Brecon-based visual artist, Tessa Waite, did a four-week residency at The Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye, collecting and responding to memories of childhood books. More than 60 people called in to chat with Tessa, locals of all ages bringing the physical books with them, visitors just their words.
Each week Tessa wrote a blog, which can be read below. She also created artists books in response to the books and stories shared with her at The Story of Books.
STORY POWER Week One | October 4th
A beautiful sunny day in Hay brought a stream of visitors to The Story of Books. With the help and support of the wonderful John I invited visitors to share their relationship to childhood books. The conversations that ensued were fascinating, touching and intriguing.
Carolyn brought in her copy of A Day in Fairy Land, a well-loved large format book, almost the size of a small child. It was full of line drawings with brightly coloured watercolour washes of pixies and fairies. She described these images as becoming almost real to her. The characters appeared to her during her play, as real as playmates. She remembered with pleasure the intensity of her repeated contact with this book.
John remembered the grim fascination he had for Strewell Peter (Struwwelpeter) by Heinrich Hoffman with its powerful illustrations – in particular Little Suck-a-Thumb with the gushing blood. He also loved a copy of the Greek myths which had intricate, exotic illustrations. What he described as the ‘slow absorption’ of these static images fed his fantasies about the characters and led to the making up of stories about the characters – conquest, conflict and eroticism.
Her abiding memory was of an edition of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, possibly with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The dreamlike, watery images captivated her. She remembers the theme of the conquest of danger and the idea that things can change and move on.
He remembered the intensity of reading as a young child. As a seven or eight year old he loved Emil and the Detectives. Re-reading them as an adult he found them rather dull with not much happening. It was the little details that enthralled him as a boy. He reflected that as a child all that’s needed is some small details, little interactions, as these become expanded by the young reader, making little details enormous, powerfully fuelling the imagination.
Helen remembered a book of fables and in particular The North Wind and the Sun and their competition to decide which is the stronger of the two. The challenge was to make a passing traveler remove his cloak. However hard the North Wind blew, the traveler only wrapped his cloak tighter to keep warm, but when the Sun shone, the traveler was overcome with heat and soon took his cloak off. This story has stayed with her. We discussed the power of warm encouragement over harsh words.
A visitor from Israel, Nava described bookshops as having a calming influence on her. She recalled how much she enjoyed her uncle’s bookshop. It was from this shop, at the age of 15, that she got a book of the late works of Van Gogh, which she loved to look at for their drama and power.
Later when she was getting married, her husband’s aunt was working in a bookshop and invited her to choose a book as a wedding present. She chose a book of Johannes Vermeer paintings with really good reproductions. She loved the soft northern light in the images – so unlike the strong Israeli light. She pondered the impact of these Dutch interiors on her career in interior design. When I asked her if she still had these two volumes she replied “these books are in my sitting room, they are living with me.”
Penny remembered the excitement of going to buy a book as a child and the thrill of having her library ticket punched.
Epaminondas, by Sara Cone Bryant was a book that enchanted her. She was intrigued and fascinated by the different faces and mannerisms of the characters. Epaminondas was portrayed as simple and stupid and there was comfort in that for her as a young child a sense of solidarity.
Her childhood affection for these stories is now overlaid with guilt, a corrupted innocence in finding the ‘other’, skewed by prejudice. These stories reflect the values of the time in which they were written – all sorts of other attitudes and ways of being. As an adult she recalled the experience of being on a bus in Malawi as the only white person and the screaming of a child on seeing her – the impact of difference. Reflecting on the terms of black and white and the associations to these words, often used to refer to bad and good, is an ongoing dilemma.
Chris remembered the feel of the thick textured paper of The Dog and the Diamonds, Mary Cathcart Borer, as his first hardback book.
At the age of 11 he walked over the mountain from Tredegar to Rhymney to buy a Welsh book. He was fascinated by Welsh but didn’t speak or understand it. He bought Dai y Derwen by Joseph Jenkins, a 1930s volume with pen and ink drawings. This book had a boy and a donkey on the cover so he assumed the the title meant Dai the Donkey. Later having learnt Welsh as a young man of 19 or 20 he was able to read the book and discovered its title, Dai the Oak.
Chris is now a writer. He allowed himself to steal from his savings to buy books.
Marie and Emyr
Marie described the joy of being immersed in stories connected to the natural world, being taken away. It began with Beatrix Potter, her delicate images which belies the darker undertones within each story. She loved Black Beauty, the sadness and the struggle. She and Emyr are passionate about wildlife and look for stories to inspire their nieces – a book on birdwatching has inspired one of them to buy some binoculars. A story/rhyme that they all love is the crazy story of ‘The Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly’. The imagery conjured up by the story gets everyone laughing.
For Jane, reading The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown at the age of eight or nine was a revelation. It tells the story of seven young people in three different families who form an amateur theatrical group, the Blue Door Theatre Company. The children write, produce, direct and act in their own plays, each of them harnessing a particular talent. She read and reread it, really connecting with the excitement of being able to do something, to make it happen. It was not just the actors that were important but the whole backstage creation that enabled a performance to be a success. It described the technical side of performance, the mechanics of putting on a show. It was around this time that together with her sister and a group of her sisters friends, she spent a summer putting together a show. They had a wonderful dressing up box which included evening dresses, dinner jackets, big skirts etc. Dressing up was very much part of life – becoming somebody else. Together they created a performance and charged the neighbours to come and see it.
At school Jane always enjoyed drama, enjoying being involved and performing. The first time she saw a theatre production was aged 12 in the village hall. Gwent Theatre performed The Threepenny Opera. She described this as an amazing experience that blew her away. She joined their youth group and found that everything that goes on backstage was where the magic happens, transforming people and things.
Jane went on to become a stage manager. Experiencing the adrenalin rush in the moment just before the curtain rises, backstage is where she feels totally at home.
His Rupert annuals were where the magic happened. Phil enjoyed the surreal events that took place alongside the cosy comfort of Mr and Mrs Bear. They in someway reflected his own parents who in post WW11 sought comfort and stability. Despite this, Phil enjoyed freedom to roam and play. The stories of Rupert as a protagonist at the centre of the action were inspiring. The story could be read by looking at pictures, you could read the simple rhyming phrases or read the full text. In rediscovering these books through sharing them with his children, he was surprised by the overt prejudice in the way characters were depicted and over simplification of complex issues. Despite this he still enjoyed the magic in the fantastical. The surreal and the everyday still sit side by side in Phil’s life.
Nicky brought in her childhood copy of Peter Pan and Wendy, retold for little people by May Byron with the approval of the author, pictures by Mabel Lucy Attwell, a book that had been given to her father in 1932. It was a beautiful well-loved edition with glass-line paper inserts covering the fullpage illustrations. Nicky remembered being read to as a child by her grandfather with his rough, deep voice.
This book was the first one that she read by herself. “Suddenly it’s YOUR story!”
In Swallows and Amazon, Arthur Ransome, James reflected, two groups of children are encouraged to explore the outdoors by themselves – to go camping, make fires and to sail. This inspired him. The book was not gender-stereotyped and contained strong family values alongside children developing their independence and learning through their mistakes. He remembered part of the story where the mother is consulting the father, who is away from home, regarding whether to let the children go sailing on their own. The father replies via a telegram which reads: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN. James found this attitude of trust in the children’s capabilities an inspiring central theme.
Realising that the book was set in the Lake District around Derwent Water, as an adult James went to look for the location. He also went on to study at university and joined a sailing club. The other club members were surprised to learn that he was a beginner as he seemed very comfortable in a boat. James realised that through the descriptions in Swallows and Amazons he had learnt so much about sailing and he was able to translate this into practical action. He went onto take part in offshore races, including the Fasnet race and had the opportunity to join the Olympic team.
James crystallised the story of Swallows and Amazons as “exposure to opportunity and risk”. This is something that he has carried with him and which continues to be central to his work and life.
STORY POWER Week Two | October 11th
A wilder wetter day in Hay was no deterrent to visitors to The Story of Books as I had another fascinating and moving day of heart to heart dialogues with people.
Jan and Keith
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 rereading 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 whose pages 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 had 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 brother’s 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 Scarey’s Busy, Busy World, “This book was my secret one”.
Cara, Laura and Carol
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.
STORY POWER Week Three | October 18th
Caitlin and Claire
Caitlin, 18 months, loves Clip Clop written and illustrated by Nicola Smee. She was given it by the health visitor. She loves the sounds in the story and likes to be read this book repeatedly. She also enjoys the drama of all the other animals on the horse’s back. Blue Kangaroo stories written and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark are also big favourites and both Caitlin and her mum Claire enjoy the energetic, colourful drawings and the repetition in the story.
Claire was drawn to stories about animals too, The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann was a favourite together with Duncton Wood by William Horwood, and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, all were well written and centred around animals that take action and interact. She was absorbed by the stories, felt drawn in so that it was hard to put the books down.
Quipic the Hedgehog, No. 2 of Pere Castor’s Wild Animal books, translated by Rose Fyleman, illustrated by Rojan was given to Catherine. It was passed on by her uncle who had was a French teacher in a boys school. She loved the title, which imbued the humble hedgehog with a romance and significance. She enjoyed the beautifully detailed illustrations – as a child Catherine always wanted to be outside, and they reflected her own outdoor experiences. Catherine is an author of factual children’s books. When asked how she decides on a theme for a book, she explained that when she gets curious about something, writing a book gives her license to do in depth research, part of which is working with experts and discovering what is at the heart of her enquiry.
Ian called in to tell me about Wonder Tales of Maoriland by A.W. Reed, illustrated by A.S. Paterson. Ian was living in New Zealand with his family and this book of stories about Maori life and Maori creation myths was read to him and his younger brother. This was a precious book to be treated with care, there was a sense of reverence when it appeared. It had been covered in plastic by his mother, with black tape added to each edge to provide extra protection against damage to the pages. It was a book to be read and shared in the evening, which suited the atmosphere of many of the stories. These stories gave Ian a rich sense of the Maori culture, history and landscape, though he recognises that they may have been westernised as reflected by the illustrations. On returning to the UK in the early ’70s, he realised that his cultural references were very different to those of his peers and that there was a value in having had experience of such a contrasting country in terms of its history and traditions. The book is still in Ian’s possession.
Susie was visiting Hay with her daughter. She loves reading and remembers the delight of being transported to places very different to her home in rural Scotland when she was a child. She had no difficulty in choosing which childhood book had an impact on her. The Pirates of the Deep Green Sea by Eric Linklater had an octopus as a central character, a hero who used his tentacles to hold together rope like cables which were holding the continents in place. It was a book full of excitement, children able to dive and swim underwater, danger and of course pirates. At the end of the book Susie remembers that the heroic octopus was taken to a rock pool where it was nursed back to health after its ordeal. She was reading this book at a time when Jacques Cousteau was on television sharing his underwater discoveries. The underwater world fascinated her. She learnt to dive and went on to study zoology and then oceanography at university. She now makes jewellery which takes inspiration from the sea, its rhythms and the forms within it.
Emma and Susie
Susie’s daughter Emma chose the Katie Morag stories, in particular Katie Morag and the Two Grandmothers written and illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick. In the story the contrasting characters of the two grandmothers, Granny Island and Granny Mainland are brought out and this resonated with Susie as her own grandmothers were similarly very distinctly different. In this and the other books, Susie enjoyed the illustrations with their small details and the maps of the island so she could see where all the adventures in the story take place. In Katie Morag Susie found a character with a “no nonsense approach to life, unafraid to get stuck in and get her hands dirty” and she identified strongly with her. She studied Fine Art and enjoyed using materials for their tactile qualities.
The Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton offered Sue a fantasy of a school life so different to her experience of a big comprehensive school. The stories were of a school life that was exciting, glamorous and full of adventure, “they captured my imagination”. Despite depicting such a different school life, Sue found characters whom she could easily recognise and some she could identify with. As she had never been on holiday abroad at the time, she particularly enjoyed the books where the pupils travelled. There were several books in the series so there always seemed to be another one to read, “the Mallory Towers books got me into reading for myself, for my own pleasure”.
For Geoff, school life was hard. He has dyslexia but this was not recognised until much later in adult life. He felt misunderstood and was teased and bullied. After narrowly failing his 11+ he was sent to a secondary modern school where “I was put into a dummies class”. So Geoff read Practical Wireless and Model Engineer under his desk during lessons. Diving into these magazines helped him to get away from the boredom of these lessons and the distraction of rowdy pupils around him. Analysing the projects, working out how elements were put together and poring over the circuit diagrams “kept me sane”. Recently Geoff has returned to these magazines for help in building his own valve radio.
The book chosen by Ursula was Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham. She loved the book as a child, at the heart of which is the theme of transformation. Harry is a white dog with black spot who gradually turns into a black dog with white spots who is then unrecognisable to his family. He has great adventures, in the streets, on a building site and at the railway station, getting dirtier as he goes. Dogs were always a part of Ursula’s life, her grandmother bought her a miniature dachshund, Marty, when she was 15 and he lived until he was 21. Ursula rediscovered the book when she was an art student and bought it for herself. She was delighted all over again by the lively, expressive drawings and the endearing humour of Harry’s experiences. She later shared it with her son who also loved the story. Ursula is a sculptor and when asked how she might describe the lasting impact of Harry, she said that it celebrates the many different ways of getting messy – which has influenced her experimental approach to housework.
As a child Vanessa lived in a household of boys so she would often make an escape into the garden and an old apple tree with its “reading branch” upon which she sat undisturbed, reading and dangling her legs. One of her favourite books was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Vanessa described herself as a shy girl and in Anne she found a great role model, “She was feisty and did good things in her own way.” Vanessa grew up in a small town in Derbyshire, surrounded by countryside that allowed her the freedom to explore and she spent much of her time outdoors. She felt connected to the seasons through the plants and vegetables that her parents grew in the garden, themes that were echoed in Anne of Green Gables. Anne’s relationship to Gilbert Blythe was an eyeopener to Vanessa and she wanted to marry him herself.
We both agreed that when you have a good book, it is like having a friend with you.
Melissa was aged eight or nine and living in South Africa when she read The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, which opened up a world within a world for her. Melissa described her delight in getting lost in a beautiful world with beautiful things; an escape from reality – a ladder appearing at the top of the tree which allows entry to lands that float by on clouds, each land with its own delights or dramas. The creatures found in the tree, like Silky, Moonface and Saucepan Man were all conjured up in Vanessa’s mind thanks to an unillustrated copy of the book. She recently bought a copy to share with her children and was dismayed to see the characters depicted on the cover and in a way that vastly differed from her own imaginings. This made us ponder the value of illustrations within fantasy novels and how they might aid or curtail imagination. She is now looking forward to sharing The Magic Faraway Tree with her children as they become old enough.
Charmaine’s most memorable book from childhood is a book of poetry, sent to her by her father while he was away in Germany during WWII. A little blue book with a yellow paper cover, she turned to the poems that made her laugh as “it was war time and my father was not at home”. He wasn’t much of a reader himself, but she appreciated this small volume of gentle, funny and silly poems called Curiouser and Curiouser as she feels “it started me off on the right track and I’ve been a reader ever since”.
Peter enjoyed the novel With the Eagles, a novel about the Roman Army. He felt that this book “got me going on history – I developed a love of history”, he found that a story helped to remember the chronology and the facts.
Graham and Lynn
Both Graham and Lynn grew up with the Just William stories by Richmal Crompton. Graham was given a battered red covered volume by his older cousin. Knowing how much he enjoyed the books, he was then given more volumes for Christmas and birthdays. He noted how the life of William became simpler, by the last book gone are the butlers and maids as they live in a simple house as a family. He also commented that William never learns from his mistakes! Graham and Lynn subsequently called their son William.
Rosie was 11 or 12 when she read Secret Water by Arthur Ransome, at a similar age to the children in the story. They are the same characters as those in Swallows and Amazons who are marooned in a dinghy by their parents with instructions to map a series of islands. Throughout the book they are mapping, using compasses to take bearings and plotting the tides. When this group of children meet another group, The Eels, there is some initial conflict. However this is resolved and they create a ‘corrobory’, a ceremony where they become a tribe, paint their bodies with mud and dance around the fire. Rosie, who loved dinghy sailing herself, yearned to sail off and explore with a like minded group. There was something about this particular book that stirred her imagination more than other books. As an adult she went to discover the setting for the novel, near Walton-on-the-Naze.
At the age of 21, she read The Tall Ships are Sailing by Alan Rowse. This book stirred a similar sensation in her, a longing for adventure. Through the publication Mariners International she was able to make contact with tall ships looking for crews and she has since made over 20 sailings, fulfilling her childhood ambitions.
The most memorable childhood book for Stefan was The Last Castaways, written and illustrated by Harry Horse. It is a humorous adventure tale told through a series of letters from Grandfather to his grandchild, a ship’s log and a diary. Stefan loved the gentle humour and humanity which, together with the witty, lively illustrations that punctuate the letters, made it so engaging for him. He also relished the shared pleasure of having the books read to him by his parents who also loved the story. He particularly loved Roo the dog and is determined to one day live with a dog called Roo himself. Stefan later found out that the author had died by his own hand which added a poignancy to his memory of the book.
STORY POWER Week Four | October 25th
My last week at The Story of Books. I brought with me some artist books that I’d made and planned to make some more during the day. However it was another busy day and I was able to share some more wonderful book stories.
Peter brought in The Lion and the Unicorn, An Odhams Little Colour Book which had been awarded to him for class work, whilst he was a pupil at the Royal Air Force School, Luqa, Malta in the early 1950s. His family had left Britain for Malta at a time of austerity. In Malta, life was freer, they were able to afford a car and a fridge; unheard of luxuries in Britain at the time.
In Malta there was sunshine and warmth and it felt like summer for the three years he and his family were there. This book evokes what was a very happy time, not only for Peter, but for his whole family. He has a photo of his mother reading him the book. There is also a photo of Peter with Lady Creasey, the wife of the then Governor of Malta when she visited his school. He says that he only has to glance at the spine of this book to summon up this happy period in his family life.
Trish brought in her family copy of Lorna Doone by Richard D. Blackmore, which she described as Romeo and Juliet set in Exmoor. This volume, “with coloured illustrations specially prepared for this work, landscapes by Charles E. Britain, figure subjects by Charles E. Brock” was always around, but no one knew where it came from. She remembers poring over the atmospheric landscape images and the dynamic figure compositions from the age of four or five. Her mother read the story to her and her brother when she was around seven years old. When she, aged 10, and her family travelled to Exmoor and visited the church where the marriage took place in the novel, she fully expected to meet Lorna Doone! She visited Exmoor a number of times and enjoyed exploring the mythical and magical landscape that was so firmly imprinted on her mind through this novel. She went on to read Wuthering Heights, loving the drama and landscape of this powerful novel too.
Susan came in with the memory of a formative book, Jane’s Country Year by Malcolm Saville. Her mother gave it to her when, aged six or seven, she was recuperating from an illness, something that often occurred during her childhood years. She instantly loved the book with its “fabulous” line drawings and identified strongly with the main character Jane who had been sent to family in the country to recover from an illness. Jane had two long plaits, something Susan craved but was not allowed to have. Susan wanted to be Jane, to do what she did, to experience the liberty and discovery of living in the countryside for a whole year, meeting local children who shared the secrets of nature. Jane was able to watch the farming year unfold, the planting, harvesting and threshing; offering Susan an insight into rural farming life that entranced her. At the heart of the story was the farmhouse, a warm and cosy place where Jane’s aunt was always providing delicious things to eat. She particularly remembered Jane sitting in the warmth of this house, looking out through the frosty windows at the snow.
This was far from Susan’s lived experience of life just after the war. But the story gave her a glimpse of what life could be and set off her love of the countryside and a longing to be part of it. She now enjoys life in the countryside.
Margaret came in to share her memories of the books by Enid Blyton, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Enchanted Wood and Folk of the Faraway Tree. She loved the fantasy, the whispering trees and wonderful cast of characters that offered entry into an imagined landscape and an escape from the difficulties of her home life. Now she likes to read books that focus on places that she has been to, reflecting and adding to her own experience.
Nikki and Peter
Nikki had a powerful memory of a book of black and white photographs that she remembers poring over, many, many times. Each page had a single image and a quotation. She described feeling gripped by the intensity of each image and the accompanying text. She felt a lack of books in her life as a child.
Her brother Peter remembered the powerful impact of his visits to his local library, the Carnegie Endowment Library when he moved to West Yorkshire aged 11. The vastness of the library and the range of books available to him was overwhelming. These visits and being able to take out two fiction and six non fiction books forged a love of books that brought him and his sister to Hay in search of new discoveries and into The Story of Books.
Jayne read How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn as a teenager, she found it very Welsh and very romantic. She read it several times, sometimes missing out part where the child is murdered. She had moved with her family to a Yorkshire mining area and found that this book connected her powerfully to her roots in the Welsh Valleys. It gave her a renewed sense of belonging. She had lived in Wales, surrounded by an extended family until the age of two. When her father got a job in the Yorkshire mines and the family moved with him, she described feeling that she had been ripped away from Wales and all that she knew. She still had her Welsh ‘Mam; who she described as “all-knowing and all-seeing” – a Welsh Dragon. In 2001 she was able to fulfil her desire to move back to Wales.
Becky brought in her mothers copy of The Three Little Sisters, A Story From Poland by Lucyna Kremieniecka. This book had been given to her mother, Angela White, by her aunties, Ethel and Dora. Auntie Ethel was Ethellina White, a novelist who wrote The Wheel that Spins which was adapted for the film The Lady Vanishes directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The Three Little Sisters is book that connects her to her mother. It has strong images in black, white and red which Becky described as being “always in the back of my mind”. Being one of three children gave an added resonance to the images.
Angharad makes a conscious effort to buy books for her children that have positive messages embedded in them, like Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai and Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaimen.
In her childhood she was drawn to the intense images in The Flower Fairies by Cicely M. Barker. She grew up in the countryside and this book gave her information and understanding of the plants around her. It contributed to her developing knowledge and inspired her to stay close to nature. She has been sharing this book with her children and described her delight at being shown a plant by her three year old daughter who was able to correctly identify it as sorrel. Angharard and her daughter then sat together eating sorrel.
Sonya grew up in India influenced by Indian stories and mythology, Hindu in particular. Demons, gods, goddesses, tales of love and revenge, death and the afterlife and fantastical futures, the imagery was very intense and full of a duality of good and evil that shifts and changes. She learnt about moral dilemmas, honour and pride. These stories were passed on orally and through comic books. Growing up in post-colonial India and educated in an English school she read Enid Blyton books, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. She felt rooted in both English and Indian cultures. The English books portrayed a world that seemed very exotic. Her grandmother did a lot of home cooking and made English style jams and jellies, converting them using local fruits and flavours. She, like her grandmother, has begun making preserves and baking. She mentioned the Indian term, ‘Chutney Mary’ which is used to describe someone like her who has embraced both cultures. She now has a family and lives in London.
Tessa Waite reflects on her Story Power residency at The Story of Books, Hay-on-Wye | 28 November
On a bright sunny autumn day, I settled myself behind the newly arranged display of my handmade and children’s books in the window of The Story of Books, awaiting visitors. I didn’t have to wait long; people who had heard about the residency began arriving with their books and others came in curious to know more about the project. This was the rhythm for the following three Thursdays as a constant stream of visitors came to share their stories of childhood books.
Giving people the space and time to explore these stories, my approach was one of focussed attention in order to draw out the significance of the book each person was recollecting. Hearing these stories was heartening as the intimate relationship to a book was explored and expressed, confirming the title of the residency, Story Power. At times it was very moving to hear how a book had acted as a guide, an anchor or a doorway to a rich inner world of imagination.
John Morgan helped to make all this possible by talking to other visitors, protecting my dialogues. These dialogues were intense; with little pause between visitors, I needed to maintain an openness and clarity of listening in order to make the most of these encounters. I went home after each session with a full heart and quite exhausted.
As the month was coming to an end, due to other work commitments and with a commission to complete, I was beginning to feel anxious about making my artist books in response to all these encounters, as there wasn’t time during my days in The Story of Books. As the deadline for the sharing event on 27th October approached, I managed to set aside three days in the studio to prepare. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind and stimulate a process.
Preparing the concertina papers and cardboard covers provided simple practical tasks that allowed ideas to float to the surface as I reflected on the conversations that had most touched me.
I like to respond to my materials and brush and ink have been my favoured friends of late, the images emerged and colours from my collage box called to me. As I worked late into the evenings, I found both tranquillity and a feverish activity as I found ways of crystallising each encounter in both figurative and abstract images.
The residency was an intense time, I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew in the proposed time – writing the blog was a great way to record and distill but took several hours each week and the making of the books many more. However it gave me the opportunity to deepen my capacity for listening and to explore a means of responding in a way true to myself. It was a privilege to be a witness to the lives of others. People seemed to really relish the chance to open up to areas of their lives and experience that they don’t normally access. There was a level of trust that I both fostered and protected. I will take this experience into my next project where I will incorporate dialogues with others.
I have a renewed sense of how much books and stories they have nurtured, inspired and motivated me. My thanks go to Emma at The Story of Books for the opportunity to contribute to this exciting ongoing project.
Story Power with Tessa Waite took place at The Story of Books in Hay-on-Wye in October 2019.