When I was small, I was bad at reading

I can still remember the teachers not being interested in my contribution. I sat at the front waiting for another chapter of Nurse Matilda and clapped my hands hopefully, and the teacher said she had a headache.

I was criticised by the outer family for always looking at a book, much like they say of young people now: always on their phones. I was always on my book. Little Women when I should have been outside. Harriet The Spy when I should have been asleep. Heidi when I should have been at the table.

Lucky I had reading parents: I was surrounded by stuff to read.  But not reading grandparents: I should have been exercising. Out in the sun. Making conversation. Attending. Changing my frock. That orange frocking frock with frocking white daisies on the front. I read The Magic Faraway Tree,  I stood in the backyard and looked at the fig tree for a long time. Too long. My Nanna, who only read the bible, boxed my ears for not being organized. My Grandfather gave me the hose as compensation. Do a bit of watering, he advised me sadly.

When my Nanna died, they found Mills and Boon novels amongst her private things, one of them tucked paperbacky cosy inside her old leather bible. So.

At school I read too fast and skipped bits. Whole pages even. It was because I was trying to get at the salt. Some books took too long.

I could not read the words “old” or “egg” for a long time. Those words, “old” and “egg”, would not form sounds for me.

In high school, I didn’t do much better.  I loved the books but read too fast. Or too slowly and couldn’t write essays very well. Didn’t get the questions.

I loved Sons and Lovers because the mother boiled potatoes in a saucepan. She peeled the potatoes angrily. The boy was anxious to get to the fair. He took his pudding in his hand. This scene is precisely why Sons and Lovers is a Great Book. And – the children in the book playing games and skipping furiously pressed into the dusk and the dirt in the back lane at the back of their houses. But I wasn’t there.

But you can’t write about that, so in year 10, I failed the essay. Then I read nearly everything in the high school library. I read  H E Bates who wrote about hot in The Purple Plain: what it’s like to be in a tent in the heat, and I never forgot about the heat in that tent, but you can’t write about that.

I read Rebecca, which was too luscious to write about, and The L Shaped Room, where a woman walked along in the rain whipping the trees with a sodden gum branch in her hand. And East of Eden, which I tried to read out loud to my mum, the whole book, while she chopped vegetables with an exhausted knife.

Then The Dark Is Rising books which probed terrors not worth disturbing again. A steady line of books form the Adelaide Children’s Library. Then The Wizard of Earthsea, and a time of no reading because I had to draw up my own map of Earthsea.

“The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon’s nostrils: that was his laughter.”

 I believed for a long time (without realizing it) that there was a right way to read; that reading was a country with policies. Then I saw that it wasn’t.

A million more books came at me fast from every direction and never letting up. So I opened a bookshop. It seemed the only way to survive the onslaught.

The pantry

I read all of these books. In one of them, the naughty little sister and Bad Harry go to a party. They find the birthday cake, which has been hidden from the children. Between them, they eat all the cream and the lollies (called sweets) that decorated the cake. I remember there were jelly babies treading through the cream. And silver balls. They ate until they felt ill. Then the mother found them in the pantry. The pleasure of the stolen cake and the jelly babies treading through the cream. The tiny silver lollies in the dark pantry. What was a pantry? Suddenly, when I was seven, I loved pantries.

When I read

A long time ago, I got a copy of Heidi for Christmas from my Nanna. It was a new copy, a hardback, the paper cover pink, clean, and tight, and I clutched it because it was new, and it was mine.

There were words in that book new to me, alps, swiss cheese, goatherd, and my mind approached and folded itself around each one. They provided such sustenance that each word still lives in me, buzzing with noise and life, alps high and cold, iced with height, shredded with wind, massive rock, lichen, tiny paths, death to the careless. Grandfather.

And swiss cheese. Salting the bread somewhere. Good. During adolescence, I only wanted swiss cheese; my mother looked at me exasperated. It was her mum who gave me that book. Her mother, Florence, one of thirteen children, who never had a book. Or even a second pair of shoes. Why did she give me a book? Did she know what she saw setting in motion when she wrapped it? Did she know? Did she know that she, Florence Edith of Nailsworth, Adelaide, would now live forever?

Goatherd. A boy. But after I read Pippi Longstocking, a goatherd would be a girl. Or anyone. The alps; height, against a sky of sheer hurtful blue. I read it in a chair in a dull lounge room on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula while the rest of the class gazed glassy eyed at Dick and Dora, those advanced paragons. But I was on a goat path, as wide as a strap of licorice from the store down on Brocks. I had ice in my ears. I had terror. Heidi. Peter. Grandfather. The bread rolls in the cupboard. Bread rolls could be two things, stale and hard or soft, fresh demons of silk. I put the book under my pillow to read again later. I slept with my arms up in the air, I was pulling myself up the cold green track because I was a goatherd.

Then, one day, someone gave me a copy of Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat…

Image by Nancy Gruskin

Tubby and the Lantern by Al Perkins

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This was my first book and the most overwhelming and terrifying story that I have ever read. There is no book that has yet surpassed this one for terror and bravery.

The reasons for this are: on the first page of the book, the baby elephant (Tubby) is allowed (amazingly) INSIDE the house.

On the third page I learned that Ah Mee’s bed is terrifyingly small and this has caused me 45 years of anxiety. They lived in a town by the Rolling River and their house was on the Street of the Golden Lanterns. This is the most enchanting place in the world, wherever it is.

Their house has no kitchen and this caused me more consternation. The whole family, including Tubby made paper lanterns and this seemed quite logical.

Tubby the Elephant decides to make a special lantern for Ah Mee’s birthday. This was fun but the very small bed and the inadequate blanket pictured at the beginning of the book overshadow everything with doubt for now on.

Tubby makes a fabulous lantern and accidently floats away in it, over the town and over Ah Mee, who quickly realises that Tubby Is In Big Trouble. This was true, but the trauma of the blow away lantern is nothing compared to the size of that bed and the insufficient blanket.

Ah Mee pursues Tubby successfully and they float together in the birthday lantern all night. The starry sky is undoubtedly cold and so the terror begins to build once again. The candle in the lantern extinguishes itself at dawn and the lantern drops toward the sea in a distressing kind of way, but the sun is coming up, everyone will be warm and the lack of a proper blanket will no longer matter.

They run into pirates but cunningly escape on another, friendly boat using the birthday lantern. As they float to safety, the little elephant looks over the side of the boat and there is NO GUARD RAIL. This is incredible. The ship floating in the sky using a lantern as ballast is not really that incredible.

But the worst is yet to come.

The whole town celebrates the safe return of the heroes and holds a boat party on the Rolling River but the boat is TOO SMALL for the guests too move. And this illustration caused me immense sadness.

Then, on Tubby’s birthday, Ah Mee makes him a bed; a double bunk with Tubby the Elephant on the bottom bunk and Ah Mee on the top bunk. But Ah Mee has no pillow, the bed is still too small, his purple blanket is still inadequate and Tubby has no blanket at all. They both dream that they fly away on the bed (which is tied to the lantern) into the beautiful starry sky and come back safely every morning. There are no guard rails or handles on the bed.

Terror triumphs completely.

I still have my original copy and cannot part with it.