Arabel loves reading aloud to Mortimer in one of Joan Aiken’s own stories, as illustrated here by Quentin Blake. (Actually Mortimer is busy throwing cherry pips at the horse pulling their holiday caravan, but he does find a good use for some of the information she shares with him from the Children’s Encyclopaedia later on in their adventure…!)
Joan Aiken famously (and rather fiercely!) said:
But she had the luck to have an absolutely wonderful and devoted reader-aloud in her mother Jessie, and wrote:
“She started from the moment one was able to understand any words at all, and if one was ill she was prepared to go on reading almost all day – having diphtheria at the age of three was a highwater mark of literary experience for me.”
Sadly in those days, after an infectious illness all the books later had to be burned, but most were replaced as they had become such favourites. Joan tries to analyse why those first books read aloud to her had such potency, and decides that it is the element of mystery, of only partly being able to understand the language, ( and possibly being slightly delirious!) that made them so special for her. One book, the original Collodi version of Pinocchio was completely hair raising, especially for a two year old, but she said her favourite scene was when the fox and the cat dressed as assassins jump out on the poor puppet in the forest.
The illustrations were also pretty scary, but I loved them too, and we treasured that book.
As she wrote about another later memory, a particular highlight was Charles Reade’s Gothic historical romance The Cloister and The Hearth – even here you will notice that she is still barely four:
(…and she became a terrific reader aloud herself, to myself and my brother – we loved this of course, but I can see my tastes – and my nerves – were not quite as steely as hers…)
Joan Aiken was absolutely right about the relationship that reading aloud builds up in a family. All those shared stories and even the unforgettable and hair raising experiences become markers of family history; the quotations especially become landmarks in their own right, and will live on in other settings.
It is one of the great pleasures of having a family, and one of the most enjoyable shared experiences, even when it is the same story you have to read over and over again…
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Best Joan Aiken bedtime stories that won’t give them nightmares?
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