Did you have a little bookroom growing up? I bet you did. Maybe it was a corner in a library. Maybe it was, um, your mother’s study. (Sorry, Mummy.) Maybe it was a bookstore. Maybe it was a state of mind, which drew everything into a bookroom in your head. Maybe it was a state of fingers which drew all books into a bookroom in your bedroom. (Sorry, Mummy.) Maybe it was all of the above. I know I still live in a little bookroom in my mind, and I never feel this more than when I’m anticipating a trip to one of my physical little bookrooms. The Cambridge Public Library with its brilliant children’s librarians is one such place:
“Hi,” say I, “you were responsible for my child’s obsession with A Bird Is a Bird…”
“Oh, great!” they chirp. “Here’s more by the same author and if it’s birds she’s after here’s three other books she may love.”
I look them over and in half-a-second at best I know which one is going to steal the Changeling’s heart next. I sigh and decide to get ahead of the game. I call the physical location on this earth which most closely resembles the little bookroom in my soul. “Dear Children’s Book Shop, please put a copy of Feathers aside for me.” That’s where I’m going today, and I know, I just know, I won’t only be leaving with Feathers. It’s my little bookroom on this earth, and I love it oh so much.
Unsurprisingly, the Children’s Book Shop is the place where I first encountered The Little Bookroom, by Eleanor Farjeon, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, the book which is my namesake for this blog. I want to say right here and now: it’s wholly unfair I won’t be talking about Ardizzone today when he did so much for that book: just believe me that his illustrations are lovely and I have an embarrassing crush on him and his work. I simply need to talk about stories today– sorry, Edward, I still love you! Just look at this cover and know that the line drawings inside are even lovelier.
The Little Bookroom is the first book I bought at the Children’s Book Shop, I think. I had always loved Eleanor Farjeon, whose Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard taught me what stories could do. I can’t think of another way to put it than that: that book does things with stories which make them sing and dance with glee to know that someone out there gave them such lovely new places to grow and games to play. (Oh, I did figure out another way to put it. How lucid I am!) Martin Pippin was the first time I lent a book to someone and she simply couldn’t get into the book. I urged her to try. She refused to give it a second chance. We stared at each other, perplexed by our respective positions. I look back at it and smile ruefully: that book was just a bit too old and a bit too peculiar for my friend. I’d been living in a little bookroom for at least two years at that point (I was about nine or ten), but my friend, a clever, even brilliant girl, simply wasn’t used to such a range of story-play. I wonder, now, how she would have done with The Little Bookroom? Would she do better with either one now?
For myself, I nearly cried when I first read it. I’m not sure that I didn’t. Granted, I was pregnant, and discovering new-to-me Eleanor Farjeon was enough to get me crying. But the stories– oh, the stories. The very first one had me hooked in that special, Eleanor Farjeon way: I hadn’t expected that. What was going on? What sort of stories was I in for? Gradually, as story by story unfolded for me and I had to pause between each one to digest a new explosion of “I didn’t know a story could do that!” I decided that it was a compendium of newness. After I closed the book, I paused and thought: “I know I’ve read these. Where have I read them before?” The thought popped up that it was a compendium of oldness, of the traditional in stories. And then I realized: if the collection has a pattern to it, it’s that the stories each give you that feeling that somewhere, somewhere you’ve read something like this before… and yet you haven’t. It’s entirely new: it’s one of the children of Eleanor Farjeon’s internal bookroom. In her bookroom she housed all the old stories, and they’ve danced and played and gossiped together until, one by one, they made something wholly new. And up it popped, danced onto paper through her fingers, and, thank God, she made them available to us to read.
That’s the best way I can figure to give you a theoretical description of what you’re getting into. Expect to have your whole notion of how a story works exploded, at the same time as being deeply reassured by how very traditional they are– all with Eleanor Farjeon’s characteristic quirk and charm. (No, no, I’m not at all teary, thinking about this.) Apart from that, the best I can do is tell you to read them and figure out your own way of thinking about these stories. And that goes for you, too, however old you are. I’m not entirely sure, in fact, that these are children’s stories at all. Except that they are– everything about the style and fairytaleness of them proclaims that. In fact, when my Changeling was fussy I read her one of them when she was six weeks old. But they really aren’t for children, not precisely, not as such– just try one and see. Wait a second while I categorize this post as “All Ages.”
Old stories and new stories, for adults and for children– are you seeing a pattern here? These stories cover ground. Eleanor Farjeon defies description and I’m done trying. Let’s talk about one of the stories instead. That’s what she’d really like. Let’s talk about “The Clumber Pup.” A young man, left alone in the world, heads forth to make his fortune. Along the way he rescues a pup and her mother from being drowned. After he becomes a royal woodcutter, the pup helps him to succeed in three tasks set by the princess, ultimately winning her hand in marriage. What a fairy tale! Rather boring, almost, right?
No. Dear readers, the depth of love I have for this story cannot be measured in pint pots. The young man is left in distressing, real poverty when his father dies, and he has to leave behind the one thing he cares for: his father’s chair. He’s cheated when he rescues the pup, but he doesn’t care, because the pup needs saving and they bond so deeply together. How can I put it? I believe that even my father, notoriously impervious to any animal’s charms, would be forced to admit that the bond described in this book is lovely and true. The circumstances of his advent to Royal Woodcutter are mysterious: did the previous woodcutter come back as an apparition to help him? Did his father’s spirit move things? How and why did things happen as they did? We never quite know. As for the three tasks– the princess is no austere and distant figure in a tower. She’s a girl who lost her kitten, saw the nice man who brought the kitten back, and started to pine to know him better. The tasks are traditional: a ring, a note, a gift. And yet they are almost comic: the note reads: “My love! I love you because you are as lovely as my clumber pup.” After all, would a woodcutter be able to write an elegant epistle? And each of them, princess and woodcutter, loves their animal: he his pup, she her kitten. And they love each other. And he doesn’t just move into the castle when they wed: they are happy to stay half the time in the woodcutter’s cabin, especially once he gets his father’s chair there, which is, in the end, his only request.
Do you see what Eleanor Farjeon’s done? She’s made people. Real, warm, flesh-and-blood people. People you love. Not in a cynical way (so many “modern fairy tales” are just a smidgen too gritty for my taste), but in a way deeply steeped in the fairytaleness of the fairy tale, and also steeped in her own English countryside, and also steeped in stories beyond fairy tales, and finally sprinkled with a healthy pinch of her own humorous and charming style.
I did read this one to my Changeling. It was too old. She loved it, though, for the story about the kitten and the pup. She loved the narrative voice– the charming styles of speech peculiar to each character. These are wonderful stories to read aloud, and a toddler responds to that. And, one day, she’ll see the story’s place in the wider Realm of Story, and she’ll be charmed by that, too. I hope by then she’ll have her own little bookroom, and will be able to roam around it, puzzling out the traditional and the new, and how exactly Eleanor Farjeon did talk a story into trying that little trick. Maybe she’ll even try her hand at dancing with a few new stories of her own.
It’s been over a month I’ve been writing this blog, and making my own bookroom here has been more fun and more rewarding than I could have imagined. So, well, I thought it was time to tell you about this blog’s namesake, and if anyone reading this wants to celebrate a month of The Children’s Bookroom, why don’t you find The Little Bookroom and read a story? Then tell me what you think of it. I’m off to my own bookroom to find some more material to talk about here.