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from Ant and Bee

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By Justina

A photo of Justina Hart with a picture book about a bee

Imagining Bee on his own is too sad so I’m slightly fudging the ‘pick only one character’ rule. Bee belongs with his best friend, Ant, and Ant belongs with Bee. From the moment they meet – “at once Ant liked Bee and Bee liked Ant” – they’re inseparable. Life is more colourful. The world grows, as E.E. Cummings said, “mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful”. It was meant to be; each wears the same lace-up boots that dangle like black jellybeans on the end of stringy legs.

Ant jumps on Bee’s back (Bee is kind and helpful though his pencil-thin, curlicued moustache imbues him at first with the air of a stern magician) and they zip off on a series of alphabetical adventures aimed at the youngest readers. As they fly through a palette of ochre, muted green and brick red illustrations, much of the magic of Ant and Bee lies in its quirky story logic.

As a child it was this ordinary magic that delighted me. I preferred it because it was grounded and all around. When they can’t play on a real rainbow, they fashion a make-believe one by painting the semicircle of a car tyre that’s sticking out of the earth. The magic of their friendship means that everything has the potential to be transformed. When Bee falls into a pot of red paint then Ant falls into a pot of yellow paint and the paint drips off and pools together, they make a colour called orange, which seemed more than extraordinary as a child.

I learnt their friendship blueprint knee-high to a bee and it stuck. You meet someone, you like them and they like you. Together you go adventuring. You solve problems and are there for each other (Ant and Bee put thermometers in each other’s mouths and dust the house when their best friend is ill). There’s trust and loyalty and complete equality – I’ve never been more heartbroken than when a friend hasn’t understood this code.

The generous and egalitarian Ant and Bee world is the world as I’d wish it to be and imagine it was in early childhood when we lived by a field and had a hedgehog that came every morning to lap milk from a saucer at our front door. People and objects are robustly friendly. Folk wait contentedly in queues for ’buses, which haven’t yet lost their preceding apostrophe. A man on a boat finds Ant and Bee in his pocket and puts them in his hatband so they can see better. A one-off star fairy forgets to use her wand and gets her wish the wrong way round.

Ant and Bee’s world is straightforward and reassuring: things are because they are. I took all its oddities at face value, including accepting that there’s a place called Lost Things Saved in Boxes, where mislaid things are waiting to be reclaimed in alphabetical boxes as colourful and distinctive as Fabergé eggs.

Ant and Bee swoop down to find the hats they’ve lost in the box marked ‘Funny Things’ that comes after the box labelled ‘Z’.  They swap headwear and “for ever and ever afterwards”, are great friends – as they’ve been to me.

The 26 writing group has worked with The Story Museum as part of its 26 Characters exhibition. The group have produced a collection of poems, and couldn’t resist being part of the gallery of favourite characters.

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