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The Book Cure

[Slightly Foxed, Issue 53, Spring 2017]

I wanted to call this ‘How Children’s Literature Saved My Life’, but the simple truth is that my life was never in any real danger. My imaginative life, however, was in grave peril. It hovered on the brink. This is the story of how it was resuscitated in the simplest of ways – by reading children’s books.

I have degrees in English literature and library science. I have been an English teacher and a librarian. My love of reading has shaped my life. And yet, a few years back, I almost stopped reading. When given the choice between turning on the television and opening a good book, I would invariably reach for the remote control.

How this sad state of affairs came to be is all too easily told, and I don’t suppose I am the only sufferer. I’ll bet it happens all the time. For you see, my life had simply become too full to read. I was working six days a week, I had three young children to care for, and that left little time for anything else. If I was lucky I was able to read two books a month – in a good month. Often I read only one. Strange as it may seem, the real crisis came when I joined a book club. You can begin to see the problem. If you only have time to read one or two books a month, it becomes irksome to have your choices dictated for you. They were excellent choices – critically acclaimed, prize-winning novels most of them – but they weren’t my choices. Reading had once been fun; now it was work. I began to resent these books. And so I stopped reading.

But the desire to read never entirely went away. I was handling books all day long in the library, and I found myself making lists of books I would like to read when I had the time. Needless to say, the lists got longer and the books remained unread. Then one day I was rescued from my melancholy by our Children’s Librarian. This was at about the same time that the fourth book in the Harry Potter series was due to be released, and J. K. Rowling was scheduled to do the world’s largest book reading at the Skydome in Toronto. I asked our Children’s Librarian what all the fuss was about.

‘You mean to tell me you haven’t read Harry Potter?’ she asked. I had to confess that I was totally ignorant of Harry Potter. I had no idea who he was. Had he written many books, I asked. She rolled her eyes and went to the stacks, where she found Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘read that.’

I did. I read it that night, after the children had gone to bed, in one long, delirious sitting. I devoured the book. I stayed up much too late and was exhausted the next morning, but I had achieved an epiphany of sorts. I had rediscovered my love of reading.

I had also discovered that the fault wasn’t really in me, but in the books I had chosen to read. With so little time to read, I had decided that my reading time could not be wasted on frivolous books. I would only read serious books, modern literary masterpieces. But the truth was these books bored me. I could only take so many consciously literary novels of childhood trauma or family dysfunction or the immigrant experience. I felt bad about it. If I wasn’t appreciating what was on offer, then it was obviously my fault, there was something lacking in me.

What I discovered on reading Harry Potter was that many of these acclaimed modern authors had forgotten one of the most basic premises of telling a story – they had forgotten how to tell a story. Literary artifice had gotten in the way of good plotting and character development. I also discovered that I was not alone in this assessment. Philip Pullman once said, in a speech when accepting the 1995 Carnegie Medal for his children’s story The Golden Compass, that in adult literary fiction ‘stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness . . .

The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.’

Hearing this was very reassuring. I devised a plan. I would make reading fun again. I would take a book cure, and I would begin by casting my mind back to my childhood and by rereading those books that I had discovered and loved and that had inspired my love of reading ever since. I began with The Hobbit and quickly moved on to Kim and The Jungle Books. With some difficulty I located copies of Walter R. Brooks’s witty Freddy the Pig stories: Freddy the Detective, Freddy Goes Camping, Freddy Goes to Florida. These were the first chapter books I had read on my own. They were better than I re-membered. I tracked down a copy of Ronald Welch’s The Gauntlet, a time-travelling fantasy about a boy who finds an old gauntlet which transports him back to the Welsh Borders at the time of the Middle Ages. I read and I read and I read, and a strange thing began to happen: the number of books I read each month began to rise, from two to four to twelve.

I found allies in my book cure. Once I told the Children’s Librarian what I was up to, she began to recommend titles that I had never come across before: Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, L. M. Boston’s Green Knowe books, Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence. I began to branch out and try books that I had somehow missed in my childhood: The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons and The Wouldbegoods.

My daughter also helped. She had progressed beyond the picture-book stage, and we began reading chapter books together at bedtime. We started with the Little House books, books I’d avoided as a boy because, well, they were for girls. We found them fascinating. We moved on to the Chronicles of Narnia. These were more problematic. While we enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy, we found The Last Battle simply baffling. Then we began to read the Harry Potter series together. We could hardly wait each night for the day to end, so we could begin a new chapter. We have now finished Harry Potter and we are debating where to turn next. Should we try Anne of Green Gables, Elijah of Buxton or The Secret Benedict Society?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should all give up on adult fiction. Children’s books exist in a fairly simple moral universe which doesn’t always reflect adult reality (although, to be fair, some children’s books are surprisingly sophisticated). I have gone back to reading books written for adults, but I am more discriminating now. I want substance over style. I am no longer afraid to give up on a book if I find it dull – even if it has won the Booker prize. I expect a good story.

If you are in the same situation as I was, if you have grown weary of reading, try my book cure. What were the stories you loved as a child, the ones you couldn’t bear to finish because they were so good? Track them down. Read them again. You may rediscover your love of reading.

[Slightly Foxed Issue 53]

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