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.
This evening Dash’s choice for bedtime reading was Farmer Duck. He had borrowed it from the school library. It’s about a duck who lives with a lazy farmer. The duck does all the work while the farmer lays in bed and calls out ‘How’s the work?’ all day. One day the other animals, incensed at the duck’s predicament, stage a coup, of sorts. The farmer ends up running off, never to return. The animals end up working the farm themselves, free from the farmer. (You can see where this is going can’t you?)
When we finished the book, Dash looked at the picture of all the animals working and said
“Ha! An animal farm!”
Exacty my son, exactly.
(Yes it’s coincidental but it tickled me).
I will be forever thankful for my third class teacher, Mr Seymour, thinking we would enjoy hearing Charlie and Chocolate Factory read aloud to us. I did.
My son is going through a minor Beatrix Potter phase. This is a welcome relief from the recycled and frankly boring as batshit Bob the Builder, Noddy and Postman Pat books he has been selecting of late. Bloody brands, when they seep into the reading habits of one’s child, one tends to become alarmed.
Anyway, my alarm was shortlived when he selected a Pamela Allen book to give to a friend for her third birthday (Cuthbert’s Babies) and his insistence on reading at least four Potters a week.
Last night it was The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse and Jeremy Fisher. Anyone who grew up in a reading household would have read Beatrix Potter. I have clear memories of the aforementioned Mr Fisher, the Flopsy Bunnies and, of course, Peter Rabbit. I don’t remember reading Mrs Tittlemouse before, so encountering it with adult eyes was wonderful. As a child I did not consciously recognise the language but as an adult I can marvel at how ‘quaint’ it seems to be, and how wonderfully rich. I can also marvel at how much my three year old son seems to love it.
Mrs Tittlemouse is a particularly house-proud mouse. She lives under a hedge in a complex series of passages and rooms. All day she cleans, despite and because of the unwelcome visits from other species, such as the beetle she chases away with her dustpan. Or the ladybird that has the misfortune to stumble past her house only to be assailed with
Your house is on fire, Mother Ladybird! Fly way home to your children.
Or the spider she pushes out a window because she doesn’t fancy the idea of cobwebs in the corners of her rooms.
Worst of all though is the misfortune which befalls the bees that have taken up residence in an unused storeroom (previously used for acorns).
Initially Mrs Tittlemouse tries to shoo them away:
I am not in the habit of letting lodgings; this is an intrusion!…I will have them turned out!
This doesn’t work immediately and she casts around for help.
I will not have Mr Jackson; he never wipes his feet.
Mr Jackson is a rather repulsive toad who seems to invite himself into her house whenever he wishes. After her encounter with the bees Mrs Tittlemouse returns to her parlour to hear someone “coughing in a fat voice”. It’s Mr Jackson with his feet on the fender, making himself at home.
Being a toad, he’s often wet and Mrs Tittlemouse has to follow him around with a mop. He has a rather annoying habit of saying “tiddly, tiddly, widdly Mrs Tittlemouse” when he has nothing else to say. He seems always in search of something to eat and he has come to the Tittlemouse house because he can smell honey. After a search and an assurance from Mrs Tittlemouse that she has no honey he follows his nose to the bees congregating in the acorn storeroom. After a brief skirmish, Mrs Tittlemouse leaves him to the bees, knowing full well both her problems will be solved.
She shut herself up in the nut-cellar while Mr Jackson pulled out the bees-nest. He seemed to have no objection to stings.
When Mrs Tittlemouse ventured to come out – everybody had gone away.
But the untidiness was dreadful…
After cleaning up, Mrs Tittlemouse hammers another board on her door, to make it smaller so Mr Jackson can not fit in.
She spends a night cleaning then falling asleep in her chair, wondering if she will ever get her house clean. She spends the next day cleaning and when satisfied holds a party for five other mice. Mr Jackson tries to gatecrash but can’t get in the door. He stands by the window and they pass acorn-cupfulls of honey dew through the window to him. He’s just as happy.
I don’t want to read too much into all this but…
It made me remember the old ladies who put used soft-drink bottles full of water on their gardens in the belief that it would stop dogs pissing on their gardens. It reminds me of an old lady who lived across the road when I was in primary school. Her garden was immaculate. Her son was very upright. I can’t imagine what she did for fun.
The story also has the surprising underlying theme of an easy friendship formed around difference. Mrs Tittlemouse is tidy. Mr Jackson is a wet, fat, slovenly toad. She tries to do all she can to keep him out but seems to expect that he will always be there. He always turns up and is accommodated, albeit, at a distance. He doesn’t seem to mind this. Their friendship seems to be beyond quibbling. They seem comfortable with each other’s foibles and exist purely to antagonise the other in a chum-like manner. Without this they would be lost.
Reading bed-time stories can be so enlightening.