We came home from the holidays to find a package waiting for us — two books sent by relatives in England. I was thrilled to find them, because these were the same relatives who’d introduced us to a couple of now-favourites, Mrs. Armitage on Wheels and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.
The books inside the package were I Believe in Unicorns and The Dancing Bear, both by English author Michael Morpurgo. I noticed the first came with a CD inside, and since I had a cold and was achy and didn’t feel much like reading aloud, I put the disc in the player, climbed in bed with N, and listened. As we lay there, I remembered a conversation I’d had with the woman who’d sent the books. Two of her children had difficulty reading, and audio books were a great discovery for them — a way into the world of stories that allowed them to appreciate the richness of language rather than struggle their way through it. Whether you read well yourself or not, there is something wonderful about being read to. You can close your eyes and let your imagination form its own images for the story. And yet, as with reading, you still to need to work, and focus, to hold the thread of the story.
Within moments, both N and I were drawn into this tale, about eight-year-old Tomas who hates school, books and church, but loves the outdoors. “Sometimes I’d go off with Father, feeding the bees in winter, collecting the honey in summer. I loved that, loved being with him, doing a proper job. But although I never told him so, I much preferred to be on my own. Alone I could go where I wanted. Alone my thoughts and dreams could run free. I could sing at the top of my voice. I could soar with the eagles, be wild in the woods with the deer and the boar and bears and the invisible wolves. Alone I could be myself.”
But Tomas’s mother shuffles him off to the library one day, because she’s heard there’s a new librarian who tells wonderful stories to any children who wish to listen. Tomas doesn’t, but he goes against his will, and to his surprise discovers a real live unicorn among the books and children. “He was sitting absolutely still, his feet tucked neatly underneath him, his head turned toward us. He seemed to be gazing straight at me…. And his eyes were blue and shining.”
At first Tomas is let down with the discovery that the unicorn isn’t real at all, but carved from wood and painted. But then the librarian — the “Unicorn Lady” — perches on the unicorn to tell the story of Noah, and Tomas is transfixed. “You could tell she believed absolutely in her stories as she told them. So we did too.”
One day she shows them a copy of her favourite book — The Little Match Girl — but the cover is scorched and tattered, and the spine is held together by tape. When Tomas asks if the book has been burned, she tells them about a time in her childhood, in a far-off country, when “wicked people ruled the land, wicked people who were frightened of the magic of stories and poems, terrified of the power of books…. Books make you want to ask questions. And they didn’t want any of us to think or dream, and especially they did not want us to ask questions.” This book, she tells them, is one her father saved from a huge bonfire of books. He plucked it from the flames and ran with it, and soldiers chased him and beat him but he would not let go of it.
“This was the book he saved,” she says, “so that is why it is my favourite, most special book in all the world.”
I Believe in Unicorns is a beautiful layering of stories, unfolding one after another, but each working together as a whole. After the librarian tells of her father and the book burning, war comes to Tomas’s valley, though his own father has promised him it never would. I could see N’s expression change as Tomas described the planes overhead, glinting in the sun, and the bombs falling far away, and then closer.
“That’s what happened with Opa,” she whispered, referring to my father’s childhood in occupied Holland. I nodded, and we kept listening.
I won’t give away more, because this is a story well worth discovering if you haven’t already. And while it’s very much a book about a boy who hates books learning to love books, it never feels preachy. The story is completely engrossing — we enjoyed listening to it so much that now we’re reading it for ourselves, and the grainy sketches by Gary Blythe are a fine accompaniment. Once in a while N stops me to ask a question — “Will war come to Toronto?” — and though the questions are sometimes difficult to answer, it’s quite something to see the process at work: a book opening a mind; stories connecting to everyday life.