How do you choose books to read – or do they choose you, by some winding but inevitable path? You take a book back to the library and another just left by someone else catches your eye. You are looking for something you are dying to read again, to while away a train journey and instead find another that for some reason you have always resisted – is this the moment to give it a try? Or in these days of all-hours internet temptation does something just sneak into your field of vision and hook your attention calling read me… ‘look inside!’
With three generations worth of children’s books in our house to choose from – and Joan Aiken once wrote that ‘a child may only read six hundred books’ and certainly helped to supply them – perhaps it isn’t surprising that I had missed a few, but Skellig?!! Thanks to the always inspiring Desert Island Discs I heard David Almond a couple of days ago describing a book of his that just had to be written, and which I realised had to be read immediately! Even before the programme was over, I found myself in front of the landing bookshelf, always the perfect stopping point for visiting children, on hands and knees looking for a thin dark book. I remembered Joan saying that when the book arrived she had read all night, from start to finish, and then begun again. Why hadn’t I listened? Maybe the book had to find me.
Some books take you immediately from the world you know, to the world you know is also there. You are taken from the world of the distracted adult with no time or ability to explain or even begin to grasp the depths and breadths of the child’s wild imaginings, his attempts to fit the jigsaw of experience together – to a place where all the flotsam and jetsam of that daily world coalesces and forms a fantastic and satisfactory reality of its own. In the story of Skellig Almond pieces together a powerful set of elements – the poetry of William Blake, the chaos and displacement of moving house, loneliness, fear, birdsong, the evolution of man or even monkey from archaeopteryx, and the determination of all creatures to care for their young. All these as part of one boy’s experience, weave and interweave with the best kind of instinctive inevitability that recalls the mind of childhood; a book that did indeed have to be written, and read.
Brought up on stories, and inhabiting the world of fiction almost constantly I sometimes felt the need to check in with reality. The books of William Mayne, Diana Wynne Jones, and many more including of course those of Joan Aiken, shared that wonderful ability to make the everyday fantastic, to take a cut out garden from a cereal packet and bring it to life, to translate the trials and disappointments of daily life into a mythical vocabulary that gave one the key to solve them, and the space to experience all the wild emotions that had no place in the day to day. But it was a heady experience, and every now and then one needed grounding.
Reading Skellig took me back to that time. Most of all I recognised the moment where the boy goes to the shutters of the derelict house where so much has changed for him, and peers out – ‘Making sure the world’s still really there.’
But I wouldn’t have missed those books for the world.