Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sibling rivalry diversions

The sense of ownership you have over a beloved book as a child is a powerful and distinct force. You love it, you live it, it becomes part of you. This as discussed in Francis Spufford's 'The Child that Books Built' or in Samantha Ellis's forthcoming 'How to be a Heroine' (which I am really looking forward to) is their power and importance. Nothing I've read as an adult has filled my waking thoughts half so powerfully as Mary Plain's cream buns.

I had a lovely time a few weeks ago attending The British Library's companion talk to their 'Picture This' exhibition, listening to Ian Beck, Laura Dockrill, Philip Ardagh and Lauren Child discuss the children's books that shaped them with Julia Eccleshare. The titles they discussed were wide-ranging; some familiar, some more obscure but their experiences had much in common. There was talk of visceral  imprinting, of world views refocused and of self-discovery. And of getting lost in and liberated by the purely silly. Hooray! I, and the rest of the audience would have been happy to have continued the conversation late into the night.

There was one aspect of all this which occurred to me that didn't come up, and that is how family position and sibling dynamics feed into the books one 'owns'. I am the youngest of four; the youngest by 6 years in fact so very much the baby (or afterthought/accident depending on spin). There was already a fairly healthy children's bookshelf of treasure to pilfer by the time I was growing up and this worked in two ways: It led me to discover some titles that I might not have absorbed so thoroughly independently; my biggest brother's complete 'Asterix' collection, my big sister's 'Twins' books (and later her early Jilly Coopers), 'Our Island's Story' and the book of Greek Myths covered in the sheet of Baskin Robbins ice cream wrapping paper (the wrapping paper may have absorbed me more than the myths).

But the other way it worked was to reject those books already perceived as 'belonging' to someone else; specifically and predictably my closest in age sibling. We all want to be different. I didn't want to wear his cast-down stripy trousers and velour t shirts and have my hair cut in a pudding bowl by Alan the barber so everyone called me 'Sonny' either. I didn't have a choice about those. I did about books.

I should make it clear at this point, because he reads this blog and other than occasionally correcting my grammar/spelling has been kind about it, no blame attaches to the sibling in question. He didn't hoard his books; he was a good 'sharer' n that (merciless on a Monopoly board but that's a different blog). I even remember him reading (I think) 'The Horse and his Boy' aloud to me when I was ill in bed once. But he was also a big and passionate reader and I definitely felt some books were already 'owned' by him and thus had nothing left to be absorbed by me.

For a children's book blogger this amounts to a confessional: I have never read any C S Lewis Narnia beyond the first. I have never read any Arthur Ransome and didn't touch Tolkein before adulthood. Ursula Le Guin and Susan Cooper also remain to be properly discovered. They were all 'his'. It may well be they wouldn't have sung to me anyway but I never gave them a proper chance. Am I alone in this experience? I think about Bill and Eddie and wonder if the same rules will come into force. Eddie already rejects books on the basis that they belong to his brother. I'm pretty sure he'll be bypassing Harry Potter from second-hand overload/over-familiarity. I reckon he's on safe ground in wanting to keep his dense non-fiction transport reading matter to himself.

'The Complete Uncle' by J P Martin has just been re-published thanks to a tremendously successful Kickstarter by publisher Marcus Gipps. The husband has a hand in it and a drawing too. It's a very beautiful object. There are a few copies that can be bought I believe even if you didn't buy into the Kickstarter. But Uncle also belonged to my brother's shelves and when I dip into this volume now I can admire and laugh and boggle but I don't really love. It's not in my bones see? It didn't form me.

Not like Mary's meringues did.

As it's nearly the end of the year I'm going to hatch a piece of news that I've been sitting on like an increasingly uncomfortable egg for some months now. I acquired an agent this autumn. A rather good agent, whose existing list makes me feel a bit like that bit in 'Vertigo' where James Stewart comes over funny on a ladder. This is all very well (and definitely GOOD) but it does require me even more to write something worth publishing; exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Because children's writing, the worthwhile sort, silly or serious gets under the skin and stays there forever. No pressure then, gulp.


  1. Erm, pretty sure those were my Mary Plain books - and kind of you not to mention the time I tied you to a chair leaving a Gerald Durrell open on your lap because I was so certain you would enjoy it if ONLY I could get you to read it.

  2. Oh yes- there is MUCH that *could* be mentioned obviously... With regard to MP- of course the books were already in the house (and from the couple I have look like they were bought for H) but I guess by the time I was discovering them you'd moved on so much further that there was no 'competition'. Not to worry- I don't suppose I would ever have loved Arthur Ransome- and I've probably denied YOU access to the pleasures of K M Peyton and Lorna Hill too...

  3. Excellent piece with the BEST LAST PARAGRAPH EVER.