Beka Kimberley is an MPhil student in children’s literature. She loves books and her books look well-loved
Way back in November my fellow Children’s Literature MPhil student, the lovely Dee Dee Lee, gave you a list of things never to do to books in her entry ‘Book Lovers’ Pet Peeves.’ The very next week I saw the anguish in her eyes as I opened my copy of Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in class and bent the spine with an almighty crack. Well, sorry Dee Dee, things are about to get a lot worse as I am here to celebrate and encourage the doodling habits of readers of children’s literature.
Part of the magic of old books- at least for me- is that they are physical survivors of a past we can never truly know and which could not have imagined the future readers who now hold these books in their hands. They are a link between us and the previous owners (and lovers) of these stories and personally, I like that leave us a note or sketch to ponder.I admit I have a biased opinion here. It’s middle of dissertation season and all the MPhils are to be only occasionally glimpsed, squirrelled away in various libraries muttering about word counts and ever mushrooming reading lists, only emerging for the blessed relief of squash and biscuits at Homerton Library or doughnuts from the Ed Fac (do I mention often enough that librarians are HEROS?). Having a conversation about anything that isn’t related to our own personal 20,000 words of obsession is nigh on impossible and the only things in my brain right now are the 1,000 or so rare historic children’s books in Homerton’s Special Book Collection. I am planning a chapter’s worth of precious words to be written about marginalia- those strange pictures, words and marks left by the hands of previous generations- and I’d thought I’d share the wonder with you all.
As I said above, there are lots of reasons people mark books, but I always feel a little sad when I find a book that is perfectly kept and unwritten, undoodled and unblemished. It’s as if no-one wanted to carry it around with them everywhere, dragging it through bushes and streams and next to gravy-laden plates at dinner time. No-one felt the need to inscribe their name in it to ensure it couldn’t be taken away from them or that if it was lost it would be given the best possible chance of returning home again. No-one felt so inspired by this book that they had to pick a pen and get involved right at that moment and be an author or illustrator themselves.I’ve always quite fancied detective work as a side-line and now I finally get to indulge. Who left these marks and why? Was it an opportunistic desire for paper? Was it the pleasure of seeing their own writing and drawing unfold next to that of a professional or published artist? Was it a note intended to be shared or for the writer’s eyes only? Sometimes you have the satisfaction of feeling you have solved a puzzle- I was delighted to realise that the Christine who had written in the margins of a beautifully illustrated book from the 1920s could well be the same one who donated it to the collection. At other times, it’s the simultaneous frustration and fascination of an unsolved puzzle that leaves us the room to speculate: it seemed that Christine was apportioning roles of characters to her and two other girls. I can’t help imagining a story in which a sibling argument was resolved by these doodles, “I’m Araminta, you’re Sukie, she’s Belinda and I’m going to write it down so NO-ONE can change their minds!”
It will not surprise you to learn that I am an inveterate doodler and book hugger and many of my surviving children’s books (certainly the ones I loved most) are etched with my fingerprints, thoughts and feelings. They were my friends, I wanted to converse with them!
As demonstrated conclusively at the Children’s Books as Material Objects conference, books are ‘thingies.’ They are physical objects (or electronic content contained in a physical form) and as we read, we must see them, touch them, smell them and sometimes even taste them… Maurice Sendak tells the story of when a child loved a hand drawn card that Sendak had sent him so much that he ate it. Sendak recognised this as “one of the highest compliments” he had ever received.
There’s an awful lot of attention paid to the ‘readerly gaps’ in books, especially picturebooks so it’s unsurprising that readers want to fill them literally as well as figuratively. Children’s books often have quirky places to add your inscription, my favourite is Shaun Tan’s authorisation from The Federal Dept of Information in The Lost Thing (their motto is igorare regulatum). The brilliant Emily Gravett’s Little Mouse books are an exuberant celebration of marginalia, along with an invitation to the child reader to leap right in and add to the pages themselves. Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and The Bottle app asks you to draw a picture, which then gets hung on the wall in the next frame. Not just for children (but then I would argue, no book is!) Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal and Finish This Book are predicated on the idea that the reader is also part author/destroyer. It all contributes to a sense of children’s books as playful, interactive and fun, and we could surely do with a bit more of that in our lives. So, children’s literature fans, go ahead and have a little scribble- in 200 years time future students looking at your books might just thank you…Reading is an embodied act and – to my eyes- the most authentic kind of reading acknowledges this. When we engage with an important book it changes us and maybe we want to return the favour and change it too, leaving a mark of the time we spent together and what it meant to us. Like Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince and the fox, it is an act of mutual taming. The time we spent with that particular book doesn’t leave either participant unscathed.
(Out of respect to the wonderful biscuit-and-doughnut-providing-librarian-heroes mentioned earlier, please don’t write in library books. That would be very bad.)