Well before N reached her first birthday, we were reading to her on a regular basis. The story we read most in those early days, when she was still pretty much toothless and drooly, was Batty Bat: a snuggle book. It had a purple fuzzy cover with a bat sewn on to it, upside down. The bat’s sparkly wings were attached only at the body, so a baby’s hands could reach out and grab them. I don’t think she understood a word we were saying, but we read that book oodles of times every day. I used my best spooky Count Dracula voice, and N’s dad, ever the film buff, sounded strangely like Peter Lorre. When we got to the last page, shown here, she’d wedge her little finger into the bat’s mouth to feel his fuzzy pink tongue. And then we’d read it again.
But board books, fuzzy or not, are pretty quickly outgrown. Eventually Batty Bat was tucked in the bottom drawer, with N’s first shoes, the duckie sleeper she wore home from the hospital, and an assortment of other keepsakes, no longer required but impossible to give away.
When I recently came upon the book again, I was right away reminded of those first months of reading to N, her snuggled in my lap and me pointing to the pictures as Spider, Wolf and Mouse joined the story. I remember the feeling of her wispy hair against my cheek, and the wonderful baby smell that surrounded her. In this case, the book has more sentimental value for me and N’s dad than it does for her. So what will be her bookshelf treasures in the years to come — those stories that are like portals to an earlier time?
I had a note from a subscriber the other day, who told me that he still has his favourite childhood book, given to him by his aunt when he was three years old — and that was 77 years ago! When he looks through the book now, with its torn cover and his little sister’s crayon scribblings, he can still hear his father’s voice reading the words. Which makes me think that books have power not just for the stories they contain. The books themselves — as containers, as cherished objects — can take us back to the days they first effected us. With the onset of ebooks, will people stop reading paper books with children? I don’t mind the new technology, though I don’t yet use it myself. But I can’t help thinking it will be quite a loss not to have those books on our bookshelves through a lifetime, because spotting them, pulling them out, flipping through them, and even smelling them connects us to our pasts. The thing about a paper book is that it ages with you, and the yellowed pages, the coffee stains, the worn covers, become part of its beauty.
My mom has her old copies of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea on the bottom shelf of a little table that sits at the top of the stairs, so that each time you walk upstairs, you notice them. I suspect that’s just why she keeps them there, not far from a great old picture of her parents among many at a company picnic back in the 1930s, before they’d officially met. (Perhaps this was even the day they met? There I go, inventing stories.) The picture sits right on the floor of the landing, and when I asked my mom why she didn’t hang it up on the wall, she told me she thinks she’s more aware of it there, at eye level as she climbs the steps several times a day. Passing it this way keeps the connection fresh, as with the Anne books.
All that said, I don’t know what’s become of my own copies of Anne over the years, or whether I even had them with me when I began my jaunts from city to city in my 20s. Books are heavy things to carry. Had they been available, I might have embraced an e-reader in those days when I was happily unsettled.
Although I don’t have my old Anne books, I do remember buying them. Several were purchased on a Maritime holiday we took when I was a child. We went to Anne’s pretend house, the Green Gables tourist attraction in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, and I picked a fern from the Haunted Wood, pasted it into my photo album, and labeled it with swirly handwriting. We went to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s birthplace as well, and I remember thinking that it felt sad and old and dead, but that there was something amazing, too, about staring into these roped-off sets, knowing that they had once contained real people living real lives.
Anne of Green Gables has been around for more than 100 years. The recent Puffin versions of the series have covers illustrated by Lauren Child, who is one of N’s favourite writers, and in a roundabout way (at least in N’s mind), a pen pal. She wrote to Child to tell her how much she loved the Clarice Bean books (see The Worst Worry and A’ll Wright Soon), and fairly soon after, Child’s assistant Alex wrote back to thank her for the letter. N then wrote back to Child and Alex to thank them for the letter, and Alex (who is a little less prompt of a pen pal than N) has just written back to thank N for the letter. To which, yes, N has immediately responded with a thank you, as well as a picture of herself reading Child’s new book, the much anticipated Ruby Redfort.