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.

Monday 9 December 2013

The Thirteen Days of Christmas

It was time for a refresh so I pared the blog 'design' down a little. Design is in inverted commas because really that's a rather inflated word for what happens when I play around in a slightly panicky way with the blogger default settings and backdrops. I dunno. Font choices are HARD.

This is mostly a post about 'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' by Jenny Overton but it's also a small paeon of praise to the precious, precious treasure that is an independent local bookshop. A bookshop which knows you by name and knows your taste and knows what to put into your hands and say 'here, read this, you'll like it.' I might not have found 'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' without mine doing just that and that would have been very sad indeed. Because I DO like it. Bookshops are not just for Christmas but they are especially nice at this time of year. Go and spend money in one yourself. It'll make you and them both happy.

So. 'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' (illustrated, small drumroll, by a certain Shirley Hughes) was originally published in 1972 but has just been reissued. It's essentially a creation story for that ever-favourite-if-a-bit-interminable-when-sung-by-your-otherwise-obviously-delightful-children-in-a-loop-at-full-volume carol 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'. Set in the eighteenth century, it's the story of overly-romantic Annaple Kitson being well and truly petard-hoisted by her younger siblings: Desperate to see her married off so they can escape her inedible cooking they provide helpful inspiration to her apparently staid suitor Francis. But Francis, it soon transpires, has plenty of inspiration of his own and a seemingly bottomless purse. Will there be a wedding on the thirteenth day? Well what do you think?

The great conceit/joke of the book is that Francis not only provides the named gift for the day, he also provides the chorus duplicates daily. Thus on the fifth day, Annaple not only receives 5 gold rings, she also gets another 4 calling birds, 3 french hens, 2 turtle doves and pear-tree roosting partridge. And so on. Requiring the construction of ever more elaborate livestock containment and the consumption of massive quantities of eggs and milk; in the end used for bathing and shaving as well as drinking. Funny.

The other pleasure is the education it provides in some long forgotten Christmas traditions. The twelve days of Christmas each presented with their own name and associated rituals: St Thomas of Canterbury's Day (day 5) for instance where all keys are brought to church for blessing and sparrows are fed or Eve's Day (day 11) bringing treats for all the women of the house. I'm re-establishing that one forthwith. The book is peppered with contemporary carols and verses that must have once have been folk knowledge. It's got to be the Most Christmas book I've ever read.

'The procession turned into Ship Street. The choir-boys ran ahead, banging on the doors of all the houses where there were young children and shouting, "Ransom your brats, ransom your brats, a penny a piece for your babies." The pennies showered from the windows. Will dipped his hand into his sack and threw handfuls of nuts and little bags of sugar plums to each ransomed child, and the choirboys stuck sprigs of holly through each door knocker to mark the fact that the price had been paid.'

There's lots of this sort of stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might rather reduce the charm for the child reader though. They'll need a taste for the sophisticated and historic or an ability to skim the slower pleasures. This is a book for reading aloud I reckon; a family fireside appreciation with something for everybody. A chapter a day when the actual twelve days arrive? That's what I'm planning. Lovely. Thanks 'The Children's Bookshop'.

'The Thirteen Days of Christmas' by Jenny Overton, illustrated by Shirley Hughes, pub. OUP, isbn 978-0-19-273543-0

Sunday 1 December 2013

What Bill's reading

Bill's turning 9 next week. Halfway to a grown up. Considerably less than that until he thinks he's a grown up. Gulp, sniff and coo-how-did-that-happen? in equal measures.

I don't often blog about what he likes to read but that's mainly because what he likes to read is pretty canonical. You'll have heard of what he likes. He likes to tick off series; sometimes in a devouring-can't get-enough-way (How to Train Your Dragon), sometimes in a dutiful-this-must-be-FINISHED-for-credibility-way (Percy Jackson). Some books he reads fast,almost in a single sitting (Tom Gates, any David Walliams, Guy Bass, Wimpy Kid) some take him weeks and bog him down a little (poorly edited 5th Harry Potter j'accuse). Some books are apparently too 'old' for him but he loves (Wonder) and I'm delighted to say he'll still happily read those too 'young' for him too. He wrote a book review about 'Hug' a month ago for school. It was pasted on the wall next to one for 'Stormbreaker' by an overly sophisticated classmate which tickled me.

He starts books and stops them. His bed is surrounded by possibilities, choices, some begun and abandoned permanently, some just waiting for the right moment, some in a patient queue. My bed is the same. Everyone has the right to be a flaky, distractable, occasionally impatient  reader I reckon. At the moment he's mainly reading 'Silverfin' but seems also to have finished a Lemony Snicket or two and be dabbling with a compendium of entertaining deaths called 'Dreadful Fates'. He likes to treat us to treasures from the last at the dinner table.

I read to him. We've just finished Jane Johnson's 'The Secret Country'; the first in a trilogy. With definite shades of Narnia in a contemporary setting; it's a funny adventure story of a boy who discovers his 'Other World' destiny by way of a talking cat and an incarcerated dragon. Nothing especially revolutionary but who needs revolution? He or I or a mixture of the two of us'll read the next two eventually. First, as it's Advent, 'The Box of Delights' is calling; another book passed down to read by my dear dad. Christmas's past will be brought into focus, cue more sobbing.
And how long do I get to carry on reading to him? Forever I hope against hope.

There's one thing that Bill reads every, every week without fail which is also celebrating a sort of birthday: The totally marvellous 'Phoenix Comic' has its 100th issue out this week. The only independent comic to have achieved such a feat in 40 years; it's ad-free quality story telling of the highest order and mighty pretty to boot. Every Friday it arrives in the post and I sneak it out of its envelope to have a read over my lunchtime soup and cheese before resealing it. Then Bill gets home from school and pounces and doesn't even turn on the telly until he's finished it.


Happy Birthday Bill. Happy Birthday Phoenix.

Happy reading = happy reader. (and of course a Wagon Wheel never goes amiss either)

And here's a sample of The Phoenix if you want some happy reading of your own.