Trust me, I will get around to what I’m reading, but first let me explain to you that one of the main ways in which I have managed to confound expectations of me is by becoming the mother of three children. I was a bookish, only child, entirely content without siblings, and sometimes when my three beautiful and part-feral children have reduced me to a screaming harridan, my mother will smirk and rather unhelpfully say: ‘You can see why I only had one.’
So, why did I have three? Well, to read to them of course. When my eldest had gone through the picture book phase, I wasn’t ready to put away my own lovingly preserved 1970s copies of Where the Wild Things Are, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Stone Doll of Sister Brute and Obstreperous. Nor was I ready to take out of circulation some of the newer picture books I’d come to know and adore: That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, Amy and Louis and Where the Giant Sleeps.
At some point it occurred to me that no single child would linger in any one part of childhood long enough for us to get through all the ‘classics’ appropriate to that age, as well as the books I loved at the same stage of life, and all the wonderful new books being written for children. To even begin to satisfy my narrative desires, I was going to need a minimum of three kids. I’m joking, right? Maybe.
Apparently there are parents who demonstrate love for their children through cooking, but if my kids had to rely for reassurance of my affection on what I bring out of the oven, they’d go hungry. At the bookshelf, though, I’m a magician, capable of dispensing everything from CS Lewis to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tolkein to Blyton. I can fill them right up, and cater to every taste. ‘You liked that? Well, you’re going to love this!’
I’ve been able to give them Carbonel, by Barbara Sleigh, in which a girl called Rosemary, after meeting a talking cat, is engaged on a quest that involves amateur witchcraft, the drinking of various magical potions, and quite a bit of flying around on an increasingly dilapidated and disgruntled broom. Apparently the tale has its roots in the folktale ‘The King of the Cats’. I loved Carbonel as much for its flavour of 1950s England, and its gorgeous vocabulary of words like ‘widdershins’, as I did for its plot.
Then there’s Whispering in the Wind, a story read to me when I was about eight years old and now sadly out of print (I had to pay a princely sum on eBay to get a 1969 first edition). It’s a story of a boy on a white pony who crosses a mythical Australia in search of a beautiful princess to rescue. Accompanied by a kangaroo with a magic pouch, the boy encounters characters such as the ‘Willy Willy Man’, who runs on two-stroke fuel, and a witch who collects space junk from the Moon’s surface.
So, who knew that Enid Blyton wasn’t good for you? Not me. Imagine my surprise, having grown up with The Enchanted Forest books, The Wishing Chair, Mr Pinkwhistle, The Secret Seven and The Famous Five, to discover that some education professionals, librarians and literary types thought the prolific writer was a bit on the nose (‘banal’, they said, of her writing style). I didn’t encounter Harry Potter until adulthood, but when I did, I understood it as firmly based in the generic conventions I had first loved in Blyton’s Malory Towers and the St Clare’s series, and later discovered in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes.
I remembered childhood afternoons, burning parallel lines into the soles of my ugg boots on the grille of our old oil heater, consuming cheap paperbacks at speed. Aware by now of the high-brow sneering that poor old Enid has had to suffer, I felt an undercurrent of trepidation as I ordered in the box set of Malory Towers to read to my nine year-old daughter. She was in Class Four and in the process of coming to terms with the emergence of the Princess Bitch-face Syndrome among some of her peers, and I remembered how Blyton’s fictional school world had once helped me navigate the same challenges 30 years earlier. Would Malory Towers have dated since the time of my addiction? How would the representations of girlhood and womanhood strike me now? Would my girl even like it?
The six books were done and dusted in a matter of weeks, and my daughter and I had a fresh vocabulary for discussing schoolyard politics: ‘What would Darrell do?’, ‘She’s being a bit Gwendolyn today’, ‘I think I’m a bit like Sally…’ And yes the books were dated, but only so much as made for interesting discussions about the evolution of toys and pranks and technology. The gender politics were something of a pleasant surprise, perhaps because Malory Towers is an all girls’ school and there are no boys around to draw attention to the fact that they never do the dishes. The girls who are held up as examples are brave, funny, loyal, hard-working, talented, humble, and they’re good sports. And you know, there’s a time in your life when a black and white map of values and qualities is no bad thing. My kids’ world will turn grey on them soon enough.
I heard author Libby Gleeson give a keynote speech in which she described how one of her daughters, as a teenager, had a particular ‘go-to’ book, which somehow spoke to her heart. I recall that it was I Am the Mummy Heb-Nefert and one day I will track this book down. But when the time comes for me to hand over to my daughter my own teenage ‘go-to’ book, she’ll get a copy of Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, which, although set in the 1940s, and in faraway Chesapeake Bay—where I had never, and still have never, been—somehow seemed to map the world as I knew it. What was it about that book? What was it about the story of Sara, who saw herself perpetually in the shadow of her twin, that reliably made me laugh, cry, rage, and—in the end—feel right down to my core the satisfaction of her quiet triumph? Well, she finds herself. Maybe it was that simple. And that complicated.
I could go on and on. Really I could. I could write a book about the manifold pleasures of reading as a parent, and of revisiting the textual sites of one’s own childhood, but thankfully Francis Spufford has already done the second part of that. His wonderful book, the ‘inward autobiography’ The Child That Books Built, begins with a chapter called ‘Confessions of an English Fiction Eater’ and goes on to explore the ways in which books—specific books, special books, important books, high and low-brow books—have shaped the architecture of the author’s heart and mind.
Even when I’m a shrieking, scowling, she-devil of a mother, you could probably snap me out of it by reminding me of the wonder and delight of reading to my children and watching the way books, as Spufford describes, ‘build and stretch, and build again the chambers of our imagination’. I hope that my children will let books make for them chambers that are both large and small, elaborate and simple, hectic and quiet. I hope there are chambers in which they cannot help but linger, and others in which they can set themselves free to race, page after page after page.
Danielle Wood is an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction, for adults and for children. Born in Hobart in 1972, she now teaches creative writing at the University of Tasmania.
16 Jun 14 at 1:09
God! Carbonel! I’ve been trying to remember that title for YEARS! I thought it was Cobbolino the Witch’s Cat but that was not the talking magic cat of my memory. Thank you!
18 Jun 14 at 13:39
Loved this, you have described my reading childhood – only I think i also read every horse book ever written. Thank you – lovely read.
18 Jun 14 at 15:56
Wonderful read. I want to track down some of those books you mention. I so identify with ‘screaming harridan’, reading to my 3 children was the highlight of my day. I now have a grandson and he just loves to read too. Great excuse to drag out the old books and buy lots of new ones. Relieved to hear of someone sticking up for good old Enid too!
23 Jun 14 at 13:22
I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Carbonel – I would have loved it as a child. I’ll need to check out ‘The Child That Books Built’ too.
While I don’t have children to read to, I’ve been enjoying a rediscovery of the books that hold a special place in my youth, so this was a delight to read. It’s good to hear that you’re passing on the experience and value of story, in shaping a young person’s mind and heart, and as a tool to combat the Princess Bitch-face Syndrome.
24 Jun 14 at 17:19
Absolutely what kids are for. And it comes round again with the grandchildren!
Hugh Lofting’s Dr Doolittle was a major part of my animal-obsessed childhood, but I’ve been shy of bringing him out for the new generation on account of the racial stereotypes. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so delicate.