Monday, April 26, 2010

The Bookshelf

A funny asymmetrical book shelf, bought in a antique/junk shop long ago, before I had a house, before I’d found my man, before I had children, way back in that misty time when the nesting instinct was starting to take hold, feathers and twigs busily collected, the ingredients of a home put together in a hotch potch, ramshackle way without a recipe.

Once we met, we found we had a love of books in common, a shared history of favourite children’s books to explore: a list that often overlapped, but also brought each of us great new stories to explore. Any second-hand bookshop was a magnet. We’d dive in and head for the children’s section, finding old favourites and starting a collection for children that weren’t yet born. Unthinkable that our future offspring should grow up without the joy of exploring Narnia, Pridian, Green Knowe and Earthsea. We were eager to share the treasures of Susan Cooper, Ursula LeGuin, Geoffrey Trease, Cynthia Harnett and so many more.

By the time our first child was born we had assembled a fine library, re-read most of them more than once and filled the book-shelf to capacity and beyond.

My memory of our son’s first introduction to the library we’d so painstakingly assembled for him is set in our rented flat in South London. The bookshelf stood just inside the sitting room door. He was fascinated with it. For weeks his favourite activity was to pull all the books joyously off the lower two shelves and distribute them around the doorway. His first lesson in appreciation of fine literature was to learn how to put the books back on the shelf again.

A toddler view - no wonder the books are irresistible.

We were encouraged that he was an avid listener to stories. The very hungry caterpillar was succeeded by Herb the Vegetarian Dragon as prime favourite by the time he was two. The bookshelf moved house with us and took up a less precarious position out of the firing line by the time our daughter was born. She cut her literary teeth on the well chewed edges of the hungry caterpillar and his ilk, with only the occasional incursion into the gems awaiting her on the Bookshelf.

Yet another move and a third baby saw us in South Africa with the bookshelf. It stayed swathed in packing materials for a year, its books in boxes, while our house was built. Then it took up its rightful position in the centre of our living room to be raided in turn by the Youngest toddler of the family, following her brother’s earlier example of pulling books off shelves.

All this time it was patiently awaiting the time when it could share its stories. It began slowly. Bed-time stories for the oldest child took him to Pridian, battled the Dark with Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising series, while the girls were still listening to fairy stories. He was selective though when choosing books for himself to read from the book shelf. Fantasy worlds and adventures were his preference. All those stories set in historical times so beloved of his mother were overlooked. They waited their turn.

In this last year, the pace has picked up for the book shelf. The same bed-time stories now enthral all three children. Victor Canning’s The Runaways trilogy was so absorbing that evening DVD watching was frequently abandoned, to have a longer reading of the story each night. Some choices are more magnetic than others. Oldest often has his own book in hand, especially if he’s read the story we’re reading before or thinks it’s too young for him, but the good old classics can lure him back into the story fold. A Little Princess, ostensibly being read to the girls, had him asking questions to be brought up to date whenever he’d missed a bit. Heidi had them all glued despite its simplicity. So now I’ve slipped in my own choice, a Geoffrey Trease set in Ancient Greece that I’d tried to interest our son in a while back when he was looking for something new to read, but which he’d never taken to. Two chapters in and he still seems to be listening.

The bookshelf is now regularly despoiled of its contents, no longer the random pulling off the shelves of toddlerdom, but a focussed raid by Youngest and Middle Daughter, competing for the easier books to read to themselves. At the moment they still go by the size of the type, anything too small is rejected as too difficult. Any minute now they’ll discover that they can actually read anything on the shelf to themselves, a world of stories, adventures, poignant tales, humour, history, fantasy and old-fashioned moral tales all theirs to explore at will.

A visiting toddler looks set to repeat the pattern

What are your old childhood favourites? Any other essential reading we should add to the bookshelf?


  1. Thanks for sharing! It's fun seeing the Bookshelf's journey through time :) I'm at that stage where I'm starting to collect things for when we start a family.

    Essential reading, I would say, but also my favorite, are Bible stories -- and I don't mean that in some fundamentalist way -- but just because they are so enthralling. If your boys love action stories, they won't be able to put down the book of Samuel once they start reading. It's still a page-turner for me.

    My other favorites for young kiddos are the Golden Books series -- I think they mean so much to me because I associate them with my lovely grandmother. Those books, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and other fun ones like What-a-Mess.

  2. Some recent favs of my 3 are the Percy Jackson books, the Gregor the Overlander books, and Sea of Trolls by...I forget.

  3. I love the idea of creating a library for the little ones! I loved to read as child and did so voraciously (still love to read, time just a bit more limited now) and wouldn't like to think that my (future) children wouldn't want to read. I might steal this idea if you don't mind. :-)

  4. Thanks for the recommendations, edj and tamela.
    Go ahead Marisa - the idea's definitely open source! bit of a long-term investment though, as it's only now paying off many years later, but we've been able to enjoy re-reading them several times over while we waited.

  5. I loved the Runaways which I only met as an adult. the books are kept in the adult section of our local library! Other favorites are The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, The Just So Stories and The Swiss Family Robertson.

  6. Dr. Seuss books, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Frog and Toad Together, Amy's Long Night, The Three Little Kittens, The Bearenstein Bears... ah, the list goes on and on...

  7. how wonderful. we also have two assymmetrical bookshelves (designed by me). we gave most of our huge libary away when we moved here from vienna 11 years ago and have manage to not only refill them, but amass even more. our kids are ALL avid readers, max is not supposed to be reading at his age, yet he devours encyclopedias... and that makes me very happy. reading is such a joy and enrichment!

  8. I grew up on Afrikaans translations of Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry books, both of which I still think are wonderful. The Berenstain's bears and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas were also hot favourites when we were younger. After that, I went through a hige Prince Valiant phase (there was a series of 7 illlustrated books based on Hal Foster's famous cartoon strip). Can't be beaten as far as swashbuckling historical adventures for boys go! I also loved the Magic Faraway Tree, although I never quite "got" the Famous Five... When I was a little older I loved Hardy Boys and nancy Drew mysteries and positively devoured any books featuring myths and legends (Greek, Roman, Norse, African - you name it!). And for teenagers, there are few greater joys than SE Hinton's beautifully written coming-of-age books.

  9. Great to hear all your favourites, everybody. I'm going to look our for the ones we haven't already got on the bookshelf, though we're not doing badly with the classics you've mentioned! So many good books to read. I hopethey don't grow up too quickly so we can fit them all in!


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!