Melissa Mendes’ Freddy Stories perfectly mirrors the qualities of it’s eponymous character: expressive, lacking in artifice, quiet with a use of sparing dialogue and yet so very effective. The crux of what Mendes acheives here is the attainment of something rare: the articulation of childhood, that place to which none can return, which seems so faraway and so alien once grown up. In Freddy, a lone child being bought up by a loving single mother, Mendes bestows what we as adults recognise and associate as childlike traits: finding curiosity and wonder in in all and small, the complete absorption in tasks, the clarity and directness of vision and speech.
Freddy doesn’t have a gaggle of friends, she’s not a gobby smart arse espousing the adult thoughts of her creator, but a self assured child, able to manage on her own to some extent while her mother works or does chores. She loves the outdoors -wandering and exploring, seeing things with her imagination, whiling away hours, but she is still a child: a child who gets embarrassed and upset when teachers and children confuse her for a boy, a child who still likes the safe comfort of her favourite hoodie, a child who still sees her mum as the most important person in her world. She’s equally unperturbed spending time with Uncle Sully next door, an odd, yet sweet man, accepting him, again, in the way children do, and she’s young enough that sitting on the stairs in the sun eating an ice-cream with her mum is a good time. Mendes conveys that particular moment perfectly- the sun that you can almost feel, the quiet contentment of Freddy and her mother, wordlessly happy to be at each other’s side, eating ice-cream.
Mendes uses 6-panel pages in which to play out Freddy’s adventures and that pared down, straight to the point choice pinpoints focus on the interchange taking place. She uses the 6 panels for both single page strips that could stand alone, and then strings a few together to illustrate a longer narrative. My favourite is a longer, largely wordless, thread at the end where Freddy is left to stay, reluctantly, in the country with her grandmother for a few days. Initially suspect of both her surroundings and her grandmother, her adaptability as a child sees her quickly settle into a semi-routine with her gran as she begins to explore the woods nearby, investigating nooks and crannies, fascinated by leaves and cones and twigs, gathering and collecting and sorting. Mendes excels in her observations or recounting (Freddy is somewhat auto-biographical) and it’s those little nuances that are so evocative; when Freddy and her mum are reunited, the burst of emotion is felt through the page.
Freddy Stories inhabits a space and feel that is very British in nature: I generally try to avoid saying one work is like someone else’s, preferring instead to attempt to convey what the work is about, but this has a sensibility that is, to me, very familiar of EH Shepard, Beatrix Potter, Shirley Hughes- classic books in feel, with a strong interplay between characters and environment that are lovely and gentle in tone. Even with the inclusion of louder personalities, they manage to retain a still quality and a reassuring feel. Freddy is the kind of character who you could see becoming iconic: neither particularly tomboyish nor defined by traditional girl orientated activities, with the instantly recognisable red hoodie (we only know it’s red from the cover, but it’s an image that sticks), the easy like-ability, the quiet charm, the innate self assuredness.
Freddy appeals to us all: all of us who are, or have been, children. A beautiful book.
You can buy Freddy Stories here.