A read can put things right

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - DEB­O­RAH HOPE

ACOU­PLE of weeks back I came into my kitchen for a cup of tea and found my adult sons squab­bling in the liv­ing room be­yond. Like a char­ac­ter in a Beck­ett play, my 19- year- old son had been camped on a sofa for the best part of a week, de­bat­ing his latest philo­soph­i­cal dilemma with any­one who passed by. His older brother had spied by his side a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Mid­night’s Chil­dren .

‘‘ Why did you buy this for him?’’ he de­manded, shak­ing the book at me. My protest that I didn’t buy the book didn’t reg­is­ter. ‘‘ You were go­ing to get me the new Rushdie ( The En­chantress of Florence ).’’

‘‘ Well, if he gets that, you have to get me The Satanic Verses !’’ in­ter­jected the spec­tre on the couch.

When we stopped laugh­ing, I had to shake my head over the state of sib­ling re­la­tions. It’s all my fault, of course. Along with my fail­ure to en­sure they are flu­ent in for­eign lan­guages and trained as con­cert pi­anists, I’d failed an­other ma­ter­nal test: keep­ing the sup­ply of nov­els to both sons ex­actly even.

Like ev­ery as­pect of fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, there’s a his­tory here. As young­sters the pair were like pup­pies in a bas­ket. They played and wres­tled, snapped and chewed, tum­bled and raced when­ever there was a free mo­ment. Trap them in a doc­tor’s or a den­tist’s surgery ( or a plane or train, for that mat­ter) for more than 15 min­utes and they were prone to run amok. What saved the sit­u­a­tion more times than I can re­mem­ber? A book. Mes­merised by sto­ries read aloud, they were lambs.

Sto­ries were the back­ground mu­sic to their up­bring­ing. Be­gin­ning when they were new­borns, I read to them aloud, and con­tin­ued un­til they were pre- teens. It’s im­pos­si­ble to re­mem­ber all the in­nu­mer­able pic­ture books we en­joyed to­gether in their tod­dler years, though I do re­call one of their favourites was Mau­rice Sen­dak’s Where the Wild Things Are , and one of my own, The Run­away Bunny by Mar­garet Wise Brown.

This bond of sto­ries runs deep. I was re­minded of this one re­cent sum­mer when they man­aged to fill the hours dur­ing the long drive home from a beach hol­i­day re­call­ing all the books I read to them. Dur­ing this era the boys shared a bunk bed, and I read to them each night un­til my voice was hoarse and they al­lowed me to stop turn­ing the page.

We read our way through ev­ery kind of book, be­gin­ning with Grimm’s very grim fairy­tales, May Gibbs’s Snug­gle­pot and Cud­dlepie , Alice in Won­der­land , The Wind in the Wil­lows , Abo­rig­i­nal leg­ends, the Peter Rab­bit books, Babar the Ele­phant, The Vel­veteen Rab­bit , Enid Bly­ton’s Fa­mous Five and Se­cret Seven sto­ries ( banned from my child­hood home and school li­brary, but great ad­ven­tures all the same), J. M. Bar­rie’s Peter Pan , Charles Kings­ley’s The Wa­ter Ba­bies, Tin Tin, the won­der­fully wicked 1920s Just William se­ries by Rich­mal Cromp­ton, Trea­sure Is­land, Robin­son Cru­soe, Seven Lit­tle Aus­tralians and many, many more.

Then fol­lowed, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der, all of Roald Dahl, a smat­ter­ing of Charles Dick­ens — they es­pe­cially loved David Cop­per­field and Great Ex­pec­ta­tions — Mark Twain’s Huck­le­berry Finn and Tom Sawyer , and Aus­tralian ti­tles such as The Magic Pud­ding , Seven Lit­tle Aus­tralians and Storm Boy . We rushed on to Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Sto­ries, The Se­cret Gar­den and C. S. Lewis’s mar­vel­lous Nar­nia se­ries be­gin­ning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , newly made into a film, but so much bet­ter in its full, glo­ri­ous telling.

There were Rud­yard Ki­pling’s The Jun­gle Book , a long se­ries about an in­trepid rab­bit war­rior cum ad­ven­turer, Laura In­galls Wilder’s Lit­tle House on the Prairie books and Terry Pratch­ett’s tril­ogy for younger read­ers, Truck­ers , Dig­gers and Wings ( the boys would go on to read the two dozen or so Dis­c­world se­ries ti­tles nu­mer­ous times). This fan­tas­ti­cal bent led to the con­sum­ing of works such as The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Hob­bit .

Next we grad­u­ated to The Lord of the Rings . Too scary at the first at­tempt ( even I have dif­fi­culty fac­ing Tolkein’s black rid­ers), we re­turned a year later and I read straight through three vol­umes.

Not so many years later came the ex­cite­ment of J. K. Rowl­ing’s first Harry Pot­ter books.

John Mars­den, Paul Jen­nings, Catherine Jinks, Mor­ris Gleitz­man, Emily Rodda. They were in­sa­tiable. I can re­mem­ber that af­ter my younger son, aged about six, was ticked off at school for a re­ally silly prank, he had been in­con­solable at what he thought might be the con­se­quences at home, his teacher re­counted. ‘‘ Don’t tell my mother,’’ he had im­plored. ‘‘ If you do she won’t read to me at bed­time.’’ I don’t know where he got that tragic idea, but I was in­ter­ested to think he be­lieved that was the worst that could hap­pen to him.

Sto­ry­time con­tin­ued in the car. On any trip that took more than a half hour we would lis­ten to recorded ver­sions of many of the books I have men­tioned, and many, many more, from Shake­speare’s plays to A Tale of Two Cities , the po­ems of Dylan Thomas and Joseph Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness . In con­trast to this feast of sto­ries, the only books I re­mem­ber be­ing read as a child are The Story of Lit­tle Black Sambo ( who can for­get ‘‘ the great grey- green greasy Limpopo River’’ and the tiger who turned into but­ter?), the Pookie books by Ivy Wal­lace ( first pub­lished in 1899) and Lucy Maud Mont­gomery’s Anne of Green Gables se­ries.

So it’s not sur­pris­ing, I guess, that both my sons are read­ers still. I’m happy to ad­mit that their mother is re­lieved and grat­i­fied all those in­ter­minable nights read­ing paid off.

A cou­ple of months back I was con­vulsed by a col­umn in a Syd­ney news­pa­per. The well- known colum­nist was ful­mi­nat­ing about badly be­haved young­sters and sug­gest­ing to moth­ers that a well- timed slap could solve a lot of prob­lems.

The tod­dlers I of­ten see out of con­trol at doc­tors’ surg­eries and on pub­lic trans­port are more of­ten than not in the charge of a par­ent pay­ing more at­ten­tion to their mo­bile mes­sages than to their chil­dren. The sit­u­a­tion nearly al­ways ends in threats and tears.

At times, lan­guish­ing in a doc­tor’s wait­ing room, I know ex­actly how the two- year- old screamer feels; only a sem­blance of dig­nity pre­vents me stag­ing my own tantrum. My dic­tum for cop­ing with such sit­u­a­tions is al­ways to carry a book. And at the risk of ap­pear­ing a crank, my ad­vice to par­ents of young chil­dren is that they, too, go ev­ery­where armed with a bag­ful.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Luke Fox

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