Why she’s still reading, fifteen years later…

Remember my appalling reading habits when I was young? Well, here is a glowing example of what the perfect parent should do – according to Bookwitch. Author Helen Grant makes me green with envy. I’m hoping that now that I will be living closer to her, some of her excellence might rub off.

Who am I fooling? Over to Helen:

‘I read to my teenager. I didn’t think there was anything particularly noteworthy in that, until the Bookwitch wrote and asked me whether I would be prepared to do a guest blog about it for her: what I read, how I find the time, and also something about the fact that the teenager in question is prepared to listen to me reading.

Helen Grant

I started to think about the topic a bit and it is perfectly true that when you think “bedtime story” you don’t think “mum and teen.” You think of sweet little shock-headed toddlers who have to be read to, because they can’t read themselves yet, or primary school kids who like a reassuring half-hour with mum before bed. Hey, look at the music video for Ylvis’ What does the fox say? – how old is the kid sitting on his grandpa’s lap, do you think? Four, maybe five years old, tops.

What you don’t imagine is gramps reading to 170cm of gum-chewing teenager in a hoodie.

So how come I’m doing it? It’s a long story.

My daughter made her appearance in the world almost three weeks late, and I have often wondered whether it was missing that three weeks of thrilling outside world experience that made her so darn sleepless as a baby. I know all mums think their darling is special, but I really am convinced that I had the wakefullest baby ever. She resisted sleep at all costs, maintaining instead a kind of squirelly perma-attention that would continue until she was screeching with tiredness. Car drives and being carried around in someone’s arms would make her drop off (eventually) but it can be difficult to prepare meals whilst driving a car or carrying a baby. Another solution had to be found.

By trial and error, we discovered that reading aloud would make her go to sleep. I suppose it was the reassurance of a familiar voice without too much interaction: no coochy-coo, who’s a nice baby then? – more, I read, you listen. As she was too tiny to know or care what the reading matter was, we chose our own. My husband read her Heinrich Harrer’s mountaineering classic The White Spider; I read her Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (another of those cultural experiences she was too young to remember later, like visiting every single Antoni Gaudi building in Barcelona). A few terrifying crevasses or paragraphs of war-torn love and she would be fast asleep.

Helen Grant's reading pile

Over the years that followed I often read to her and her little brother. Greater love hath no mother than this, that she readeth every single volume of Beast Quest, believe me. I discovered that the classics are still the best. Beatrix Potter’s language is so flowing and elegant that it can be read accurately even when the person reading is three-quarters dead with exhaustion.

Eventually, of course, both kids learnt to read themselves, and were able to pursue the time-honoured custom of covert under-the-bedclothes reading after lights out, whilst I put my feet up – or more probably, emptied the dishwasher.

Reading aloud was relegated to one of those things we did during particularly long car journeys or intolerably wet days on holiday.

Over the last couple of years, however, we’ve started it again. My daughter is a voracious reader, so she doesn’t really need any encouragement to get through books, but she did need some help with sleeping. The dawn of the teenage years seemed to have restored her to factory settings, so to speak: all of a sudden she was having problems sleeping again, resulting in exhaustion in the mornings. Sitting up late at night in front of a bright screen – whether tv, computer or hand held console – is not a good recipe for sound sleep. Science says all that artificial light close to the face fools the body into thinking it is still daytime, and delays the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. Trouble is, if you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 11pm it is difficult to lie patiently in a darkened room waiting for the elusive sleep to arrive.

Alan Grant at bedtime

I suggested reading to her again. And that is what we have done. We started off with The Hound of the Baskervilles; since then we have also done King Solomon’s Mines, The Lost World, Dracula, The Chrysalids, The Werewolf, Carmilla, my own novel The Glass Demon, and various short stories including those of Arthur Conan Doyle, Saki, M.R.James and L.T.C.Rolt. We choose the books between us. I think this is pretty key to the teen-being-prepared-to-listen bit. It helps that we share a taste for thrilling and creepy stories. If she wanted me to read her endless romances I would still read them, but I’d be reading between clenched teeth. We’ve also tended to go for stuff she might not tackle on her own: Dracula, for example, is easier if you have someone ancient on hand to explain what telegraphy, collar studs and hansom cabs are (not, I hasten to add, that I actually remember those things!!).

Yes, it does take up a bit of time in the evening – but on the other hand, the time is more pleasantly spent than if I were passing her door every ten minutes saying “Haven’t you turned that light out yet?” Nobody gets nagged, she gets entertainment as she slides into sleep, and I get to rediscover books I loved in the past.’

St George and me

And we’re off. Not this very minute, if you’re an early reader. But barring horrific delays and mishaps and calamities, this is the day.

Does it seem like an un-English thing to move out of the country on St George’s day? ‘snot intentional.

It’s World Book Day. The real WBD, I mean. So I suppose it makes sense that a Bookwitch moves around in the world, a little.

Shakespeare kicked the bucket on this date, and when I looked it up, lots more people as well. Not Cervantes, for some obscure reason. I had laboured under the impression that he and William died on the same day, but Don Quijote’s creator has shifted to a day earlier. Oh, well.

Some were even born on April 23rd. Ngaio Marsh. Halldór Laxness.

Oh look, there’s the dragon..!!!

Scotland for Beginners

1314 an’ a’ that. Well, you can’t say I’ve not picked a good year to move to Scotland. Or place. In fact, by the time we have somewhere to actually live, I suspect we’ll be hitting the Battle of Bannockburn celebrations almost squarely in the face. 700 years…

To be perfectly honest, I’m a little hazy on Bannockburn. Who did what to whom and why? The where is more obvious. We have decided Bannockburn is too far out for us, but there have been some attractively priced houses to consider.

Anyway, Daughter felt I needed a book to help me get by, so she gave me Rupert Besley’s brilliant Scotland for Beginners. I think it helped that she knew I’ve collected his postcards for decades. (They’ve been packed in some box for the move.)

So, it’s got a little bit of everything. It begins with your arrival. Apparently you drive in the middle of the road. And I will do just fine if I say ‘dinna ken’ all the time.

‘A wee way’ is further than ‘no far.’ It mentions the West Highland Way, without which I’d not have had a Resident IT Consultant. (Although I didn’t know the footpath was pioneerd by a motorist in 1980 who set off south from Ben Nevis in search of a phone box. I think he found one in Glasgow.

This useful guide has something to say on kilts, midges and dead haggises (they make good sporrans).

And even without the book I know not to get my hopes up if someone tells me I’ve already had tea. (It’s a tad mean, if you ask me.)

Because I learned to talk while living in southern Sweden, I will have no trouble with the ‘ch’ sound. I just don’t want to be mistaken for a Sassenach.

Rupert Besley, Scotland for Beginners

A last read

We’ve done a lot of lasts recently. It feels very final when you suddenly think ‘I will not be doing that in this house again.’

The Resident IT Consultant

Here is the Resident IT Consultant, reading on the deck. (It probably looks nicer than it is. Personally I prefer to read away from the sun, but he rediscovered the deckchairs and had to have a go.)

The chairs will come with us. So will the book(s). And the Resident IT Consultant.

Easter lilies

Daffodils

I know. They aren’t Easter lilies. I imagine there is no such thing. It’s a literal translation of the Swedish påsklilja. And there you might also find they flower round Easter. In England they are usually long gone by then.

Besides, my green fingers have never really stretched to daffodils. I plant them, and one or two feeble ones turn up one year, never to be seen again.

 

The Red Tree

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

It has a rather Finnish, Tove Jansson kind of feel to it. The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is a book I’d not read before, and I was struck by how Finnish it seemed. Not surprising, but still.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

I can’t make my mind up whether it is sad or not. It deals with feeling sad. Days that start bad and get worse. Shaun’s pictures show pretty vividly how bad you can feel; lonely and dark, and unsure of who you are, even.

Reading this book and discovering you are not alone in feeling alone, ought to be a good thing. Finding you can share your thoughts and feelings with someone who has been there.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree

And then there is the ending…

A very beautiful book.

Now, before and much earlier

At the same time as I read Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, which briefly featured the men who built the railways across America, I was facebook stalking Son and Dodo on their travels across America on possibly the very same rails. Or maybe newer versions of what was being built 150 years ago. It felt like one of those odd coincidences.

Amtrak

Besides, modern people don’t usually cross that vast continent down at ground level, taking days travelling at speeds of 40 mph.

Crossing America

After Reading Buffalo Soldier, the one unread book which I suddenly felt I must read was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Forge. It was the ‘black soldier in American history’ theme, although I had actually forgotten that Laurie’s characters lived a hundred years before Tanya’s.

They too were slaves, and the war is America versus England, instead of North versus South. I did find the war in Buffalo Soldier very harsh, but it is nothing compared with the war to free ‘the country of the free’ from European rule. The conditions were atrocious.

The place names have only ever been names to me. Yes, maybe someone fought a battle there, but it’s history. Now I can put so much misery to the small gains made with such great sacrifice by all the soldiers involved, whether English or American, free or slave.

Son and Dodo are back home, and they turned up yesterday, telling us all about the trip and giving us a picture show on two laptops simultaneously. And they’d visited Concord, one of those places where much blood flowed and people suffered. Because it’s what you do as a tourist.

Without Forge, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Boston

It’s strange how the realities between the three centuries have changed. Freedom fight in the 18th century. Civil war in the 19th. Leisurely travel, accompanied by digital cameras, laptops and facebook in the early 21st century. I wonder what Tanya’s and Laurie’s characters would have thought if they’d had an inkling of what was to come?