International Children’s Book Day 2013

On this day over forty years ago Joan Aiken was invited to write a letter to children to celebrate the joys of reading.

Here is her letter:


 Take a Book Wherever You Go!  

If you were going to sail round the world alone in a small boat, and could take only one of these things to amuse you, which would you choose?  A big iced cake, a beautiful picture, a book, a pack of cards, a paint box (and paper), a pair of knitting needles and wool, a musical box, a mouth organ…

It would be a hard choice. Myself, I wouldn’t want the cake. I’d eat it too fast. Nor the cards, they might blow away. Nor the wool, it might just get wet. The mouth organ would be better than the musical box, because one could make up one’s own tunes. I wouldn’t take the picture, for I could look at the sea. Nor the paint box, because in the end I’d use up all the paper. So the last choice would be between the mouth organ and the book. And I’m pretty sure I’d choose the book.

One book! I can hear someone say. But if you were sailing round the world, you’d have read it hundred times before the trip was over. You’d know it by heart.

And I’d answer yes, I might read it a hundred times, yes, I might know it by heart. That wouldn’t matter. You don’t refuse to see your friend, or your mother, or your brother, because you have met them before. You don’t leave home because you already know what’s there.

A book you love is like a friend. It is like home. You meet your friend a hundred times. On the hundred-and-first meeting you can still say, “Well, I never realized you knew that!’ You go home every day; after ten years you can still say “I never noticed how beautiful the light is when it shines on that corner.”

There is always something new to find in a book, however often you read it.

When you read a story you do something that no animal can, however well trained; only man can do it; you are stepping out of your mind into someone else’s. You are listening to the thoughts of another person. While doing this, you are making your own mind work. And making your own mind work is the most interesting thing there is to do.

So I’d sit my boat and read my book over and over. First I’d think about the people in the story, why they acted the way they did. Then I’d think about the words the writer used, why he chose them.  Then I’d wonder why he wrote the story and how I’d have done it, if I’d written it. Then I might carry on the story in my mind, after the end of the book. Then I’d go back and read all my favourite bits and wonder why I liked them best. Then I’d read all the other bits and look for things that I hadn’t noticed before. Then I might make a list of the things I’d learned from the book. Then I’d try to imagine what the writer was like, from the way he’d written his story…

It would be like having another person in the boat.

A book you love is like a friend, it’s like a familiar place where you can go when you choose. It’s something of your very own, for no two people read the same book in quite the same way.

If every single person in the world had a book – just one book  – and they’d have to be able to read it of course, we’d have a lot less trouble.

Just one book apiece. That shouldn’t be too hard to manage?

How shall we start?




A letter from Joan Aiken for International Children’s Book Day, 1974



The books you’ve never read… are waiting to find you.

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.