The Queen wakes up one morning in her bedroom in Buckingham Palace. There’s a knock at the door, and in walks a lady-in-waiting with Her Majesty’s breakfast on a tray. What neither of them realises is that a benign visitor is spying on them.
If you’ve read Roald Dahl’s “The BFG”, or seen Steven Spielberg’s recent film adaptation, you’ll know that the Big Friendly Giant hides in Buckingham Palace’s back garden, while his companion Sophie perches on the Queen’s window sill. But this scenario crops up again in a new children’s novel, “The Royal Rabbits of London”, by Santa Montefiore and Simon Sebag Montefiore, who are married and better known, respectively, for writing romantic novels and history books. In their version, an ancient order of rabbits protects the British royal family by patrolling a network of tunnels beneath the Palace, and peeking into it with periscopes.
As children’s authors, the Montefiores aren’t going to take Dahl’s crown any time soon. All readers bar the most fervent flag-wavers will be hoping for an outbreak of myxomatosis when they see that the villains are rats with long-lens cameras – led by “Papa Ratzi” – and the fluffy-tailed heroes are born monarchists. “Now you may not know this,” says the narrator, “but, whenever a rabbit hears the words the Queen, they sit up and use their ears to bow.” Where’s Mr McGregor when you need him?
They are not the only authors with a royal fixation. The Queen crops up in so many children’s books these days that it’s a wonder she has time to do anything else. To cite a few examples: “Winnie-the-Pooh Meets the Queen”, by Jane Riordan, is due in November. “Shhh! Don’t Wake the Royal Baby!” by Martha Mumford and Ada Grey, came out in July. “The New Royal Baby” by Timothy Knapman and Nick East, and “The Queen’s Orang-Utan” by David Walliams and Tony Ross, both came out last year. Before that there was Nicholas Allan’s “The Prince and the Potty” and Steve Antony’s “The Queen’s Hat” in 2014. Bookshops will soon need a whole section to accommodate children’s stories about the royals.
When “The BFG” was published in 1982, it seemed like a daring idea to have the Queen herself as a character in a book about a giant. But Dahl’s timing was perfect. He finished “The BFG” just after Charles and Diana’s wedding had infected the country with royal fever, and just before Michael Fagan broke into the Queen’s bedroom, making Sophie’s intrusion seem slightly less charming.
But this royal fever abated over the next decade. The Windsors’ crumbling marriages and embarrassing business ventures were regularly in the tabloids, and by 1992 – which the Queen famously dubbed her “annus horribilis” – the royal family had become something to be lampooned on “Spitting Image” rather than romanticised in a children’s story.
In part, these books are a consequence of nostalgic, tea-party-and-bunting Britishness now in fashion. But a more significant factor is the royals’ expert repairing of their public image. The starting point was the wedding of William and Catherine in 2011. Then came the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the arrival of the royal offspring in 2013 and 2015, and this year’s 90th birthday celebrations. According to an Ipsos-MORI poll conducted this February, the British monarchy is more popular now than it was at the end of the 20th century. The royal family has been rehabilitated. With its stoic elderly matriarch, its glamorous, loved-up prince and princess, and its brace of adorable tweed-wearing sprogs, it is now close enough to the fairy-tale archetype to be viable children’s-book fodder again.
Certainly, my own daughters have embraced the notion that the princesses they see in Disney cartoons are much the same as the princesses they see on the news. Ignoring my Republican grumbles, they love the chaotic mischief-making of “The Queen’s Orang-Utan” and the precisely drawn Buster Keaton-ish action in “The Queen’s Hat”, even if they abandoned “The Royal Rabbits of London” after a few pages.
Now the Queen herself has got in on the act. In July, the Royal Collection Trust published “The Birthday Crown” – another favourite of my daughters. It was written by Davide Cali and illustrated by Kate Slater, but the copyright belongs to Her Majesty. The first Royal Collection children’s book to feature the Queen as a character in a story, it depicts her trying on all sorts of outlandish headgear in preparation for her 90th birthday party, before – spoiler alert – settling on the paper creation presented to her by a familiar-looking boy and girl. “Look, Granny,” says the young Prince, “we made a crown for you!”
Yes, that’s “Granny”, rather than “Great Granny”. One intriguing aspect of the new royal books is that many of them skip a generation: Charles and Camilla are edited out because they don’t have a part to play in the fairy-tale narrative. The Queen is invariably portrayed as a lovely, down-to-earth old lady, William and Kate are the attractive parents and heirs to the throne, and their toddlers provide the cuteness. There is usually space for a corgi or two, but the other royals are surplus to requirements. Prince Charles has had to wait a long time to inherit the role of monarch. As far as children’s books are concerned, he is still waiting to inherit the role of grandparent, too.