There was once a child who went to a small village school.
She was a happy child, but rather unsure of things. All her friends learned to read quite quickly, but she got stuck for years in the earliest stages of learning to read. It was only after her mother taught her to read one summer holiday when she was about eight or nine that this child really began to enjoy reading, even though she’d always loved stories that were read to her. Reading at school went on being mostly a chore of trying to read increasingly hard ‘reading books’, but the child’s mother read her Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House In The Big Woods’ at home, and the child felt keenly that Laura was her friend, and she longed to know more about her. One by one, further books about Laura came out, and were bought for birthdays and Christmases.
One day when that girl was in her last year at that village school, a young man came to help in the school. He was called Tom, and all the children loved him. One summer day Tom ‘did something very kind’ (to quote from ‘Dogger’ – I am trying to link this to picture books, honest!). To celebrate his birthday and finishing his exams, Tom invited a group of children from the school to his room in Trinity College’s Great Court. He gave the children tea, and he and a friend played loud blues tunes on a piano, and everyone played party games. But then, and best of all, Tom took the children down the road to Heffers Children’s Bookshop, and he let them each choose ANY BOOK THEY WANTED as a present!! The children couldn’t quite believe that anybody would give presents on their birthday, or that they were really allowed to choose whatever they wanted. The teacher didn’t approve of every child’s choice, but THEY GOT THE BOOK THEY WANTED ANYWAY! Perhaps you can guess that the girl chose ‘Little Town On The Prairie’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder so that she could read the next bit of Laura’s story.
Well, the years passed, as years do. The girl went on to a big scary school that she slowly got used to. When she became sixteen she got a Saturday job in the big Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge. She worked there every Saturday and school holiday, and then in university holidays. Coming home from university, she would often read one of her Laura Ingalls Wilder books to make her feel really at home. After university the girl went back to Heffers for a full time job, and this time she was put to work in the Children’s Bookshop; that very same bookshop of the magical back-to-front birthday tea party day of her childhood. With her staff discount she bought new hardback copies of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but she never did throw away the old paperback ones, even when she moved house and had clear-outs years and years later.
For five years the girl, who was now a young woman, worked in Heffers Children’s Bookshop. She met publishers and authors and illustrators, she read lots of books, and she enjoyed getting the right books and people together. Then she fell in love. She married a man living in Leicester, so that’s where she moved to. She became a mother of three lovely daughters, and she began to write her own stories. One book got published, then more and more until the writing was enough to count as a job, and she was happy.
Every Christmas the woman’s local Leicester bookshop had a Giving Tree where you could take a label that said something like ‘Boy, aged 3, wants a book with tractors in it’, and people would then buy a book for that child. The books were for children who attended a family support centre. It became an important part of Christmas; the woman and her daughters carefully choosing and buying the right book for a child they didn’t know. And each time they did that, the woman thought of how special that gift of a book from somebody who didn’t need to give her anything had been to her all those years ago, and she hoped very much that it would feel as nice as that for the child she was buying a book for. She told her children about the young man who had once bought books for her to celebrate his birthday.
A quarter of a century later, that girl and her husband decided to move back to the village where she had grown-up. They built a lovely house (with lots of shelves for books), and they moved in. A few months later the woman wrote a blog about a book (no, not a Laura Ingalls Wilder one, although she might well have done http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2012/11/writers-choice-368-pippa-goodhart.html ), and then something wonderful happened. An email arrived from somebody called Tom. Tom had read that blog, and it had made him wonder, was the woman who had written that blog the Pippa he remembered from Grantchester School back in 1969, forty-three years ago? She was! And she is, and she’s me, of course.
Believe it or not, Tom remembers the home-made gifts of cards and paper flowers stuck on a box that we made him as a thank you at the time. So the gifts in both directions were treasured. Tom’s unexpected book gift to me was one of the things that nudged me into the life I now lead, and it taught me how wonderfully and surprisingly generous people can be, even people who don’t have to care about you at all.
So the points I want to make are –
1) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are not picture books in the usual, large format, more-picture-than-text, sense. But Garth Williams’ line drawings show vividly the places, the people and the things from late C19th pioneering America; showing more about what the text is telling. Words and pictures very much work together to make the whole, just as any good picture book does. It’s lovely to see line drawings coming back into chapter books and novels recently. Please, publishers, give us more illustration in chapter books, and make them of the best illustrative quality. Children study those illustrations over and over, and such dedication from an audience deserves the best.
2) Heffers Children’s Bookshop (now newly located at the back of the main shop, and a treat to visit) is currently running a Giving Tree for children at the East Anglian Children’s Hospice. Many other bookshops run similar local schemes, giving us all the chance to cast a bit of Tom magic this Christmas, hopefully surprising children with a book they want as a present from somebody who doesn’t have to give them a present; making it the truest kind of gift of all.
3) Thank you, thank you, to Tom Deveson.