Books on Books, Part 8

Birchbark basket by Pat Kruse

Today, in the last of this series on books about books, there is one final text that I'd like to discuss: Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country: Travelling Through the Land of My Ancestors by Native American author Louise Erdich.

Books & Islands in Ojibwe CountryAll four of the previous volumes I've recommended have focused on stories for young people, so I wanted to be sure to include a biblio-memoir exploring an adult reading life. Other possibilities came to mind (My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Meade, Reading Lolita in Tejran by Azar Nafisi, The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, all very good reads), but Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country had to be my choice. I've re-read this little gem of a book more than once since it's 2003 publication, and returned to it again during this pandemic year -- when the tale of Erdrich's travels through the wild lakes of Minnesota and Ontario was a perfect antidote to days confined to bed recovering from Long Covid.

Erdrich, for those who don't know already, is a very fine writer of adult novels, children's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; she's won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award, the World Fantasy Award, and numerous other honors over her long career. A member the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, she has a mixed Chippewa/Ojibway, German, and French heritage -- all of which informs her writing in splendid ways. She is also the proprietor of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis specializing in Native American literature.

Erdrich begins Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country by explaining its premise:

Birchbark Basket 2 by Pat Kruse"My travels have become so focused on books and islands that two have merged for me. Books, islands. Islands, books. Lake of the Woods in Ontario and Minnesota has 14,000 islands. Some of them are painted islands, the rocks bearing signs ranging from a few hundred to more than a thousand years old. So these islands, which I'm longing to read, are books in themselves. And then there is a special island on Rainy Lake that is home to thousands of rare books ranging from crumpling copies of Erasmus in the French and Heloise's letters to Abelard dated MDCCXXIII, to first editions of Mark Twain (signed) to a magnificent collection of ethnographic works on the Ojibwe that might help explain the book-islands of Lake of the Woods.

"I am not traveling alone. First my eighteen-month-old and still nursing daughter and I will pop over the Canada-U.S. border and visit Lake of the Woods and the lands of her namesake, her grandmother. Then we'll dip below the border and travel east to Rainy Lake. We'll put about a thousand miles on our car and several hundred on other people's boats. I'm forty-eight years old and I can't travel aimlessly. I always seem to have a question that I would like to answer. Increasingly, too, it is the same question. It is the question that has defined my life, and the question that most recently has resulted in the questionable enterprise of starting a bookstore. The question is: Books. Why? The islands are really incidental. I'm not much in favor of them. I grew up on the Great Plains. I'm a dry-land-for-hundreds-of-miles person, but I've gotten mixed up with people who live on lakes. And then these islands have begun to haunt me, especially the one with all of the books."

Sacred Harvest by Pat Kruse

Her journey takes her through "the great mashkiig, or bog, between Red Lake and Lake of the Woods," rich in the traditional plants used by the Ojibwe for healing and sacred purposes, to a small island where Erdrich and little Kiizhikok watch otters play while waiting for the child's father to join them. Eventually Tobasonakwut arrives, packs them into a boat, and takes them into the wild world he'd know as a child growing up on the lake -- before the Canadian government removed his band of Ojibwe from the islands that were their home.

Birchbark Basket by Pat KruseCarrying the reader along on her travels, Erdrich recounts this borderland's long history: the people who once lived there (indigenous and white) and the various ways their stories have come to us -- through oral transmission, through print, through ceremony, through rock paintings that are hundreds and thousands of years old. Erdrich reflects on the Ojibwe language, and on the daily conversation of water, wetlands, and weather. The lake's animals and birds tell stories, whispered into her young daughter's ears.

Parting ways with Tobasonakwut, Erdrich and Kiizhikok head for the island where Ernest Oberholtzer once lived, and where the enormous library he collected during his lifetime is housed. The island is now managed by a small foundation dedicated to preserving its fragile ecosystem and keeping Oberholtzer's vision alive. He was a close friend to the Ojibwe, Erdrich explains, and now "the foundation honors that relationship by allowing teachers and serious students of the language, as well as one or two Ojibwe writers, to visit on retreat."

Ernest Oberholtzer at home on his island

Ernest Oberholtzer (1884-1977), known as Ober, was born in Iowa, educated at Harvard,  but spent most of his adult life on Mallard Island in the Rainy Lake watershed: exploring, writing, and defending the ecology of the region against dams and industrialization. (To read more about his life, which was colorful and fascinating, go here.) Ober's book collection was legendary: idiosyncratic, extensive, and full of treasures, most of them preserved (or reclaimed) by the foundation and housed on the shelves where Ober left them. Erdrich's description of Mallard Island is delightful. Here's a brief taste:

All Races Bouquet 2 by Pat Kruse"On reaching the island, I find I am the last to chose a place to stay. I'm thrilled to find that no one else has decided to sleep at Oberholtzer's house. Though each cabin has its own charm, I've always wanted to stay at Oberholtzer's. I want to stay among what I imagine must have been his favorite books. The foundation has tried to keep the feeling of Ober's world intact, and so the books that line the walls of his loft bedroom were pretty much the ones he chose to keep there, just hundreds out of more than 11,000 on the island. Heavy on Keats, I notice right off, as we enter. Volumes of both the poems and letters. Lots of Shakespeare. A gorgeously illustrated copy of Leaves of Grass....

"We convene to eat in an old 20th century cook's barge used by lumber companies to feed their crews as they ravaged the northern old-growth trees and floated the logs down to the sawmills. Ober had this cook's barge hauled to his island. An old bell signals meals. Original plates and dishes of every charm -- Depression glass, milk glass, porcelains, and sweet old flowery unmatched Royal Doulton china dishes -- crowd the open shelves. A cabin just out front of the cook's barge, hauled here too, was once a floating whorehouse, I am told. Now it houses a piano, and three neat beds. A child has written a sign, tacked to its wall, that advises visitors not to be alarmed if they see things they are unprepared to see -- like spirits. There is supposed to be a spirit family that inhabits this island.

"I'll tell you right off, I don't see hide nor hair of the spirits. But I can't speak for Kiizhikok, with her still open fontanel. They might be talking to her. Or singing her to sleep. Because she sleeps on this island, takes naps of an unprecedented length and then tumbles into sleep beside me as I read long into the night. There is a fever that overcomes a book-lover who has limited time to spend on Ober's island. A fever to read. Or at least to open the books. There is no question of finishing or even delving deeply. I have only days. Among the books, I feel what is almost a long swell of grief, of panic.

Ober's office on Mallard Island, photograph by Rosemary Washington

"Once the baby is asleep I vault over to Ober's shelves. I first wash and dry my hands -- I just have to. Really, I suppose I should be wearing gloves. Then with a kind of bingeing greed I start, taking one book off the shelves, sucking what I can of it in, replacing it. This goes on for as many hours as I can stand. C.K. Chesterton on William Blake. Ben Jonson's Works in Four Volumes, Oxford University, 1811. Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, first edition and first printing. An 1851 copy of The House of the Seven Gables. And The Voyages of Peter Esprit Radisson, Being an Account of His Travels and Experiences Among the North American Indians. A wonderful volume, more recent than most, published in 1943 and transcribed from original manuscripts in the British Museum. I keep reading this last book until, late at night, the loons in full cry, my mosquito coil threading citronella smoke, I have to quit. Knowing I must be alert tomorrow to feed Kiizhikok, I force myself to sleep. But as I drift away with her foot in my hand, I am led to picture an alternate life.

"In my imagined life, there is an enchanted interlude. All children are given a year off from school to do nothing but read (I don't know if they'd actually like this, but in my fantasy my daughters are exquisitely happy). We come to this island. One year is given to me, also, to read. I am not allowed to write. I am forced to do nothing but absorb Oberholtzer's books. Every day, I pluck down stacks of books from the shelves upon shelves tacked up on every wall and level of each of the seven cabins on Ober's island. Slowly, I go through the stacks, reading here and there until I find the book of which I must read every word. Then I do read every word, beneath a very bright lamp. When my brain is stuffed, my daughters and I go swimming, play poker, or eat. Life consists of nothing else."

The Boat House on Mallard island photograph by Rosemary Washington

Jorge Luis Borges famously once said: "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

For me, Paradise might look a lot like Ober's island (minus the mosquitos), and I long to be able to go there and lose myself among his books. At least we can visit through Erdrich's words, and I urge you to give Books & Islands a try. It is insightful, spell-binding, packed with information, and enchants me anew every time I read it.


The River by Pat and Gage Kruse


The art today is by Pat Kruse, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe in Wisconsin and a descendent of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. Born into a family of birchbark artists, Kruse creates basketry, wall murals and more from birchbark, quill, deer sinew, and other traditional materials. His work can be found the permanent collections of the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian (Washington D.C.), the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Historical Society, among others.

"A birchbarker for over thirty years," he writes, "I am greatly influenced by my mother. Using the skin of the birch tree I remake old-style Ojibwe baskets, sometimes decorating with dyed porcupine quills. I make 'birchbark paintings' using different colors of cut-out birchbark designs, or scrape designs on birchbark to tell stories. Like my ancestors, I harvest birchbark using techniques that do not kill the tree. Having respect for birchbark, I waste nothing."

To see more of Kruse's work, please visit his website.

Cradle of All Colors by Pat Kruse

Detail from Cradle of All Colors

Words: The passages above are from Books & Islands in Ojibway Country: Traveling Through the Lands of My Ancestors by Louise Erdrich (National Geographic Society, 2003; Perennial, 2014). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The birchbark art above is by Pat Kruse; all rights reserved by the artist. The color photographs of Earnest Oberholtzen's island are by Rosemary Washington, from her lovely account of  her Arts Residency on the island in 2017. All rights reserved by the photographer. 


Books on Books, Part 7

Narnia map by Pauline Baynes

Continuing yesterday's discussion, I'd like to share a bit more from Katherine Langrish's new book, From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self. Here she discusses The Magician's Nephew, which is the first book in the Narnia timeline (though not the first written or published):

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"For those who came to The Magician's Nephew as I did, after reading several of the others first -- this would include most of its original readers -- there is a brisk, fresh energy to the narrative with its new characters and new setting. The first four pages (three minus the illustrations) form a brilliantly economical scene-setting and tell us everything we need to know about Polly and Digory, and Digory's Uncle Andrew, mad Mr. Ketterley. Within another page or so Polly is showing Digory her den in the attic, a dark place behind the cistern where she keeps a box containing various personal treasures, a story she's writing, and of course provisions: apples, and bottles of ginger beer which make the den look satisfactorily like a smugglers' cave. 

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Polly is tough, practical, and confident, with a strong sense of self-respect. (And she is the only character in all the Narnia stories who is a writer. I wonder what she wrote about?) She is an excellent partner for the impulsive and more emotional Digory. In his 1998 article for The Guardian, 'The Dark Side of Narnia,' Philip Pullman has complained that in the Narnia books Lewis is guilty (among other crimes) of sending the message 'boys are better than girls.' Possibly it's not fair to take someone to task for an opinion in a newspaper article written so long ago, and some of Pullman's accusations are justifiable, but hardly this one. I cannot see it and never have. To base an accusation of sexism on 'the problem of Susan' alone is to ignore the strength of such different characters as Polly, Lucy, Aravis and Jill -- all gallant, courageous and memorable. I do wonder how recently Mr. Pullman had read the books.

"A little girl myself, I certainly didn't feel excluded or denigrated. The easy, bickering comradeship between Polly and Digory was just what I was used to in E. Nesbit's books. Moreover, Polly sounded like me: I wrote secret stories! With my brother, I loved to make dens -- in hedges, cupboards, in corners of the playground, in barns, in attics, sheds and lean-to's, in patches of waste ground, on building sites. (Pacing stilt-like, ten feet up, across the open floor-joists of a half-completed house, my brother fell across and through them, badly scraping his ribs. We didn't confess.)

The Magician's Nephew illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Just as the Bastable children in The Treasure Seekers play detectives and spy on the empty house next door, Polly and Digory explore further down the attic tunnel, hoping to come out in the abandoned house next-door-but-one. They try to calculate how far they will have to go, and I don't notice any nonsense about boys being better than girls: the children are equally and endearingly erratic with their sums, getting different answers, trying again, and even then not getting it right. Their mistake leads them to emerge in the wrong house. Pushing open a little door in the rough brick wall, they see not a barren attic but a comfortably furnished room -- lined, of course, with books. Everything is silent. No one seems to be here. Full of curiosity, Polly puffs out the candle-flame and steps through the door...."

But Katherine, like many other readers, is not forgiving of C.S. Lewis's portrayal of Susan in The Last Battle, the final book of the sequence (and arguably the most flawed):

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes"At the very end of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Ignorance, who has followed the hero Christian from the City of Destruction (the world) to the Celestial City on top of Mount Zion (heaven) is refused entry. Instead of keeping to the King's Highway he has taken the by-roads, dodging the hardships and not learning the lessons, so when he comes to the gates he has no passport and is turned away:

"'Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.'

The Last Battle illustrations by Pauline Baynes"Susan is made an example of by Lewis to illustrate the same point. Her sins, according to her friends, are numerous. Eustace complains that she regards Narnia as a childish game. Jill says Susan's only interested in 'nylons and lipstick and invitations.' Polly -- Polly! -- snarkily accuses Susan of having wasted all her time at school waiting to be the age she is now (is this really the sensible, responsible Susan who was so excellent at swimming and archery?) and predicts that she'll waste the rest of her life trying to stay that age.

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes"It is a ludicrous prediction: Polly cannot possibly know how Susan will behave for the rest of her life. Even God doesn't judge you until you're dead. What Lewis clearly hopes to convey is that Susan has been lost to worldliness, but it's a sorry try. Nylons? What else did he think a young woman would put on her legs in 1955? The reference to lipstick may have worked (a bit) when I was a pony-mad nine year-old with no conception of ever wanting to use make-up or talk to boys, but it's poor evidence for the eternal damnation of a character who simply seems to have reached adolescence or committed what A.N. Wilson has called 'the unforgiveable sin of growing up.' Lewis has grafted all this on to Susan's character, and the whole thing is trivialised by the shocking indifference of her family and friends as they line up to drop a few catty remarks and dismiss her:

"'Well, don't let's talk about that now,' said Peter. 'Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.'

"Lovely fruit trees? Huh!"

I had the same reaction to Lewis's betrayal of Susan when I was a child, though I could never have articulated the problem so well; and half a century later, I still feel that same indignation. Susan deserved better. But as for the other girls in the seven Narnia books, to me they were heroes all.

The Last Battle illustrated by Pauline Baynes

From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish

Words: The passage quoted above is from From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish (Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2021). The Philip Pullman quote is from "The Dark Side of Narnia" (The Guardian, October 1, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The Narnia map and book illustrations above (from The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle) are by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008). All rights reserved by the Baynes estate.


Books on Books, Part 6

In the Wood Between the Worlds

The next volume in our discussion of books about books is From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish, pictured here in the most Narnia-like place I know: a bluebell wood at the edge of Dartmoor.

A chroncile of the Seven Chronicles

I loved The Chronicles of Narnia when I was young, studied C.S. Lewis as an undergraduate, have read countless books by and about him since (from biographies and Inkling studies to Laura Miller's The Magician's Book), and it's fair to ask: do we really need a new book about Narnia? It turns out we do. For me, this journey back into the magic lands I'd known best as a child woke feelings I had lost since then: the intensity of my engagement with Narnia, and my utter belief in it, on that long-ago day when I first tumbled through the wardrobe with Pevensie children.

Katherine Langrish is the author of five fine books for children, a splendid book about fairy tales and the Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog on folklore, myth, and fantasy; and I can think of no better companion to have in the Woods Between the Worlds. Full disclosure: the two of us are friends, and it happened in an unusual way. In Katherine's words:

Narnia illustration by Pauline BaylesNow here is the story of how I had the happy chance to meet Terri Windling. My younger daughter is best friends with her step-daughter, and occasionally, as young people do, she would toss out a small scrap of information about her friend’s family:

"Her step-mum writes."

"Does she?  What sort of thing does she write?"

"I don’t really know, but she’s very nice."

So it took me ages to get around to asking more questions.  (Note to self: always ask more questions!) Presumably a similar rivulet of information was flowing in the other direction too....Eventually however, the penny dropped."

Honestly, what are the chances that two best friends have mothers who write fantasy, and that it took us such a long time to make the connection? But I digress from the purpose of this post, which is to give you a taste of Katherine's book, and to convey what a rich and necessary read it is for all who love Narnia too.

In the book's Introduction, Katherine writes:

"It is impossible to exaggerate the effect the Narnia stories had on me. I loved them deeply, jealously, selfishly: was so possessive about them that when my mother suggested she might read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a bedtime story to me and my brother, I vetoed it. Aslan would have growled, but I wanted to keep Narnia all to myself. (My brother read them anyway.) Another time I remember saying tentatively to my mother, 'It almost feels as if Narnia is real,' when what I meant was, 'Narnia has to be real,' because the alternative -- that it had no existence except between the pages of a book -- was unbearable. My mother didn't spoil anything for me by telling me that Aslan 'is' Christ. She just replied quietly, 'I think you're meant to feel that way.'

Narnia illustration by Pauline Bayles"Philip Pullman, one of Narnia's most outspoken critics, has suggested children enjoy the series because they lack discrimination: 'Why the Narnia books are popular with children is not difficult to see. In a superficial and bustling way, Lewis could tell a story, and when he cheats, as he frequently does, the momentum carries you over the bumps and potholes. But there have always been adults who suspected what he was up to.'

"It's true that children are generally inexperienced readers, but that doesn't mean they're not sensitive ones. I couldn't have explained it very well when I was nine, but I knew there was a qualitative difference between the pleasure I got from reading the adventures of Enid Blyton, say, and my far deeper love of the Narnia books. Yes, I enjoyed Lewis's storytelling, but the real enchantment lay in the rich silence of the Wood Between the Worlds, the black sky of the city of Charn, the almost unbearable light of the Eastern Sea, the bleak, gusty heights of Ettinsmoor, and the stars falling like prickly silver rain near the end of The Last Battle. These were the things I loved about Narnia, the things that drew me back again and again. When eventually I noticed the Christian messages in the books, they seemed unimportant by comparison.

Narnia illustration by Pauline Bayles "Then decades passed. The books sat on my shelves. Except for reading a couple to my own children, who were more interested in Harry Potter, I didn't return to them even though I write for children myself. Had they simply become so familiar that I didn't feel the need, or had the charm faded? What might they mean to me now?

"I thought I would read them again, remind myself of what had once enchanted me and discover if it still had the power to do so. Over a period of about eighteen months I re-read all the Seven Chronicles, and this too became a labour of love: a personal journey hand-in-hand with my nine year-old self, tracing as many paths as we could through Lewis's thick forest of allusions not only to Christianity, but to Plato, fairy tales, myths, legends, medieval romances, renaissance poetry and indeed to other children's books. There were many things I hadn't noticed when I was nine, but you don't have to know where a thing comes from before you can enjoy it. I never connected the cold queenliness of the White Witch with Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen, nor did I realise that, as Queen Jardis, she owes even more to the Babylonian Queen in Edith Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet. Even though I'd read those stories, they remained separate for me. I saw differences where I now see similarities, and both are important. The Lady of the Green Kirtle was fixed in my imagination well before I met the courtly, dangerous, green-clad queen of the fays riding down from the Eildon Tree on her milk-white steed in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:

   Her shirt was o' the grass-green silk
   Her mantle o' the velvet fine.

In fact the land of Narnia owes its character, richness and depth to precisely the heterogenous mix of mythologies and sources of which Tolkien disapproved. It is like The Waste Land, for children."

Frontispiece art by Pauline Baynes

While others have written insightful texts about Narnia, both laudatory and critical, there are three aspects of Katherine's book that cause me to love it above the rest:

Narnia illustration by Pauline BaylesFirst, she evokes the sheer wonder of falling into Narnia for the first time, calling up the child in me who loved the books uncritically, alongside the adult reader who appreciates them in a different way. Second, the depth of her Lewis scholarship is evident, but the book is never dry. Katherine unpacks the symbolism of the stories, teases out their influences and references, and explicates their history without disturbing their timeless magic....and that's not an easy thing to do. Third, as a writer herself, she has an interest in the mechanics of the books: what makes them work, what doesn't, and how they relate to other children's fantasy novels written before or since.

Through reading From Spare Oom to War Drobe I have learned some new things about C.S. Lewis, viewed his work from new perspectives, and thought more deeply about the Narnia stories than I have in years. The book made me want to visit the Chronicles again; and, better still, it inspired me to keep on writing, creating my own doors into enchantment.

Narnia illustration by Pauline Baynes

To learn more about From Spare Oom to War Drobe, I recommend the book launch video below, which contains a terrific interview with Kath by our mutual friend Amanda Craig (whose books I also love). 

The art today is by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008), from the first editions of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-156). You'll find more of it, and more about the artist, in this previous post: Books on Books, Part 2.

Waiting for magic to happen

Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish (Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 2021). The Philip Pullman quote is from "The Dark Side of Narnia" (The Guardian, October 1, 1998). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.


Books on Books, Part 5

Fierce Bad Rabbits by Clare Pollard

I started this series of post announcing that we'd be looking at four specific "books about books," but we're halfway through the discussion now and I'm going to expand that number to five. In Satuday's post, Lucy Mangan described the special magic of picture books for very young children: the first books that we have read to us, and also the first books we read to ourselves. Clare Pollard has written an excellent volume on the subject: Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children's Picture Books, and I honestly don't know how it slipped my mind when I sat down to plan this sequence of posts.

Fierce Bad Rabbits is so good that it's hard to chose a single passage to share with you here, but let's start where we left off on Saturday -- with another tale about owls:

Owl Babies cover art by Patrick Benson"Owl Babies (1992), written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson, explores family relationships through absence and presence. Waddell has spoken interestingly about how 'animals are used in picture books because you can make them do things that you wouldn't be able to let children do,' and in Owl Babies the babies are put in a situation that would be impossible to depict in the human world without the mother being reported to social services. They wake in a dark wood and find she has gone, leaving them entirely alone. With their podgy bodies, stumpy wings and flattened, big-eyed faces owls make the perfect avian substitutes for toddlers (hence their ubiquity in books such as I'm Not Scared and WOW! Said the Owl). The three owl babies each react differently, with Sarah trying to be grown-up and sensible, Percy not really helping, and little Bill only able to utter the desperate refrain: 'I want my Mummy!'

Owl Babies illustrated by Patrick Benson"...The interest of the book lies in the question of what your mother does when she's not with you. It is a thought experiment many small children have barely attempted, yet the owl babies spend most of the pages pondering this. Is she hunting? Is she getting them treats ('mice and things that are nice' in Sarah's rhyming phrase)? Is she lost? Has she been caught by a fox?

"The spread on which the owl mother returns shows this, beautifully, from a vantage point high in the treetops. We see her swooping back towards her babies, who are in the distance with their backs towards her, not yet aware their ordeal is over. It says simply, with heartfelt relief: 'And she came.' Waddell has spoken of how originally there was much more text: 'They were the best lines I wrote, but when I saw the image I knew they were redundent.'

Owl Babies illustrated by Patrick Benson

Owl Babies illustrated by Patrick Benson

"Behind every story, a different story.

"Martin Waddell was born in Belfast in 1941. Just before the Blitz, Waddell's family moved to Newcastle, County Down, beneath the Mountains of Mourne. As a child, life in the area was idyllic, populated by animals and folktales. After his parents split in the 1950s, he moved to London where he signed for Fulham F.C. before realizing he was not going to be able to make his living as a professional footballer. When he turned his hand to writing, he found immediate success with a comic thriller, Otley, made into a film starring Tom Courtenay. Then, in 1969, he married Rosaleen, and they settled back in County Down, and Donaghadee.

"Waddell has described, in an interview with The Independent, how, following the birth of his second son in 1972, a life-altering event occurred. His young family now lived opposite the Catholic Church, and the local UDA would often perform their drill in the street outside. One evening, after he saw a gang of kids hurrying away from the church, Waddell entered the vestry to investigate and saw 'what looked like a wasp's nest' on a chair. The 'nest' lit up. It was a bomb. His first thought after he regained consciousness was that his family were dead. For months afterwards, he would wake up screaming.

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? illustrated by Barbara Firth

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear?illustrated by Barbara Firth

"For six years, such was the 'total body shock' he suffered, Waddell couldn't work, so ended up looking after his three small sons at home. In the winter of 1972, they rented a dilapidated house on a rock overlooking the sea, its kitchen often ankle-deep in water. He has said that he was 'given a privilege which very few fathers have: the day-to-day business of looking after the kids. This didn't feel very much like a privilege at the time but it actually led to the richest vein of my own work.' He thought of moving far away but felt too deeply attached to County Down. He watched his children grow up where he had grown up, and where all his stories are set, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains: his precious, vulnerable, only home.

"In 1978 the writing somehow returned. His father has always told him that 'writing books will butter no parsnips,' but Waddell began to draw on his experiences as a father to write picture books. 

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear?illustrated by Barbara Firth

Can't You Sleep Little Bear illustrated by Barbara Firth

"By 1988, when his Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? (illustrated by Barbara Firth) won the Smarties Prize, he was an 'overnight' success. Farmer Duck (1991) followed, with pictures by Helen Oxenbury, which she pithily sums up as 'a sort of Animal Farm...for babies.'  

Farmer Duck illustrated by Helen Oxenbury *

Farmer Duck illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

"Then came Owl Babies. Waddell has claimed it was written in about three hours after an event in a local supermarket. He came across a small, scared girl standing absolutely still, repeating over and over, 'I want my mummy!' They found her mother eventually, and Waddell had found a story.

"When she returns, the Owl Mother wants to know why there is so much fuss. 'You knew I'd come back.' It is, on one level, a comforting tale, used to reassure children with separation anxiety that they are being irrational.

"But, of course, on another level, Waddell knows their fear is not irrational. And anyway, what was the mother doing? When talking about the book with my friend Hannah, she said that her son is always indignant that the mother doesn't bring back nice juicy mice in her beak. What force of nature made her leave her children, then? From what truth is she protecting them?

"Foxes do indeed prowl outside. The UDA practice; nests explode; wives and babies perish. The father who wakes screaming and the child who shrieks for her mummy both share the same terror."

Owl Babies illustrated by Patrick Benson

Fierce Bad Rabbits by Clare Pollard is informative, beautifully written, and thoroughly engrossing. I recommend it highly indeed.

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? illustrated by Barbara Firth

Words & pictures: The passage above is quoted from Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children's Picture Books by Clare Pollard (Fig Tree/Penguin, 2019); all rights reserved by the author. The illustrations are by Patrick Benson (for Owl Babies), Helen Oxenbury (for Farmer Duck), and Barbara Firth (for Can't Ypu Sleep, Little Bear?). All rights reserved by the artists.


Books on Books, Part 4

Owls by Angela Harding

Here's one more post on Lucy Mangan's Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading before I move on to the next of the four books under discussion. The passage below appears earlier in the text, where Mangan writes about the books that turned her into a reader as a very young child. One of them was The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson (1968), the story of a young barn owl named Plop who wants to be a day bird:

The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson"It was with The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark that I truly fell in love with the act of reading itself. I had adored being read to, enjoyed the stories, but the ability to take a book off a shelf, open it up and translate it into words and sounds and pictures in my head, to start that film rolling all by myself and keep it going as long as I pleased (or at least until the next meal, bedtime or other idiotically unavoidable marker of time's relentless passage in the real world was announced) -- well, that was happiness of a different order. When I was reading, the outside world fell away completely and required the application of physical force to break my concentration. Though my mother, as one for whom fiction could never assume any kind of reality, never believed me (any more than she would believe in the years to come that her children were hungry, thirsty or tired outside appointed hours) I never deliberately ignored her calls to come to lunch or dinner or to start cleaning my teeth and get ready for bed. Like every bookworm before or since, I simply and genuinely didn't hear them. Wherever I was with a book -- on the sofa, on my bed, on the loo, in the back seat of a car -- I was always utterly elsewhere.

Owls by Maurice Sendak and Petra Brown

"Adults tend to forget -- or perhaps never appreciated in the first place if lifelong non-readers themselves -- what a vital part of the process re-reading is for children. As adults, re-reading seems like backtracking at best, self-indulgence at worst. Free time is such a scarce resource that we feel we we should be using it only on new things.

"But for children, re-reading is absolutely necessary. The act of reading itself is still new. A lot of energy is still going into the (not so) simple decoding of words and the assimilation of meaning. Only then do you get to enjoy the plot -- to begin to get lost in the story. And only after you are familiar with the plot are you free to enjoy, mull over, break down and digest all the rest. The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It's like being able to ask a parent or teacher to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven't understood with the absolutely security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can't wear out a book's patience.

Owl Babies by Patrick Benson

"And for a child there is so much information in a book, so much work to be done within and without. You can identify with the main or peripheral character (or parts of them all). You can enjoy the vicarious satisfaction of their adventures and rewards. You also have a role to play as interested onlooker, able to observe and evaluate participants' reactions to events and to each other with a greater detachment, and consequent clarity sometimes, than they can. You are learning about people, about relationships, about the variety of responses available to them and in many more situations and circumstances (and at a faster clip) than one single real life permits. Each book is a world entire. You're going to have to take more than one pass at it.

Owl Babies by Patrick Benson

A Parliament of Owls by Eric Carle and The Owl & the Birds by Arthur Rackham

"What you loose in suspense and excitement on re-reading is counterbalanced by a greater depth of knowledge and an almost tangibly increasing mastery over the world. I was not frightened of the world like Plop. But now I knew that some people could be. This was useful. I could be more sympathetic to people who suffered from the same affliction in the real world, and I could also dimly and in a more complicated way understand why some people might find it difficult to understand fears I had that they did not share. The philosopher and and psychologist Riccardo Manzotti describes the process of reading and re-reading as creating both locks and the keys with which to open them; it shows you an area of life you didn't even know was there and, almost simultaneously, starts to give you the tools with which to decipher it.

" 'There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets,' C.S. Lewis once wrote. 'But what can you do with a man who says he "has read" them, meaning he has read them once and thinks that this settles the matter?' Exactly. The more you read, the more locks and keys you have. Re-reading keeps you oiled and working smoothly, the better to let you access yourself and others for the rest of you life. 

A page from The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, illustrated by Paul Howard

"I don't mean to place too much of a burden on Plop's tiny feathered shoulders, but if we were able some day to trace back a person's development of kindness, toleration or compassion, or their willingness to entertain an alternate point of view, or lifestyle or decision -- how much of it all wouldn't come back to a myriad of such tiny moments as learning that others can be afraid of the dark? In 1932, the French scholar and admirable optimist Paul Hazard wrote a book called Les Livres, Les Enfants et Les Hommes in which he reckoned children would learn about each other through books and that eventually this would end conflict. So far at least it hasn't quite worked out like that, but the point he was making -- that as soon as you begin to read, you begin to cultivate empathy, if only at first in the very smallest of ways -- stands."

Jane Yolen's Owl Moon, illustrated by John Schoenherr

Owl and Fox by Jackie Morris

The art today (from top to bottom): Owl and Moon by Angela Harding, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark cover art by Paul Howard, owl illustrations by Maurice Sendak and Petra Brown, Martin Waddell's Owl Babies illustrated by Patrick Benson, a printed page from Owl Babies, A Parliament of Owls by Eric Carle, Aesop's The Owl and the Birds illustrated by Arthur Rackham, a page from The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark illustrated by Paul Howard, Jane Yolen's Owl Moon illustrated by John Schoenherr, an owl and fox painting by Jackie Morris, Wise Old Owl and The Owl and the Pussycat by Chris Dunn, and The First Star Gleaming by Catherine Hyde.

Two related posts (in case you missed them): In praise of re-reading -- why it's valuable for adult readers too, and The stories we need -- on learning empathy (or, rather, how I learned empathy) from children's books. 

The "Books on Books" series of posts will resume on Tuesday (after the usual Monday music post). Tilly and I wish you all a very good weekend.

Wise Old Owl and The Owl & the Pussycat by Chris Dunn 2

The First Star Gleaming by Caterine Hyde

Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018).  All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.