the pleasure I take in knowing that she and her books are there for all of us to enjoy. (p. 233)
Aidan Chambers, "Letter from England: Reaching through a Window," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1981 by Aidan Chambers; reprinted by permission), Vol. LVII, No. 2, April, 1981, pp. 229-33.