I sometimes think that I should have published the lyrics to Child of the Library with a bibliography. The references in the second verse are all obvious to me, but I’m a white middle class English boy who grew up around boats. My childhood reading and yours may not intersect all that much.
The Walkers and the Blacketts
Also known as the Swallows and Amazons. Swallows and Amazons is the first ‘big’ book that I can remember reading for myself. We were in Cornwall, holidaying at the same place my mum’s been going to since she was a kid. Mum was reading Swallows and Amazons to us, and it was great, but I was impatient to find out what happened next, so I took the book to bed with me and read it for myself. I haven’t stopped yet. Swallows and Amazons was the book that opened my door to reading for pleasure. It opened up a way of looking at the world too. I can’t imagine who I’d be if I’d never read any Ransome.
The Pevensies are the family in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia books. I have a slightly troubled relationship with these books now. I really don’t get on with C. S. Lewis’s view of the world (I once hurled a taped reading of The Screwtape Letters out of the car rather than listen to another word of the bloody things), but I wasn’t reading between the lines when I was nine. I was just loving the stories and the images they put in my head. And what images…
Simp, the Canine Cannonball
What do you mean, you’ve never read Cannonball Simp? You poor thing!
Cannonball Simp, by John Burningham is the library book for me. Back when I was 4 or 5, I would walk with my dad from Regent’s Square to the Doncaster Central Library every Saturday morning, with three books clutched under my arm. I’d hand them over the counter, receiving in exchange 3 buff cardboard library slip holders. I would then go over to the childrens’ books section and pull out three new (to me) books and take them to the counter. The librarian would remove the slip from the library bookplate, place it in one of my surrendered holders and stamp the slip and the bookplate with the date, three weeks hence, by which the book must be renewed.
Well, that’s how it worked until weekend I came back with Cannonball Simp. I loved it. I didn’t want to take it back because I hadn’t learned it yet. Sure I could ‘read’ along with Dad - I knew all the words by then - but the pictures were another thing entirely. They were beautiful. They still are.
That’s when I learned of the magic of ‘renewal’. Instead of handing the book back, I showed it to the librarian and said “I’d like to renew this, please,” and instead of giving me my library card back, they just stamped the book and slip with a new date. Wow! It was like I owned the book.
I don’t know how many times I renewed that book. I’m afraid I don’t remember the words any more. But I still remember the pleasure that it gave me.
Galadriel the Fair
On the last day of junior school our form teacher, Miss Rees, wrote a long list of books on the board and asked us to copy the list into the back of our exercise books. She said that these were books we should try and read. I don’t have the exercise book any more and I remember very little of the list. I do remember that I’d already read some of them. And I remember The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Oh boy, do I remember The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Terry Pratchett said that if you’re a 14 year old boy and you don’t think that The Lord of the Rings is the best book ever written then there may be something wrong with you, but if you’re 28 and you still think it’s the best book ever written then there’s definitely something wrong with you. I was that 14 year old boy. I stayed up all night reading it. I fell asleep reading it. I read the appendices. I worked out how to write my name in Elvish script. I even read The Silmarillion and thought I enjoyed it. I can still recite some of the poetry. In Elvish. I’ve forgotten the words of Cannonball Simp, but get me going with “A Elbereth Gilthoniel…” and I can just about reel off the rest of the poem. What’s wrong with me?
By the time I was 28, LotR wasn’t the best book ever written. I’m no longer sure that there is such a thing as “The Best Book Ever Written”. Still, if you haven’t at least read The Hobbit you should take steps to rectify matters. Or wait for the Peter Jackson movie.
The Daughter of a Pirate King
Paddington the Bear
Once I’d learned that reading for myself was pure pleasure, I read anything and everything I could find in the library and I discovered Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear. Paddington was a well meaning young bear from Peru who was found, wearing a duffel coat and a label reading “Please look after this bear”, at Paddington Station by the Brown Family. The Browns took him in immediately, named him Paddington after the station and… ‘hijinks ensue’.
I would be quietly reading these books to myself when some episode or another (“Baked Elastic”; the Russian ballet dancer; the wobbly table…) would cause me to laugh out loud and my brother would demand to know what was funny and made me read whatever it was aloud to him. I have to confess, I resented this, but not enough to dent my enjoyment. The Paddington books are made of joy.