Books, pictures and memories
By Gabby Dawnay
I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t aware of books - logically perhaps because memories often start at around the time a child begins to read. But more than this, there is a special alchemy that occurs in a child’s mind when pages of words and pictures move from shapes on paper, to seeds in the imagination. I have memories of the books from my childhood that are more vivid than much else. When I recall individual illustrations, I remember exactly how they made me feel and think. I could tell you page by page the colour and designs of Cinderella's dresses from the Ladybird 'Well-Loved Tales' series and was fixated by Snow White and Rose Red's perfect black shoes. These picture-book memories are sometimes inextricably bound with more general memories of events and places, changing seasons and outdoor spaces, gardens and dim rooms in the house where I grew up...Whether it was reading The Hobbit in deepening autumn evenings in front of the fire, or climbing into an old wardrobe to see if Narnia lay beyond the musty coats; the books and stories of my childhood fed my hopes and inspired me. Books made me dream and imagine and I remember far more about them than any school lessons.
Books can be unsettling, if not downright frightening, too. I was given a mighty volume of Alice Through the Looking Glass illustrated by Ralph Steadman, that I refused to keep in my bedroom because of one particularly terrifying image of a beady-eyed black crow. And I’ve never quite recovered from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers with that claustrophobic little vignette of a helpless, startled Tom Kitten being rolled in dough by the wicked rats…
The relationship between words and pictures is one that illustrator Alex Barrow and I like to describe as being akin to a piece of music; a dynamic symmetry between what is said and what is seen. Pictures and text together can be playful, uneasy even, adding extra layers of narrative, humour and meaning; an expression or small detail missed at first, spotted the next time read. The two components work with one another to create a harmonious whole where neither is stronger than the sum of their parts. Alice’s world, drawn by Steadman’s pen, became an even darker interpretation of a curious tale - no benign dream but the stuff of real nightmares.
And perhaps here lies the very heart of the matter; children can adventure safely in books. A child may fly to the moon and back, travel into the jaws of an angry alligator unscathed and reach the heart of the volcano without getting burnt. They can try green eggs and ham – if they are persuaded by the pester-power – and watch a garden grow in the time it takes to reach the end of a story. They might devour the pictures in a book like hungry caterpillars or close their eyes and let the music of words build images in their imagination. Books help children learn accidentally that kindness and bravery are usually rewarded, but not always: that Love conquers all but that life is unpredictable, unfair and sometimes cruel, as the Little Prince and Mermaid will attest to. The potency of books is immeasurable, subtle, stealthy; their magic is intoxicating and addictive. They are an escape and a comfort: a learning tool and a life enhancer. Books make you laugh, cry, believe in possibility because they interpret and communicate reality whist offering a means of escape. Sometimes, a single story is enough to put a child’s world to right. After all, Tom Kitten only lost his coat in the end.
Ladybird Well-Loved Tales, written by Vera Southgate, Illustrated by Eric Winter
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers illustrated by Beatrix Potter
Alice Through the Looking Glass illustration by Ralph Steadman
The Hobbit illustration by JRR Tolkien