Monday, March 26, 2012

Little Readers and Readees

Yesterday I worked the Children’s Book Festival for the Wheeler Centre. Outside the State Library lawns were overrun and Little Lonsdale St was a “child apocalypse” (according to my workmate Autumn) of colourful chalking. Inside I chatted to authors and held the mic for kids to ask questions whose succinctness put most adult patrons of the Wheeler Centre to shame.

I must have been too old to appreciate Andy Griffiths when The Day My Bum Went Psycho was published. Thankfully I seem to be young enough now, because I was consistently delighted by both his half-hour presentations – especially the second, a slideshow of his forthcoming 13 Storey Treehouse book with illustrator Terry Denton. And the kids were climbing off the walls.

But the real highlight of the day, for me, was hearing Graeme Base. Like most kids my age (i.e. 32) I have vivid memories of Animalia and The Eleventh Hour. For the first time in decades I remembered the excitement around my brother’s class having an Eleventh Hour dress-up feast. Unfortunately, under Mum’s creative direction he went as the swan, and was teased quite severely. This was, after all, Year 7 at a boy’s school.

At one point a child asked Graeme how he got the idea to write books, and in his response he asked the audience if anyone knew the book Masquerade. I was kneeling in the second row, waiting to hold the mic for the next question, and amidst the confused silence my low murmur of assent carried all the way to the stage. “Sebastian knows!” exclaimed the author as I knelt there feeling absurdly proud.

Masquerade is an amazing book by Kit Williams, published in 1982 as the clue to a real-life treasure hunt. The author had buried a golden hare somewhere in England, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world bought the book in the hope of unlocking the mystery and claiming the prize. And, with the miracle of Wikipedia, I have just discovered the original winner was revealed as a fraud six years later. It’s an incredible story, and I’ll leave you to look it up if you’re interested.

When I think back to my childhood, The Eleventh Hour and Masquerade seem like definitive, eye-popping experiences of the magic of books. Another that springs to mind is Anno’s Journey, Anno’s Italy and similar works by Mitsumasa Anno.  If you don’t know Anno, imagine Where’s Wally? done in a minimalist, Zen Buddhist style by an artist with a deep interest in history, science and travel.

If I was sitting in Mum’s place in the Adelaide Hills, I’d be able to list many more favourite picture books that truy transcend the term. As it is, I’ll have to stick with what I can remember.

Having said that, my first memory of reading, like all memories from the first three and half years of my life lived in Brunei, is no a real memory at all. It’s captured on film. There I sit, blonde and pudgy with the Three Billy Goats Gruff balanced between my toes. It almost looks like I’m reading the book, but really I’m reciting it by memory. A neat party trick, though.

What I do remember is Mum reading aloud to us. A lot. More than a lot. More than I can imagine any parent reading to their children. More than I can imagine reading to my children, if and when, and that’s a sobering thought because there’s really no greater gift you can give a child. Not when you’ve got food, clothes and a roof sorted, anyway.

From an early age we had at least an hour of reading every night, and usually not in bed but sprawled out in the living room on a sheepskin rug, the couch or in front of an open fire. Kipling’s Just So Stories were favourites, especially The Beginning of the Armadilloes and The Cat That Walked By Himself. The Hobbit was a big hit, but when Mum started The Lord of the Rings I found it hard to follow and wandered off.

Or so the story goes. I was so young I can hardly remember this – somewhere around my sixth birthday. The way Mum tells it, every time I wandered off she would see my head peeking around the corner shortly thereafter, and before long I’d be back in the living room, listening again. Writing this, I just heard a flash of Mum’s voice solemnly intoning the words inscribed on the ring of power: “One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” Soon I was hopelessly enthralled.

Amazingly, this wasn’t even the first time The Lord of the Rings had been read aloud in our family. Dad read it to Mum in England, when she was pregnant with my older brother Thomas. I can just imagine Mum correcting Dad’s pronunciation of all the names, and interrupting to fill him in on the Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse influences on Tolkien’s Middle Earth. How he managed to finish it within nine months remains unclear.

Years later, giving the Best Man speech at my brother’s wedding, I explained his curious middle name Aelfwyn to a bemused audience. It means “elf-friend” in Anglo-Saxon, and I joked that our parents are not even hippies – they’re just geeks.

To the extent that this is true, I’m glad of it. Months of our childhood were spent listening not just to Kipling and Tolkien, but Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Lloyd Alexander, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Ursula Le Guin, E. Nesbitt,, Kenneth Grahame, Colin Thiele – and dozens more authors I can’t wait to read to my kids, if and when, before the 21st century catches up with them.

So I thought yesterday, walking home from the State Library, with the sights and sounds of of children spellbound by their favourite authors dancing happily around my head.

Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

Allie said...

Oh Oh you are a Kit Williams fan. That makes my day!! He is always exciting to go back to. Being a "reader" is the best fun you can have when you are a grown up kid. Ha, the internet will never replace us!!