Book Reviews - Childhood’s Books: ‘untold joys patiently biding their time’

February 18

Childhood’s Books: ‘untold joys patiently biding their time’

Researching and writing these book reviews for Salad Days is pure self-indulgence. My youngest child is now nearly 16 and, while I have a young nephew and niece to whom I send books for birthdays and Christmas, even they are too old for most of the picture books I write about. But I hope that they will all grow up to have fond memories of the books of their childhood and will sometimes indulge themselves in re-reading an old favourite.

My first recommendation is to urge you to a little self-indulgence of your own and buy yourselves a copy of Bookworm: a Memoir of Childhood Reading by Guardian writer Lucy Mangan. I read the second paragraph of her Introduction and knew she was a kindred spirit: ‘I still have all my childhood books. In fact, I have spent some of my happiest hours in recent months arranging them on the bespoke bookcases I had built under the sloping ceiling of my study for their ease and comfort. I may no longer imagine them, as I did thirty years ago, whispering companionably together at night when I have gone to bed, but I love them still. They made me who I am.’ She describes this hoard as waiting for when her son is ready - ‘untold joys patiently biding their time’.

While Lucy Mangan is younger than me, she clearly had the same childhood reading list as I did and recalls her reading in exactly the way I would have wanted to, had I thought of doing so. She writes of the ‘solace and redemption’ delivered by half an hour with Milly Molly Mandy; like me, she sides with the fish in The Cat in the Hat; when banned from bringing books to the breakfast table, she hungrily read and re-read the cornflake packet instead; and she carries Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tolbooth in her heart and, like me, discovering that it wasn’t published in the UK, has ‘diligently acquired several copies since as a hedge against further deprivation’ and wants to be buried with a copy.

Mangan writes beautifully, includes some interesting details about the authors and publication of the books she discusses, and is very self-deprecatingly funny. You may want to add to her list (she barely mentions Arthur Ransome, for example); you may not agree with her opinions on all the books she recalls, but you will have enormous pleasure arguing with her. And you will almost certainly make a list of books to seek out on the second-hand market which you missed in childhood.

So, now, some books to help instil that same passionate love of reading in today’s children.

Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp had me welling up. Madeline Finn emphatically does not like to read anything – ‘not even the menu on the ice cream van’. She struggles to read out loud at school when ‘the sentences get stuck in my mouth like peanut butter’ and is never awarded a star or a smiley face for her reading – only ever ‘a heart that says Keep Trying’ but then, one day, on her weekly reluctant trip to the local library, the librarian suggests she might like to read to Bonnie, one of the library dogs. And books are transformed for her.

I’d heard about the Read2Dogs programme run by the charity Pets as Therapy but, somehow, seeing it in operation in fiction in this picture book brought home to me how magical the effect can be. When Madeline gets stuck on a word, ‘Bonnie doesn’t mind. She puts her big paws in my lap and let me stroke her until I figure it out’. For every copy of the book sold in the UK, the publishers will donate 50p to the programme. The story doesn’t really need anything more than its own loveliness to recommend it but if you need any further incentive, the support for the charity is surely good enough?

Madeline Finn is about a child struggling with words on a page: my next choice, Alive Again by Ahmadreza Ahmadi and Nahid Kazemi is about a child struggling with the relationship between words and the world. Watching the wind blow blossom from the trees, he asks ‘When blossom goes, does the word ‘blossom’ die?’ I rather like the image this book conjures in my head of a store of words waiting, perhaps in darkness, in readiness to burst into life again as the world turns and they are needed again – which also reminds me of Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words, which I reviewed in the last issue of Salad Days and which I urge you once again to buy*. Ahmadreza Ahmadi is acclaimed as one of the greatest contemporary poets in Iran and it is interesting to see the level of philosophical and imaginative sophistication he expects of his child readers. And why not?! Us adults, caught up in the mundane routines of daily life, have generally forgotten to think big thoughts. It takes a child to stop us in our tracks and make us reflect.

Another book which engages beautifully with its reader’s imagination is The Thing by Simon Puttock and Daniel Egneus. It begins ‘The Thing lay where it had fallen, not moving at all, not making a sound’. A group of creatures gather round and begin to speculate on what it is, what it does, whose is it, and ‘can we have one, too?’. Watching them quietly discuss the Thing and make plans for it, developing a community around it simply through the power of their imaginations, is enchanting – and salutary (a whole tourist industry, and some bad feeling, builds up and spoils the peaceful scene). The final message after the Thing disappears as mysteriously as it arrives is heartwarming.

If The Thing is about wonder inspired by an imaginary object, All the Wild Wonders: Poems of our Earth, edited by Wendy Cooling and illustrated by Piet Grobler celebrates the wonders of the real world. What I particularly like about this collection is that Cooling has included some older works as well as contemporary poems. William Blake, for example, is there alongside Andrew Fusek Peters. Tennyson is across the page from a poem by a Sioux poet, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Thomas Hardy and Ogden Nash are together. These pairings inspire as many questions as the individual poems themselves. While I can see this being a ‘useful’ themed collection for teachers, I rather hope that children can be left to discover in it their own connections, opening their eyes not only to the world but to a world of poets through ages and across continents who have been inspired to write about ‘Wild Wonders’ in their own individual voices. Piet Grobler’s watercolour illustrations capture both the fragility and the joy. This is an anthology to be read, re-read and treasured.

I ordered my final choice, for older children, The Land of Neverendings by Kate Saunders, author of the wonderful and moving Five Children on the Western Front, on a misunderstanding. From the review, I thought it was a story in which characters from other books for children came to life, which I thought was a great idea. But how pedestrian an idea that is compared with the actual premise of this book, which is about a world in which the stories made up long-ago by a child about its own toys come together in a new imaginary world offering solace. Emily’s profoundly disabled sister dies, aged 15, and her favourite toy, Bluey, is cremated with her. Emily’s sense of loss centres on Bluey who she longs to see again. Ruth, the lady next door, had a son, Daniel, who also died young. All his toys are still in Ruth’s attic. The two of them, Emily and Ruth, share their memories and both discover that in the imaginary world, Smockeroon, which Emily had created years ago to entertain her sister, all the toys and their humans live on after they have left the ‘Hard World’. It isn’t a sentimentally perfect world – one of the teddy bears still has a piece of old chewing gum stuck to his face; the toys who were never really played with or given personalities are known as ‘empty toys’; and there is a self-help group for toys who have graffiti written on them – but its very existence is a comfort.

At the time of writing, I am halfway through this and am completely beguiled by the dreamlike world. It reminds me of both Alice in Wonderland (clearly intentionally as in her ‘real’ world, Emily has been chosen to play Alice in the school’s production), and also of The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren, less well-known than her Pippi Longstocking stories but a fabulous imagining of the world of adventures and sagas which wait for children beyond death – a book which has been used in hospices to help deal with the fears of children with life-limiting conditions.

A particularly special element of this book is the fact that it acknowledges that adults, like Ruth, also crave and, importantly, can conjure up an imaginary or dream-world in which they can see their loved ones again, all the while knowing it is simply the power of their imagination bringing comfort.

I am expecting plenty more tears and smiles before I reach the final pages. Kate Saunders is a superb writer and, based on what I have read so far, The Land of Neverendings deserves to become a classic.

All these treats, and more, can be found on the shelves at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden. Indulge both yourself and allow the children in your care to indulge in the books which may bide their time and offer future solace.

*The Lost Words clearly has timeless appeal: I bought copies for one nephew aged 7 and one aged 21 – and it was loved by both. The 21-year old had already discovered it and had bought a copy for his grandfather!

Books suggested by Jo Burch, founder of Words in Walden

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