Sunday, 10 July 2011
Books and reading as a child- a personal memoir (part 1)- guest post
I'm very pleased to have a series of posts from Richard from Thoughtcat, a fellow Russell Hoban fan. I'll be adding posts (probably midweek) for the next couple of weeks. Thank you, Richard! If you're on Twitter, follow him @thoughtcat.
I count myself a very lucky person for two reasons: one, I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, and two, as a child I was given lots of books. These facts, together with the books themselves, have made their mark on me, and some 40 years and two children later I still feel that mark.
James by Kathryn
The first book I ever remember reading was called James, whose author was identified only as “Kathryn”. It was a largeish format slim hardback with the title, author and illustration in white ink on a plain black cover. The pages were unnumbered. To this day I've not seen another book like it. Because of its odd packaging, and because we had a vague family friend called Kathryn when I was a small boy, I was under the impression for many years that the book had been written by her especially for me and that it was the only copy in existence.
The story was what you might call metatextual: the author, also the illustrator, explains in longhand that she's bought a “lovely new pen”, and decides to write a story. She starts doodling. A zig-zag sprig appears: what is it? It’s the hair of a small boy; this leads her to draw the rest of the boy, whom she calls James. She decides he needs a companion, so she draws him a small, friendly dog. The author then tries to “get on with writing the story”, but James and the dog start playing on the pages, literally trampling over her handwritten words, sliding down sentences, pushing letters out of shape. No matter what the author tries to do, she can't control the pair of characters she’s created, who are having enormous fun. At one point James steals the letter “S”, and until he gives it back the author can't write James’s own name. For punishment she temporarily “ties” him to the spine of the book with “a length of line”. And so it goes on.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its low-tech, simple black and white style, James is altogether a brilliant book. I’ve never found another copy anywhere, not even online (you try Googling for “James by Kathryn” and see how far it gets you!) I hadn’t looked at my own copy for many years until I came to write this article, and read it for the first time to my own children (six and four) the other night. They loved it – James’s antics with the words were hilarious. The six-year-old was even inspired to write his own version, which he called Tommy, on small pieces of paper stapled together.
The Great Pie Robbery (Richard Scarry)
Little Richard (Patricia M. Scarry, ill. Cyndy Szekeres)
I had a few books that were bought for me because they had some connection with my name or the family business (my mum and dad had a restaurant called The Cherry Pie when I was born, and managed grocery shops throughout my childhood). Two examples of these were – by coincidence I believe – written by Richard Scarry (The Great Pie Robbery) and Patricia M. Scarry (Little Richard). The former is a surreal cartoon crime caper featuring a cat and pig detective who chase some “cherry pie thieves” across town. The getaway car is spotted outside a restaurant, but when they get inside they find the restaurant is full of customers (all different species of animals) all eating cherry pies. I couldn't (and still can’t) read the book without smacking my lips with the taste of those cherry pies. The best thing about the book is the tiny, strange details in the illustrations – for example, while in chase, the detectives cause chaos on the roads, and in the corner of one page is a small, smiling green beetle driving a tiny “Bugdozer” sweeping up the mess.
Little Richard concerned a family of rabbits. This was a very American book and a little bit on the twee side, but there was something nice about it, mainly the sumptuous illustrations (by Cyndy Szekeres) of life deep in the countryside. The inside cover has a map of the rabbit family’s neighbourhood indicating points in the story; as Russell Hoban said recently, “When you see a map in the front of a book you know good things are in store for you.” He was talking specifically about
Treasure Island but I think this works for any book – the map (like any at the start of an adventure) shows you places you haven’t been to yet, so you get a taste of what’s going to happen before you’ve read the book. In the first of several short stories the eponymous rabbit helps his mother bake some biscuits, which as a lifelong biscuit lover I related to instantly and have always remembered. In another story Richard goes “tracking” and strawberry-picking with his friend Porcupine. It’s a book of complete comfort and reassurance to a child.