Children's Books: THE ALIENS IN OUR MIDST ; the Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford FABER Pounds 12.99: Children Adrift in the Adult World Are like Navigators without Maps and Compasses. Penelope Lively Explains Why Reading Gives Them the Edge

By Lively, Penelope | The Independent (London, England), March 24, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Children's Books: THE ALIENS IN OUR MIDST ; the Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford FABER Pounds 12.99: Children Adrift in the Adult World Are like Navigators without Maps and Compasses. Penelope Lively Explains Why Reading Gives Them the Edge


Lively, Penelope, The Independent (London, England)


From the time when I was six, the most intense hours of my childhood were spent inside a particular bush in the garden, alone with a book. Others nurtured by reading will recognise this experience and respond with equal curiosity to Francis Spufford's examination of the charismatic nature of childhood reading. There has been exhaustive discussion of children's literature, and many glancing personal accounts of early reading, but this book is sui generis. I cannot think why it has not been written before.

"... As we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know": Virginia Woolf, cited by Alberto Manguel in his magisterial A History of Reading. Francis Spufford's brief and spirited account of how and why he read as a child and adolescent feels like an illuminating offshoot of Manguel, a crucial discursion into that most influential reading of all - early reading. Virginia Woolf was talking about the way in which our engagement with a book meshes with our own shifting development, so that you can never step twice into the same book, as it were. Francis Spufford is more concerned with the way in which a child hooked on reading seems intuitively to use literature as a tool of emotional and temperamental development, and learns about the world in the process: "Story's lucidating way with experience", he calls it. Yes, indeed. And also the most intense of experiences in its own right. Never mind the splendour in the grass - equally irretrievable is that first relationship with books. Adult reading is all very fine, and can soar to heights of appreciation, but it can never match that initial engagement with print. The hours I spent under that bush, swept away by Swallows and Amazons or The Arabian Nights or Tales of Greece and Rome, are irrecoverable now; I know what it felt like, but I can't feel like that again.

Francis Spufford has revisited his early reading and tied it in with his own life - "my inward autobiography". He has also made fruitful forays into child psychology, philosophy and psychoanalysis which give substance to his wanderings through reading apprenticeship, from Shirley Hughes to an adolescent fixation with science fiction, without allowing the reader to feel clobbered. And he turns the searchlight on his own circumstances. His younger sister had a crippling kidney disease; his mother suffered from osteoporosis. He now sees his own retreat into books and a world of the imagination as in one sense a flight from the exigencies of life: "a kind of deal that allowed me to turn away".

The protagonist of Anita Brookner's first novel considered that her life had been ruined by literature. One knows what she means, irony or not: that fatal conditioning of expectations and assumptions. The other side of the coin is the liberation and expansion of the mind with which Francis Spufford is concerned. And the wonderful bonus is that the reading child has no idea of what is going on. The book-affected child reads for pleasure, in the most literal sense, without any notion of self-improvement. Francis Spufford, growing up during what he describes as the golden age of children's literature, the 1960s and 1970s, discovered Leon Garfield, Peter Dickinson, Jane Gardam and others. He describes his hungry ransacking of the local public library: "that great, free bazaar". He homes in upon his particular passions, Ursula Le Guin and CS Lewis - neither of whom I can read with any enjoyment at all.

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Children's Books: THE ALIENS IN OUR MIDST ; the Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford FABER Pounds 12.99: Children Adrift in the Adult World Are like Navigators without Maps and Compasses. Penelope Lively Explains Why Reading Gives Them the Edge
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