Revisiting our own childhood of library adventure

Children’s books

Magnificent: such is the detail embedded in Aaron Becker’s artwork that not one page will yield all its richness in one “reading”

Magnificent: such is the detail embedded in Aaron Becker’s artwork that not one page will yield all its richness in one “reading”


The books we enjoy most in our childhood and adolescence are often those that stay longest in our reading memories. The truth of this observation is borne out once again in an essay by Dennis O’Driscoll, now published posthumously in The Outnumbered Poet (Gallery Books), a selection of his critical and autobiographical writings. Entitled The Library of Adventure, the essay is a beautifully written testament to “the joys of childhood reading”, a pursuit that for him became “the obsession of an addict in the grip of an uncontrollable urge”.

The affectionate roll-call of writers and books that O’Driscoll singles out for special mention provides rich evidence of a reading apprenticeship that left an indelible mark: his tribute to Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and his acknowledgment of its “dysfunctional grandfather clock, living on borrowed time” as an influence on his own writing are particularly heartfelt. “I may not know what happiness is, but I know it smells very like a newly opened children’s book,” he writes, articulating the sentiments of those who, as adults, still peruse the children’s shelves with eager anticipation.

Difficult as it is to forecast which of the children’s and young-adult books of late 2013 and early 2014 will be recalled in the years ahead by those who first encountered them as early readers, there will surely be a place in some memories for Siobhan Dowd’s The Ransom of Dond (David Fickling, £9.99), one of the most attractively produced works of junior fiction of recent times. Dowd’s death, aged 47, in 2007, brought prematurely to an end a writing career that gave us four highly acclaimed novels – A Swift Pure Cry, The London Eye Mystery, Bog Child and Solace of the Road – in addition to providing the inspirational idea for Patrick Ness’s masterpiece, A Monster Calls. This new title, in its elegance, wisdom and lyricism, provides a poignant coda to these earlier achievements.

Set at some period well beyond time on a remote Celtic island called Inniscaul, this haunting story – more novella than novel, really – comes imbued with the spirit of ancient myth and legend. Dond, the island’s merciless “dark god of the underworld”, has decreed that disaster will befall Inniscaul’s inhabitants if a sacrifice is not made of “the thirteenth child to a woman born” when that child becomes 13. A girl called Darra satisfies, it seems, both requirements, and Dowd’s narrative traces the consequences not just for Darra but for her family and the wider island community.

The harshness of the inward-looking insular environment is reflected in the spareness of Dowd’s prose, which is nevertheless sufficiently powerful to carry her central themes of the workings of fate, of time and, above all, of truth and truth-telling. Pam Smy’s illustrations, in shades of blue, white and black, constitute an integral element of the book’s unforgettable atmosphere.

The Australian artist Shaun Tan has earned a reputation as the creator of picture books that defy easy interpretation. Their “readers” are challenged by their enigmatic verbal and visual clues to construct narratives of their own, to read, as it were, between the lines, whether of paint or prose. His most recent title, Rules of Summer (Lothian, £12.99), juxtaposes on facing pages a single-sentence text and a lovingly detailed painterly illustration, the link coming in the form of a glimpse both afford into the lives and relationships of two boys, probably brothers.

The world we are invited to enter here is at once starkly realistic and elusively surreal, at once reassuring and threatening. The monsters lurking in childhood’s dreams are seen to assume many guises: break the rules and dire consequences ensue. As elsewhere with Tan’s work, child and adult perceptions of what is going on are likely to be radically different, but there is more than enough in it to speak to both readerships, the greatest discoveries awaiting, perhaps, those for whom innocence has given way to experience.

While there is nothing new about employing the metaphor of a journey to describe the accumulation of that experience, Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book, entitled Journey (Walker Books, £12.99), brings a totally fresh dimension to the theme. Here, a little girl for whom neither parents nor older sister seems to have much time is magically enabled to escape her loneliness because of an imagination that elevates her into a world of colour, excitement, hot-air balloons and flying carpets.

Such is the detail embedded in Becker’s magnificent artwork that there is not one page which will yield all its richness in one “reading”. The same will be true for those adult readers who, well into their own journeys, may be revisiting, in O’Driscoll’s phrase, their own childhood library of adventure.

If some of the young-adult novels promised for 2014 live up to their advance publicity, then it is going to be a year when yet further consideration will have to be given to the notion of “crossover” fiction. It is hoped that these columns will provide detailed reviews of at least some of these books as they are published, but in the meantime watch out especially for three titles: Alyssa Brugman’s Alex As Well (Curious Fox), Steve Camden’s Tape (HarperCollins) and Brian Conaghan’s When Mr Dog Bites (Bloomsbury).

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books.

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