My Mum, Books and Me – A Reading Legacy

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”

                                                      Emilie Buchwald

This is such a well known quote about a child’s reading journey. Book lovers know and understand this. We encourage and promote it. Teachers and librarians pass on this message often and with great commitment. We quote research. We reiterate that reading for pleasure aids academic success. We confirm that reading attainment is positively affected by parental involvement at home in sharing stories and encouraging reading. Usually we concentrate on the academics. But reading is not only about that. Reading is about love. Especially in families. Perhaps we should be concentrating on that a little more.

I honestly can’t remember a time in my life without books, without stories being read to me or me curled up reading to myself or maybe aloud to my younger sister. There are however some landmarks in my reading journey that I remember vividly. When I was very small my mum used to disappear on Saturday mornings to go into town to have her hair done.  She would return on the bus with her shopping bag bulging. I can still remember crouching down on the rug in the hall to peep into the bag. I knew there was treasure hidden in the bottom of the bag. A Ladybird Book. A small hardback piece of magic. My favourite from that time was Mick the Disobedient Puppy, the tale of a naughty black poodle who ultimately saves the day for his owners. My sister has fond memories of Tiptoes the Mischievous Kitten. My mum would read these aloud to us and as time passed we were able to read them ourselves. These little books were a highlight in my week, bought and shared with love and remembered now with nostalgic affection. They were part of the fabric of my family life and not just a tool to help me learn to read better.

When I was a little older, about ten or eleven, my Mum said that she thought I might be ready to read one of her own favourites from childhood. She said it had been a present from her older sister who coincidentally had given  me my much loved copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mum then handed me a fat, rather battered looking hardback book with slightly discoloured pages. Each page was covered in rather dense looking text but there were some beautiful colour illustrations too. It had, I thought, a rather ‘grown up’ look to it. The book was Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. I tentatively took the book, honestly not sure what to expect. Although very different to anything I had read before, I became engrossed. The language and content bore little resemblance to my own life but something about it touched me. I think it was partly that I knew my Mum had loved it. The handing on of this story about a mother and her daughters felt a little like a rite of passage. I wanted so much to be like Jo, thought that my Mum probably liked Meg best and we both agreed that Amy was infuriating. We talked about the book together and I went on to read the rest of the series, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. By the time I’d finished I had decided that when I grew up I was going to start an orphanage or school just like Jo. My Mum smiled wryly when I told her. This was a story shared and loved together.  It was to introduce me to other classic novels and confirmed my experience as a ”reader” that would eventually lead me to seventeen happy years as a school librarian sharing stories with children and passing on the right book at the right time, just as my Mum did for me.

Just before Christmas I noticed that there was to be a TV adaptation of Little Women shown over several nights. When I next visited my parents’ home I told Mum all about it. We looked forward to it with eager anticipation and hoped that it would do justice to the book we both had such fond memories of. Since April of 2016 my Mum had been unwell with long periods in hospital and was now bedridden so her world had rather shrunk but she loved conversation, having a giggle and watching her favourite programmes on TV so this was to be, we hoped, a happy Christmas highlight. We were not disappointed. I recorded the episodes so was a little behind her experience of them. When I phoned or visited I begged Mum not to tell me about them until I too had watched them. Then we had a happy half hour after each episode had been watched by both of us dissecting the portrayal of the characters, the suitability of the actors and much more.

Afterwards I said it had made me want to reread the books. Poor Dad was dispatched to search cupboards to retrieve them and after a bit of repair work I carefully took the two volumes home.  The books, Little Women and Good Wives, with my Mum’s signature in the front, were back on my bedside table almost fifty years after they first found their way there. Over the next couple of weeks I reread Little Women and each time I visited my Mum I told her where I was up to in the story. I confided that I now identified much more with Marmee but still thought Jo was a wonderful character. We giggled over Amy and the episode of the pickled limes. We sighed over the fact that any rereading is slightly marred by the knowledge that Laurie will finally end up married to Amy. Why? How? This was much more than just a book that I had once read, it was a shared experience, a conversation about people, life and love.

I hadn’t started my rereading of Good Wives when my Mum became ill again. Life then became too busy and stressful for any reading really. My lovely Mum died in January surrounded by her family and surrounded with love. I still can’t quite bring myself to start rereading Good Wives but I will.

I have a huge number of reasons to be grateful to my dear Mum but right up there high on the list is the way she shared her love of books with me and encouraged my sister and me to read with joy. Reading is about so much more than test scores, academic achievement and success. It’s about living, learning and, of course, about love.

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17th December – an update on Mum’s birthday

It was many months before I was able to re read Good Wives. I did try a couple of times but the loss was still too raw and the book a stark reminder of the last weeks with Mum. However as the year passed I found books a great solace, and most especially children’s books. Picture books aimed at a young audience such as Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley and Rabbityness by Jo Empson  comforted me in the same way as they would a child. They acknowledge the black, deep hole left by the loss of a loved one but also offer hope and a way to live life carrying the joy and love of that person with you as you go.

So eventually, at the end of November, as thoughts turned to the approach of Mum’s birthday and Christmas I picked up Mum’s copy of Good Wives again. This time the story worked its magic. Although there is a poignancy to the storyline covering as it does both death and the growing up of young women to adulthood I could hear my mum’s voice as I read. Although I know and understand that Louisa M Alcott’s writing is not to everyone’s taste, being rather moral and religious in tone at times, it felt to me like listening to wise advice and I was transported back to my childhood and Mum’s words to me as a child and teen. At that time I may have been tempted to rebel against this guidance but now with the benefit of experience I found it a comfort and also parts of the story act as a sort of template for how to deal with grief. The happy memories of shared family reading also came flooding back and I think they will always stay with me. Earlier this year, via Twitter, I read this comment made at a Reading Rocks event:

“When we recommend we give something of ourselves.”

There will always be some of Mum in the books she read to me and my sister, recommended to us as we grew up and shared with us as adults. For that I will always be grateful. When I read the books my Mum loved she is with me still.  I think that is the gift we give to our children when we read aloud to them and nurture a love of books and reading. Reading in families matters because it really is about love.

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