Thursday, January 27, 2011

Family Literacy

I was thrilled today to learn that my first book MEETING MISS 405 is included on the Canadian Children's Book Centre's list of recommended books to celebrate Family Literacy Day.

....which gets me thinking of the books I grew up with.

Happily, my family are all great readers. As children, my brother, sister and I read and reread The House at Pooh Corner, Now We Are Six, The Borrowers, Laughing Time (more about that later)...
In England in the 50s we had no TV, but settled in to 'Listen with Mother' on BBC radio (only one channel in those days) every day after lunch - which I think was basically a lady with a rather refined voice reading stories. Each broadcast began, "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we will begin." Here producer Daphne Oxenford talks about the program.

(Later it seems in the days of TV, this program morphed into 'Watch With Mother', which I might not have known about if my writer friend John Ravenscroft had not written a very poignant short story a few years ago with that title, which you can read here.)

My father always had his nose in a book. And he's one of the few people who read and reread Shakespeare over and over for pleasure (so often that quote him a quote, and he can tell you the name of the play, act and scene and who is speaking to whom.) Now at 85 he rarely reads new titles, preferring Dickens and books about British History. (Though he reads my books, and noticed that Elsie's Uncle Dannell was named after my great uncle - one of a number of bachelor uncles who shared a house in Eastbourne.)

The earliest books I remember my mother reading was called An Unfortunate Marriage (by Pamela Franken perhaps?) and A Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden, which I read as an early teen and led to a strong attachment to all Rumer Godden's books. My favourite of them all has to be Kingfishers Catch Fire, set in Kashmir where I'd dearly love to visit, if tourists are ever allowed back into that volatile region.

These days Mum mostly reads novels and travelogues about or set in the Middle East... as the years she spent in Iraq when my father worked for an oil company are most dear to her. A favourite she reads over and over again is The Kite Runner.

Speaking of libraries, my father still has a few books borrowed from Hailsham Secondary School where he taught for a few years before we moved to Iraq. And others from the Basra British Club Library which he ran, then for one reason or another had to close down, and from where we inherited a few titles.

Once I'd read through all the books in the Rashleigh House library at Truro High School, my Cornish boarding school, I was put to work 'cataloguing' the lot until new books could be added to the collection. They never were, I recall, but my friend Babs and I would trade back and forth Malcolm Saville adventures, and argue over which stories we liked best after lights out in the dorm.

My maternal grandmother worked as a housekeeper for one of the governors of Truro High School. On school holidays we would accompany her to work, spending our time in The Hornby Room, which her employer Mrs. McLean had used as her children's nursery and was still, many years later, lined with a complete set of Enid Blyton books, my favourite of which were the Adventure series. I recall one evening eating a plate of roast pheasant, potatoes and gravy while I balanced a Blyton book on the arm of a very overstuffed armchair waiting for my grandmother to finish serving dinner to her employer and guests and take me back home to the village of Tresillian on the bus.

Truro High School

My grandmother was only an occasional reader, but in all the school holidays I spent there, the only books on the over-varnished bookshelf next to the fireplace were Vanishing Cornwall by Daphne duMaurier and a history of surgery complete with line drawing illustrations called Brother Surgeons. I read them both more than once before I was much more than 12. (I can still recall the dubious thrill of the picture of a donctor hauling a length of intestine out of a man's stomach, with the patient wide awake and screaming!)

Reading is still very important in my family. Many Christmas Days, after breakfast is cleared and wrapping paper folded and put away, we sit with our new books and hardly move or say a work until it's time to make the next meal. This ritual invariably includes my Uncle Jim, in whose small back bedroom in the 60s I discovered rows of Ed McBains and Raymond Chandlers, which led me to a lifelong devotion to both those writers' works.

As for 'my own' family... I was working in a public library all the years I was raising Holly, so many of her earliest books were 'discards' brought home from work. I think she learned to count to three by the time she was one - the number of stories she insisted I read to her every night until she was long past the age when she could have read to herself, but still liked bedtime stories.

I still have the copies of Shel Silverstein's poetry books I bought her each year for her birthday, and am amazed to see Ed Emberly's Drummer Hoff still in print thirty years after it was Holly's favourite book, read and reread until it was so worn out and I had to buy her her own copy to replace the discarded library one.

I won't mention the years that she only seemed to read Danielle Steel and Sandra Brown, but now she has a baby in the house she is sharing lots of book with him, including many I add to his shelves now I am The Book Grandma.

This morning during an author presentation, I was asked about the first book I remember. So I told the children about Laughing Time, a book of poetry by William Smith we were raised on. Long after we'd all grown up and the then out-of-print family copy was falling apart, my father set himself the task of replicating the entire book - every page an exact duplicate of the one in the original book down to font style and size and the single yellow colour used in the original. He made one copy for my sister. Then another for my brother. One for me. And another for my mother.

Four copies so we don't need to fight over what is left of the original.

In the back of my copy are even a few pages of 'seconds' - pages that didn't make the final cut as Dad was working to prefect the facsimile he finally presented us each with, with no fanfare at all.

I give them away to children who seem especially taken by the story, and the book itself.

A later 'official' edition of my childhood favourite.


Julie H. Ferguson said...

I so enjoyed this reminiscence - will give some thought to the books I enjoyed as a child.
Can't for the life of me remember a favourite. Must have loved most.

Anonymous said...

The one book that stays in my mind was an old 1920's book or maybe even earlier called The Four Harum Scarums. It was about four motherless childrem whose father finds a governess for them. They anticipate an old maid type, who will make their lives miserable.
The father and the young attract - ive governess overhear the conversation, so the governess disguises herself to comply with their assessment. I read the book over and over and never got tired of it.