The books that shape us: Interlude
The books that shape us: 4

The books that shape us: 3

The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allburg

From an essay by poet Roger McGough in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allburg copy"At the age of five I started school and became an infant. At Star of the Sea I learned my letters from wall-charts, so old-fashioned that Ronnie with his Red Rattle and Tired Mother, who sighed 'Hah' as she sat on a large 'h,' looked more unreal than the fairies and elves  who decorated the picture books.

"This method of personifying the alphabet, however, worked too well and overfired my imagination to the extent that I still attribute feelings to individual letters rather than seeing them as mere hieroglyphs. (That's what is good about a word like 'hieroglyphs,' the letters find themselves in different company, it keeps them on their toes. I digress.)

"The first story I remember that touched me deeply was Greyfriars' Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson, and the fact that it was true made my NHS glasses mist over time after time. To know there would be no sequel entitled Bobby to the Rescue, in which it transpired that the old chap had not really died but had fallen off the top of Ben Nevis and lain injured until finally rescued by the plucky The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allburgterrier, was a tragic realization. That truth could be crueller than fiction was one of the first lessons reading taught me, and I didn't want to believe it. What I wanted was Custer Rides Again, Joan of Arc II and Further Adventures of the Princess in the Tower. Fairy tale fiction, of course, was often dark and as scary as any nightmare, and although there were no witches or goblins in the part of Liverpool that I grew up in, I realized that what happened to Hansel and Gretel could happen to any child. The names, places and costumes may have changed but evil was still there.

"But so was goodness of course, courage, and generosity. At the age of seven or eight my heroine was Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper's daughter who helped rescue sailors from a ship wrecked off the Northumbrian coast. The book featured stirring illustrations of a frail beauty rowing through a storm, and I knew then that when I grew up I wanted to be rescued by someone as lovely as she. (As a matter of fact I was, but that's another story.)

Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

"It was at the top end of junior school that I graduated to abridged versions of classics such as Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol which caused my pulse to race and my hackles tremble. Remember the feeling when turning the page was almost too much to bear? As adults grown weary on cliches and re-designed storylines, we too easily forget the initial jolt, the power, almost drug-like, of those first readings, when imagination flared up and seemed capable of consuming us.

The Widow's Broom by Chris Van Allsburg"After romping through half-remembered classics (abridged too far, perhaps?), such as Around the World in A-Day-and-a-Half, A Tale of One City and The Lion, the Witch and the Tea-chest, it was the comic that became my essential reading. Not cartoons but adventure weeklies such as Wizard, Hotspur and Rover. Here I mixed happily with the public schoolboys of Red Circle, and admired the pluck of Limp-along Leslie, the diminutive left-winger who, despite a withered leg, developed an unstoppable shot that unerringly curled into the top right-hand corner of the net two minutes before the final whistle.

"Another working-class hero with whom I identified was Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track who trained on fish and chips, wore hobnailed boots, baggy undies and a borrowed vest and showed the world's best milers a clean pair of heels (well, not that clean, actually). And perhaps my all-time favorite -- Wilson, the metaphysical mega-athlete and mystic who lived in a cave on Dartmoor, on a diet of nuts and berries. Clad only in black woolly combinations he would emerge when his country needed him and run like the wind with its tail on fire. Scorning fame and success he was the outsider, an eccentric loner.

Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

"The interesting thing about these comic book characters is that they were all either deformed, deprived or cuckoo, and yet were capable of extraordinary feats of strength and endurance, thanks to intense concentration, the will to win and an abhorrence of sex. Unlike me. (It is with some embarrassment that I admit to borrowing my sister's copy of School Friend each week to marvel at the drawings of girls wearing tutus or hockey shorts. National Geographic magazines, too, have a lot to answer for.)

"Verse speaking played an import part in fashioning my reading. As a child I used to mumble and so when I was eleven my mother sent me to elocution lessons where I learned to mumble louder. Poems which had been grey indescipherable lumps during Eng. Lit. periods suddenly came to life. Carroll's 'The Jabberwocky,'  'The Burial of Sir John Moore at Carunna' and Masefield's 'Cargoes' were favorites to recite individually or as part of a chorus. Eventually I became unselfconscious about hearing my own voice, I learned to listen to the poet's."

McGough grew up to publish over thirty collections of poetry for children and adults, as well as plays and an autobiography. He was awarded an OBE in 1997, and a CBE in 2004.

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

The art today is by the American children's book writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1949, Van Allsburg studied art at the University of Michigan and the Rhode Island School of Design, intending to be a sculptor until his wife pointed out that his drawings would make good illustrations for children's books. He wrote and illustrated his first picture book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, in the late 1970s, and has published over two dozen other fine books since, winning two Caldecott medals and the international The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van AllsburgHans Christian Andersen Award. The drawings here come from The Z Was Zapped (1987), Jumanji (1981), The Widow's Broom (1992), The Sweetest Fig (1993), and my favorite, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984).

"The idealized vision of the yet-to-be created book is powerful motivation," Van Allsburg once said in an interview. "I can envision what I think a book will be like, the atmosphere the book will create between the cardboard covers, and I’ve never actually been able to measure up to the ideal that exists in my imagination before I sit down to make it. Many months later, the book is finally created, it’s printed, it’s bound. It has never been the case that I got that first bound book back from the printer and opened it up and said, 'Gosh, I really nailed it.' That’s never happened. Because of that, it makes me think: Maybe next time. Whenever people ask me, 'Gee, you’ve done a number of books now. What’s your favorite?' I will always tell them, 'Well, my favorite’s the one I’m going to do next because that will be better than the ones I’ve done so far.' It is important for an artist to feel that way."

The Widows Broom by Chris Van AllsburgThe passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading Roger McGough's essay in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.