The Enduring Magic Of Children’s Books

Just recently my two and a half-year-old son achieved a milestone I had been particularly looking forward to; that of being able to sit, listen and enjoy longer picture books such as The Gruffalo. We are now very much past the baby board books and the Usborne ‘That’s Not My…’ books (thank God!!)  We are still very much into flaps (Is There A Dog In This Book is a constant favourite) but we have moved on from touch and feel baby board books.

Finally, I can say with slightly emotional pride, my little lad can sit through the entirety of Room On The Broom without losing attention for a second. Oh, what wonderful opportunities now flood our way! Literally, bookshelves full of them!

He has enjoyed ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ and ‘Rattletrap Car’ for some time now, but the length of rhyming prose in books like The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom were too much for him until recently.

I’ve felt quite tearful reading to him lately, for many reasons. Of course, when your child passes a milestone, whether it’s starting to walk or starting to talk, you always feel a strong mix of emotions. Pride and excitement are the dominant ones, but there is always an added pang of wistfulness. Your little baby is growing and changing and time stands still for no one. I sat with him last night, his little legs pressed next to mine, his bottle of milk on his lap, while I read him The Gruffalo for the first time. By this, I mean for the first time since he’s been able to appreciate longer books! He was leaning over the pages and I could feel his concentration and anticipation. I wondered how much of the story and the tricks the mouse plays on everyone, were getting through to him.

I found myself drifting back in time, just as I had the day before with Room On The Broom. I have a strong minded, very individual fourteen-year-old daughter, who was once an equally strong-minded two-year-old. After her bath, we used to wrap her in a towel, sit her on her potty and read Room On The Broom to her. I will forever associate that book with potty training! And reading it again in its full glory, to my little boy brought back so many memories I could have cried. I found myself doing the same voices (I make the witch sound rather old and croaky, and of course the dragon has to sound like a ruffian from the East End of London)

The same thing happened while reading The Gruffalo tonight. My voice was getting louder, my accents more pronounced, along with my hand gestures! My little boy cracked up when the mouse said ‘gruffalo crumble!’ and we laughed about it for ages afterward. God, I must have read that story so many times to my older kids. How wonderful to be introducing such magic and laughter to another generation.

It was my oldest son, my nine-year-old who got into the Julia Donaldson books the most, though. For a fair few Christmases we would ask friends and family to buy him one of her books, so we have quite a collection now, which I am so pleased we held onto. The other day when reading to my youngest, his older brother drifted into the room and joined us on the bed. He requested Tiddler, which if I remember, was his favourite when he was just a tiddler himself. I hadn’t read it in years, but it all came back to me, and yet again I felt transported back in time. The loveliest thing was that my older son started reading it too, matching my voice, so that we were both reading it out loud at the same time. Tiddler! Tiddler! Tiddler’s late! Like an earworm, the refrain has been in my head for days since. I like tiddler’s story, said little Johnny Dory…and he told it to his Granny…who told it to a plaice!

Childhood books are like windows in time, taking you back to another you and another place, filling you with sweet warmth and stoking your belly with fresh giggles. I recently re-read Watership Down for the first time in adulthood, and I was hooked from start to finish. Not only that, I felt like a kid again. Touched by magic and wonder, on the edge of my seat with worry for this troubled band of runaway rabbits. Every chapter delivered a new adventure, the stakes even higher once they finally found a new home and discovered the vicious dictator in the next warren. I cried when I read the last chapter. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was that ten-year-old girl again, curled up in the arm chair in my childhood home, totally absorbed, my cloth ears closed to all but Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig, my teeth biting my lip, my eyes welling with tears when Hazel realised he didn’t need his body anymore… (Gulp)

watership-down

Children’s books are powerful magic indeed. Reading them, sharing them, reliving them in later years. Research shows that reading to babies and toddlers helps them associate books with love and affection, fostering a lifelong love of books and reading. I look at books as adventures waiting to happen, as worlds waiting for you to step inside them. I am so excited that my youngest can enjoy longer books; there are so many places we can now go!

What about you? What were your favourite books as a child? What books have your own children become obsessed with? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rainy Day Book Shop…

Half term. Raining of course. Oldest child wants to stay in all day watching Supernatural on dvd. 10 and 7 year old want to keep playing their car game on the landing. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy too. Another load of washing. Floors to clean. Wet dogs to rub dry. A baby to entertain. But it’s half term, no school! We should be doing something together as a family…

So we force them out. Into their coats and into the car and out into the world and the empty wet streets that lead down to a favourite haunt. Every time we go looking for it I worry that it has gone. That we didn’t go often enough, didn’t keep an eye on it and it vanished, faded away when we weren’t paying attention. Good things do that sometimes. You forget they are there, and then when you need them you find out they have moved on.

But not so The Crooked Book. Push open the door and the smell brings a smile to my face, and I am carrying in the baby with the feeling that I am introducing him to a warm and wonderful place. Which it is anyway. On first glance, on first smell, old and musty and reminds me of my Nan’s house when we were growing up. Old things well cared for. Ceramic basins and wooden spoons. 1920’s wardrobes. 1960’s coats. An ancient typewriter or two. I wonder how many words were tapped out on its keys… Tables and chairs, mismatched and eccentric, two men in suits chatting about a business plan. Free wi-fi. Tea, coffee, cake and soup. But those are not the reasons we come.

We make our way slowly to the back. Where the books are. Piled high and higher still, on clumsy shelves and scruffy displays. The familiar face at the till says hello how are you? We are fine, and we move on, carefully, trying not to knock over anything precious or valuable. Like the books, I want all of the things…And the smell…

The smell of books and thoughts and feelings and dreams. The smell of pages thumbed and worn. The smell of cracked spines and cricked necks. It makes me sigh. My shoulders relax. I hug the baby tighter, and feel the urge to show him all of the books. A whole world, I want to tell him. In fact a million, million worlds. A million, million, million words and ideas and tragedies and triumphs.

It feels safe here. Close and comfortable and sheltered. We huddle in the kid’s section while 7 year old laments the fact they never have the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid book he is after. But we find him a Doctor Who annual to keep him smiling. 12 year old as ever has an armful and we have to cajole her down to just two. 10 year old finds a book on dragons and a book on vampires. I’m lost. Or is it found?

I suddenly remember that I want to read Toni Morrison, so me and the baby hunch down and find M on the bottom shelf in the left hand corner and there is Beloved. Something I have wanted to read for years. Happy, but not done. I find a book by Roddy Doyle that I have not read, and a whole selection of Douglas Coupland novels catch my eye. In the end I choose Beloved and Girlfriend In A Coma. At the till husband is in a world of his own with Marx and Engels…

Fifteen pounds worth of books, smiles all around, priceless and a collective urge to get back home. Back into the warm with a coffee and a biscuit. Our books under our arms, we run back to the car, jumping puddles, job well done. We came, we browsed, we conquered. I feel slightly bereft as always for all the books left behind. Goodbye The Crooked Book. Until next time.