A read can put things right
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