I asked Gillian if she would be my first guest blogger. She first talked about this - a favourite theme of hers on The Writing Game, our community radio programme.
Gillian says: ‘As a child growing up in the 1950s my favourite colour was red – wasn’t everybody’s? And my lucky number was 7. Seven, not because of Enid Blyton’s ‘Secret Seven’, although I devoured the books, nor because of T.E. Lawrence’s ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom or Agatha Christie’s‘Seven Dials Mystery’ or ‘The Seven Songs of Merlin’ – none of which I’d then heard of. Now was it because - as J.K.Rowling was later to affirm via her hero Harry Potter - that number 7 was THE most powerful magical number (interestingly there are 7 books in the Harry Potter series ) – but because 7 was the amazing age one had to be to join the public library!
An avid reader even then, I was fortunate to be brought up in a household in which my two cousins read stories to me and always bought me ‘classic’ children’s story books for birthdays and Christmas, including different collections of fairy tales. These so inspired me that I still collect to this day books of fairy tales and legends illustrated by such incredible artists as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and the Robinson Brothers.
Books were also used in a practical way in our household as the afore-mentioned older cousins also made me walk up and down the kitchen balancing a heavy book on my head – to aid my deportment!
Entering the library, at last, in June 1955 was to my sugar-rationed generation like being given carte blanche to chose anything from the best sweet shop in the world and I can still remember the first 2 books I borrowed – ‘An A – Z of Animals’ and one of the books in the Tarzan series.
Later, working as a librarian, I well remember the sudden proliferation of books for under 5s – and the delight at the advent of ‘the picture book’ which used illustration as a major component to complement the text – in particular the trail-blazing pop-up book ‘The Haunted House’ by Jan Pienkowski.
Hence some of the books I have chosen here reflect both my interest in book illustration and the necessity of a story to transport the reader to another world - one in which anything is possible.
There are some wonderful illustrators of children’s books working in this field today – Anthony Browne, Babette Cole, Tony Ross, Quentin Blake to name but a few – but my favourites will always be the Ahlbergs, Janet the illustrator and her husband, Allan, the wordsmith. Their 1978 classic, ‘Each, Peach, Pear, Plum’ which won the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s book illustration in 1978, is a book which cleverly incorporates nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters in cumulative rhyme to encourage children to find the characters within the pictures
– Each, peach, pear, plum I spy Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb in the cupboard I spy Mother Hubbard. Mother Hubbard in the cellar I spy Cinderella and so on.
Equally delightful, full of charm and ingenuity is the Ahlberg’s ‘Peepo’ which follows a baby through a typical day. A series of holes literally peeping through on to the next page lead children on to the next event in the baby’s day. Interestingly, for its time, we see father not mother, making the tea and preparing to give baby a bath. The most original and charming of all their books, however, must be the ‘Jolly Postman’ trilogy – the first of which, The Jolly Postman and Other People’s Letters, took 5 years to produce. Once again they use rhyme to incorporate fairy tale characters into the narrative, but this time they use the innovative device of envelopes which include not only letters but also cards, games and even a tiny book!
‘Later on the postman, feeling hot, Came upon Grandma in a shady spot. But Grandma what big teeth you’ve got! Besides, this is a letter for ‘– I’ll leave you to guess who!
Inspired by the books I read as a child, I spent quite a bit of time in my Aunt’s wardrobe , trying to find the door to Narnia and tapping walls in old houses, looking for secret passages and hoping to find priests’ holes. Books like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ in which Mary Lennox, a sickly and spoilt orphan, is sent from India to live with an uncle she has never met, a hunchback recluse who spends most of his time abroad. home, Misselthwaite Manor proves transformative and Mary, with the aid of good Yorkshire fresh air and the friendship of two plain-speaking characters, Martha the housemaid, and Ben Weatherstaff the gardener, becomes a healthy and agreeable child.
With the aid of a friendly robin who unearths a rusty old key, the key to a hidden door, Mary discovers a secret garden and she begins to garden with the help of Martha’ s brother, Dickon, a young boy with the almost supernatural powers of charming nature.
The ultimate secret of Misselthwaite Manor is uncovered when Mary, hearing strange cries in the night, discovers her guardian’s son, Colin, who has been kept hidden in the manor house. Bed-ridden, he is convinced that he is an invalid, unlikely to live for long. Mary succeeds where no one else has dared to try in braving Colin’s tantrums and persuading him that he can lead a normal life. From then on the two share the secret garden and Colin’s strength recovers as the garden blooms and he is subsequently reunited with his amazed and delighted father.
Philippa Pearce’s ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ shares much with the previous book – young Tom is sent away from home and stays with a childless aunt and uncle who live in a flat which is part of what was once a fine country house. Bored and lonely and unable to sleep, Tom hears the grandfather clock in the hall strike 13. On investigating he discovers a door which leads into a splendid garden. In the morning the garden is not there. Tom, however, learns that each night he can return there and becomes involved in the lives of the people he meets – the Victorian family who once inhabited the house. Most of all he becomes companion and playmate to Hatty, a young orphan girl who is rejected by the family. Only she can see Tom and their friendship becomes very close. However, Tom realises that time does not stand still in the garden and that both his and Hatty’s lives must change accordingly.
Moving on to the present day the trend, particularly for the older age range, is for stories which reflect today’s concerns and there are many accomplished authors writing issue-based novels now, writers of the calibre of Children’s Laureate, Jacqueline Wilson with her heroine for today, Tracy Beaker; the lauded American writer Meg Rosoff with her award-winning novel ‘How I Live Now’ set during a third world war and the controversial writer of ‘Doing it’ and Junk, Melvin Burgess for example. but my own favourite writer for this teenage market is the Australian author, Sonya Hartnett. Winner of numerous awards and described as ‘the finest Australian writer of her generation’, Sonya Hartnett wrote her first book at 13. ‘Thursday’s Child’ published in 2000 went on to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Set in the Great Depression it follows the young Harper Flute as she observes her family’s struggles to survive. Her silent little brother, Tin – the Thursday’s child of the title - has ‘far to go’ as he literally does just that and spends his time escaping the real world by building tunnels with disastrous consequences.
Her book ‘Ghost’s Child’ is completely different and tells of the encounter between 75 year old Mathilda who lives alone and a solemn-faced boy she finds in her sitting room.
Who the visitor is and why he has arrived only become apparent towards the end of the tale as Mathilda tells him her life story – a life in which she eventually finds a purpose and an occupation and finally understands ‘Bit by bit some of your sorrow changes to joy. And that’s how you go on living’.
This is a perceptive novel which poses huge questions about the meaning of life and the finality of death yet, ironically it is a novel of hope and one which reduced me to tears when I read it – on holiday with Wendy in Cracow whilst she was researching her latest novel ‘The Woman Who Drew Buildings’.
(I remember your tears Gillian. Wx)
Oh, to be nearly 7 again with a treasure chest of reading delight still to be unlocked! But it’s not possible – for, as Hatty says in Tom’s Midnight Garden “Nothing stands still, except in our memory”.Thank you Gillian