There’s a secret incantation in John Burningham’s Cloudland, one longer and harder to hack into than the partly written password in The Magic Bed. Both of these books are ostensibly about the fathomless muddle between waking and sleeping that some people pay good money to try and avoid, and some people pay to achieve. I’m not sure you’d call either one of these restful, therefore, in the manner of loose ends knit together and bugaboos tucked in, though perhaps there is an equally valuable case to be made for the sort of bedtime reading which asks a lot of questions without also answering, because what the heck else have we got to do for eight hours lying around in the dark?
The first time I read Cloudland, I couldn’t decide if the boy who stumbled off the cliff in the beginning had actually died and gone to heaven and returned. The second time I didn’t know either. I’m still not sure, and I am open to suggestions: Is it a coma, a wormhole, a fleeting concussion that results in Albert meeting up with the cloud children, each light as a feather, leaping and clanging with cymbals and eating late breakfasts and painting with rainbows and once in a while dodging 747’s?
“Albert’s mother and father looked everywhere, but they couldn’t find him,” narrates Burningham about what is unforgettably left behind, indeed there remains a haunting note of sadness amid the larking which makes Cloudland an altogether more challenging odyssey than all of the beaches and jungles and pirate caves visited by The Magic Bed. Sure, Georgie is forced to live with a relentlessly skeptical granny, and rescue his bed from oblivion (twice), but he is still flying in the end, every future bedtime a promise of roundtrip adventure, whereas Albert can hardly keep from noticing the doors closing behind him. Whether it is the Queen who is finally responsible for excusing him, or the wind for transporting him back, or a single, human act of will, you get the feeling Albert will not pass this way again. Not in this life, anyway, and not that he won’t keep trying, and not that he even has a choice. You may forever be torn between the demands of the moment and the word that will magically stop time, between believing and knowing better, but you can’t be half a dreamer.