There’s a wonderful little item over at the Guardian: What were your favourite books before you could read? As is pointed out: the bookish often rhapsodise over books that we loved as child readers, but the books we loved before we could read, and the reasons why we loved them, are not always so discussed.
Since having a child (who thankfully and rather unsurprisingly is a book child) I’ve read books to him that I was read and sometimes the familiarity of the images hits me like the proverbial ton of. They evoke a strange feeling of having been to a place before but not quite being able to put my finger on where it is. I can’t remember being read the books and sometimes can’t remember the story but the images are like that familiar but forgotten place and sometimes there’s a feeling that goes along with it. Sometimes it’s comfortable, sometimes it’s not.
I felt this rather acutely with, of all things, Tootle. It’s not an especially literary book. It has an obvious and cumbersome message – stay on the tracks, no matter what. I don’t remember who read it to me and I can’t recall ever asking for it but when I read it to my son the pictures of the people waving red flags from behind shrubs were as familiar as my childhood bedroom, the road between the towns where I grew up, the voices of family members not heard for years. It would never be a book I would nominate as being a ‘favourite’ and I can’t imagine actually seeking it out to read once I could piece the words together myself. It was the familiarity that told me I must have studied it closely as a child. It must have been a feature of that stage before I could read at all.
My son is just learning to read. He’s getting there. It’s a point of painful joy for me. He doesn’t seem to be taking to it as quickly as I remembered (true or not) doing so myself. I get frustrated with his seeming refusal to read words I know he recognises. He asks me the most complex questions at other times, he explains difficult concepts to me. He works stuff out: he observes, makes inferences, solves. But sometimes he refuses to read. It’s like there’s a block. And yet…I know he is learning it. He explained to me how he and his cousin worked out that our number plate read ‘New South Wales’.
“We sounded out w-a-l-e-s and then we said ‘wales!’ and then I said ‘what goes with wales’ and we looked at the other words and I said ‘new south wales!’ and we worked it out!”
We rode down the street on our bikes after this and I heard him saying to the wind “I can read. New South Wales! I can read!”
I wanted to cry.
So, back to the books. A basic list of stuff that was around in my brain before I could read would be
1. The Brickstreet Boys (and others in the series)
Very difficult to get hold of these days. It’s quite legendary in our family. (We often argue as to who has the family copies, for they have been missing for years). They played football. There was a boy called Fred who you knew would be a pain in the arse at school but that there would be redemption for him. And it gave me the word ‘plimsolls’, a word I turn over fondly in my mind to this day.
2. John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat
I had a deep dislike of this book but it plays a major part in my childhood because of how it made me feel. I won a hardcover copy in a Library Week painting competition when I was 5. It depressed me deeply. It made me feel hopeless, helpless and maudlin. I don’t know if it was the drawings or the limited and closed extent of the characters’ lives. I still feel hollow and sad when I think of it now. I still have the book and I don’t think I ever read it to my son, until he brought it home from the library.
3. Badjelly the Witch
This book scared the shit out of me. The drawings are done in ink and are black and white. The words are in curly handwriting rather than print and that somehow added to the fear. Opening it now I only have to see particular parts of particular pages and I feel sick in the stomach.
4. No Roses for Harry
The pattern of that rose-covered jumper may as well have been for me, so familiar is it. The drawings now seem very 50s and old-fashioned but I never noticed this at the time. I wonder how much kids notice things that are out-of-date, or obsolete? Like the phone with the curly cord in a book I read Dash the other night. I wondered if he noticed the phone was attached to the wall. How quaint.
Like Tootle, I know there are a number of books that I can’t recall but when I see the images or hear certain sentences, it will suddenly rush back up at me. I only discover them when I read them for my son. I do enjoy the feeling they give me. They provide me with unconscious and spontaneous memories, like a secret tunnel back to my childhood. The brilliant thing about it is that it requires no effort from me. The pictures evoke the memories whether I like it or not and it’s not facts and places and times that I remember but feelings. Recalling a place or an event just doesn’t seem to have the same resonance somehow. Reason #387 why you should read books.