STORY POWER // Week Two

Tessa Waite’s residency blog

11th October 2018

A wilder wetter day in Hay was no deterrent to visitors to The Story of Books as I had another fascinating and moving day on heart-to-heart dialogues with people.

Jan and Keith shared how much they had both enjoyed being read to as children and had passed this on to their children. Their daughter read to her dolls at home and then, aged seven set up a story club at school where she read to a group of fellow pupils. She has gone on to work in literacy projects internationally.

They talked about Just William and how the series of books reflected social change as the world around William changed. Their daughters loved Heidi and The Little House on the Prairie, enjoying the small descriptive details.

Andre from Berlin entered The Story of Books in search of a copy of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Not having a copy, I asked him about the impact of a book from childhood. As a boy of eight or nine he had read Cujo by Stephen King. He read it avidly, finding it compelling and exciting. On finishing it he sought out other books by the same author, thinking “I want to have this feeling again”. This impulse remains with him, hence his search for his next Murakami book!

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak was an early memory for Jo. The monsters and the boys relationship with them was potentially and excitingly scary, but the boy never seemed scared. It gave her a calm sense that ‘the out there environment’ was not so scary.

Discovering her mother’s copies of The Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker at around the age of eight captivated her and she lovingly made her own flower fairies using pipe cleaners, scraps of fabric and pressed flowers. Later as a young teenager she embarked on the classics, working her way though the family collection, with the older classics particularly appealing to her love of history and her enjoyment in dressing up and exploring the settings of these novels. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky stood out for her. She remembers being so drawn in to the story as she lay reading on the floor for hours, that when she finally tried to get up she was stiff and unsteady.

Her father liked to read to her and her siblings and read fairy tales to them so many times that they memorised the words. He would change words and phrases to see if they noticed, which they invariably did, relishing the challenge of spotting the discrepancies. As they grew older he wanted to read them books that he was interested in; books of famous battles or famous explorers. Jo described how she grew to love these books through her fathers love of them.

David remembered being given a book, possibly as a prize for attendance at Sunday school, At the back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. He couldn’t remember finishing the book but was drawn to the character of Diamond who was a horse. As a child of eight or nine “When I had to do craft at school, I made a horse out of wire, felt and other things, I put a diamond on his forehead.” Hopefully David’s horse will be visiting The Story of Books before the end of October.

The stories of the Ruggles family in the books, The Family from One End Street, Further Adventures from One End Street and Holiday at Dewdrop Inn by Eve Garnett were fascinating to Betty, whose life experience was so different from that of this family of children growing in the working class community of Ottley. The books offered her an insight into a different reality and social history. She grew to love the characters and their adventures which stayed with her. In recent years on rereading the books, she decided to write a novel about the seven children, taking them into adulthood and old age. The resulting manuscript met with the approval of the current owners of the Garnett copyright and Betty will be publishing the book later this year.

Thomasin remembered the pleasure she had in reading (and re-reading more recently) Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome. She was inspired by the dramatic snowy setting and the adventurous story. She also liked the simple black and white illustrations.

She brought in her own beautifully illustrated book, Jackdaw Story, the pages of which could be held up to the light to reveal glowing coloured panels within the imagery and text. We discussed how stories could be shared, not just in book form and how each page could stand alone and the beauty of picture books – the pleasure of exploring them.

Jules enjoyed and continues to enjoy factual books. As a child he enjoyed books about animals and reading Look and Learn magazine. At the age of fourteen, having saved his pocket money until the end of term, he walked into the town of Wells to The Good Earth bookshop (now a restaurant of the same name) and described the pleasure of looking at and smelling new books with their fresh inky scent. He bought a book about blacksmithing in Africa. It must have made an impression; as an adult he went on to train as a blacksmith. He also mentioned Haynes Manuals and the joy of learning how things were put together and how they could be mended.

For Patricia, A Picnic for Bunnykins by Philippa Pearce is her ‘comfort book’. As a young child she wanted it read to her over and over again. At the age of five she got pneumonia and had to undergo twice daily injections administered by the local district nurse. Whilst this was happening, her mother read her A Picnic for Bunnykins as a distraction.

She attributes her love of poetry as having been triggered by this book, growing up with dyslexia she found the rhythm carried her along. As a mother she read the book to her own children, one of whom is now herself a poet.

Later when she visited her mother, who was by then living with the advanced stages of dementia, and who was angry and unrecognising of her, she would comfort herself by reading A Picnic for Bunnykins to herself in her head, enjoying the familiar phrases and the gentle rhymes and perhaps a happier connection to her mother. I found this intimate disclosure very moving and it vividly demonstrates the power of stories to contain, support and nurture.

Zoe grinned with pleasure on showing me her childhood copy of Richard Scarey’s Busy, Busy World. She described how she savoured the stories which took her to different parts of the world.

Her parents were travel agents so this book gave her “a world connection”. She could open it at any page and read a story, engaging in the small, often humorous details within the soft watercolour and line drawn illustrations which are full of life.

Some of the pages are even more full of life, bearing the marks of her brothers drawing. Far beyond her early childhood years of reading this book, if she felt anxious or upset; after waking from a dream perhaps; she would reach for Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World, “This book was my secret one”.

For Cara, who was visiting Hay from the USA, Millions of Cats by Wanda Ga’g, with it’s hand written text and simple black and white illustrations is a favourite which she still reads every now and then. When I asked what was its enduring appeal she simply said “I just like cats”.

Cara’s sister Laura and mother Carol both enjoyed reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. They all moved back into Carol’s childhood home and her childhood books were still there including several versions of Little Women. At eight years old, Laura was disgusted to realise that she was reading an abridged version of the book, she wanted the whole story, feeling that something that she would consider important might have been left out. Both Laura and Carol recalled small episodes in the narrative – the hole in a party frock, sharing a pair of gloves – that made the book so engaging. “It was so light and humorous and the characters and their struggles were so relatable, despite being set so long ago.”

The rich lithographic illustrations that fill The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton were such a delight to discover. The book was brought in by Richard, who was read it alongside his brothers. He loved it for the pictures which show the transition of a country location to an urban metropolis over a period of time. There is a rhythm to the images that show the progression of change in the seasons and the landscape, each following a similar flow and shape in their design, as continuous thread throughout the book.

Virginia Lee Burton said “If the page is well drawn and finely designed, the child reader will acquire a sense of good design which will lead to an appreciation of beauty and the development of good taste. Primitive man thought in pictures, not in words, and this visual conception is far more fundamental than its sophisticated translation into verbal modes of thought.” (‘Making Picture Books’, Horn Book Magazine.)

The book made a deep impression on Richard and had a relevance to him in some inexplicable way at the time. The ideas and images within the book which he described as “lurking in your mind, you may not think about them for years and years…” . Richard reflected that the parallel themes of urban and rural is an ongoing for him in his work as an artist, often bringing rurality into urban settings.

Timothy Charles Shephard aka Tim the Gardener came in with a hand written story in beautiful script in a red Silvine exercise book.

Here is an extract of the story, ‘The Ghostly Librarians’:

They move freely, walls, doors, window, the ground mean nothing to them, between Hay’s various repositories of books, irrespective of ownership, finding titles, nudging some to the fore, putting a glamour on others, placing some in conspicuous positions like horizontal and precarious in anticipation of the arrival of an enthusiast.

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Tessa Waite will be back at The Story of Books on Thursday 18th October from 10am-5pm. Please drop in and share a book from childhood that sparked your imagination, or send in a memory and a photo of a book by email to info@thestoryofbooks.com