Wednesday 25 March 2015

Our Literary Roots

Today is Artistic Wednesday, and yesterday I had a play date with the Inner Child. As our play date last week at the Museum of Childhood and Blackwell's was so successful, I thought this week we would go to Edinburgh Central Library and have a look for the book I suddenly remembered during our last play date. This book is called Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.

I didn't realize how famous Ballet Shoes is when I began looking for it, but then I didn't remember what it was called or who it was by. I just remembered that it had three adopted sisters, one of whom became an actress and one of whom became a dancer. One was called Pauline and one was called, I thought, Petra. Happily, just remembering "Pauline" and "Petr--" and "ballet" was enough to find out the title on the internet.

The crucial thing I remembered was how very much I once loved this book. So after a long morning of housework and writing, I got on the bus to find it.

Julia Cameron of  The Artist's Way  says that one should write down items of clothing one wants and see if they magically appear,.Amusingly enough, one of my last thoughts leaving the house was that I really need a new pair of comfortable shoes, ideally navy blue loafers, and the moment I got off the bus, what did I see? A Scots shop selling shoes for ridiculously low prices, including navy blue loafers at £10.

I bought the loafers and walked to Edinburgh Central Library on the George IV Bridge. This library is almost beside The Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling wrote part of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It is across from the National Library of Scotland, where B.A. and I go to do grown-up research. When I went into the wonderful Georgian building, I saw no  children's books, but I did see a sign saying "Language Learning."

"Oh no, you don't," said a little voice at my elbow. "This time is for ME!"

"But I can't see the children's section."

"Well, ask someone. Ask the man at the desk."

So in a hushed voice I asked the man at the desk, and he gave me directions to the new children's wing. It had just opened, he said, which I thought was another fortuitous moment of Cameronian synchronicity. So the Inner Child and I went out into the grand foyer, and turned left and then made a right, and turned left  again and found ourselves in the children's wing. Happy screams pierced the air.

"They're louder than even me," observed the Inner Child.  "Oooh! Look a big circle cut into the wall big enough to sit in! It's padded! You're supposed to sit in it! I'd like to read there, for sure."

"Unfortunately, it's too small for your Outer Adult," I said, looking about. I was bewildered by the almost empty space. It was long on architectural cleverness, but short on books. I had to ask to find out where the "Ts" were, and then, when I made more detailed inquiries, was reminded that the author's name began with "S." Meanwhile, they didn't have Ballet Shoes at that location. The man offered to order in the copy from the one branch that had it in, but as one of the three toddlers in the joint screamed and toddled, I said I would have a look across the street at the National Library.

"Bor-ing," said the Inner Child, sulking along. "The National Library is for grown-ups. It's dull and grey and has no comfy chairs. It takes them half an hour to find something, and you're not allowed to look yourself. I don't want to go to the National Library. I want to go to Blackwell's and eat chocolate."

"That certainly did not work out as planned," I admitted, pausing in the enormous hall of the National Library. I wondered what we would do while we waited for the book to be fetched. Having a coffee while reading the papers wouldn't cut any ice with the Inner Child. "When we were the same age, was our children's section back home that noisy?"

"No," said the Inner Child positively. "There was a lady at the desk in front with glasses on a chain and she said Shhh a lot and parents were meaner and more embarrassed back then anyway. It was even bigger than that Children's Wing, and it had a LOT of books. And a fish tank in the wall. And in the second room there was a space down in the floor that you could sit in while a lady sat in front and read stories. It had millions and millions of books. It had Henry and the Purple Crayon and Harry the Dirty Dog and Choose Your Own Adventure novels. It was a totally awesome library. It sucks that they knocked it down. It was all 1960s-1970ish, but in a nice Canadian Owl magazine kind of way, with lots of windows and trees around and a windowed corridor, and it smelled good. Not good like food but good like library books. It had wall to wall orange carpets, and turnstyles that went KA-CHUNK. The new library back home sucks. Its children's section looks like Chernobyl."

"You haven't the slightest idea what Chernobyl looks like," I said, feeling very bored with the mature, practical character of the National Library. "Okay, let's go to Blackwell's."


"Yes, yes, pipe down."

"Are you actually going to BUY the book? Ooooooh! What will B.A. say?"

"If I buy the book, I will buy it from the Canadian account."

"But B.A. says it's ultimately all the same money, and the Canadian account is not like this extra magic money you can pretend is just yours."

"Do you want the book or not?"

"Oh, I do I do I do! Can we take it back to George IV bridge and eat something yummy at Café Valerie? It's so romantic and fluffy."

"No, my feet hurt too much from these stupid high heeled boots. We can go to the hipster café."

"No way," yodeled the Inner Child. "Too many beards. And beside that's where you do Poh-lish."

She ran ahead and did a weird wiggling walk that I presume was an imitation of my own noble tread.

"Ooooh look at ME, I am so hip, I write in Poh-lish. I am an in-tell-ECK-choo-al! I may be over forty but I am totally down with the hipster kids. I can swing dance, and I even have the glasses on today,  Na-PRRRRRRR-AHV-da?"

"Stop that. Okay, we won't go to the hipster café. We can get something at Blackwell's."

So we went to Blackwell's, and the Inner Child made a bee-line for the children's section which, although much smaller than the Central Library's new children's wing, was much better stocked. The Inner Child bounced around so much looking at things that in the end I had to ask a sales clerk for help. She found Ballet Shoes right away.

"YAY," shouted the Inner Child, only this time in a way this other adult could hear. She smiled and went back to her counter

And in the end I had a café au lait and the Inner Child had a gingerbread man, and we sat together in a red leather armchair in a corner of the bookstore café and read all about Paulina, Petrova, Posy, Garnian, Nana and Gum.

Which children's books did you like best? 


  1. Heather in Toronto25 March 2015 at 16:23

    Oh, Owl Magazine! I had forgotten about Owl Magazine! With the amazing shrinking children who would go on educationally microscopic-scale adventures! (Or was that in Odyssey? I had a subscription to them both.)

    The first chapter books I remember getting into were Eric Wilson mysteries, in grade two. From them I learned a wealth of obscure Canadian place names. I got into Trixie Belden, as well, and other children's mysteries, though never cared much for Nancy Drew. I spent many a happy hour as a nine year old imagining myself as a great detective.

    I had a thing for Louisa May Alcott's Little Men when I was ten. I remember reading it over and over during a long road trip from Alberta to Ontario that summer. Upper elementary also had me in the Baby-Sitter's Club series, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the James Herriot vet memoirs (not that those are strictly speaking children's books). Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Kit Pearson. Gordon Korman. Diana Wynne Jones. Patricia C. Wrede. I was a voracious reader.

    I never cared much for the "Young Adult" shelves, though, even though this was the 1990s, before the YA section was made up entirely of pale moody teenage girls making out with whatever supernatural creature is in vogue this week or plucky teenagers rebelling against dystopian nightmares. I went from "children's" directly to grown-up books without much in between, and I never entirely abandoned the children's section. I am still a great lover of fantasy literature, and some of the best fantasy can be found in that wonderful "9-12" section of the bookshop or library. British children's fantasy in particular has had wonderful stuff coming out in the last few decades, partially I imagine due to the success of the Harry Potter books but only partially. They were just one particularly successful entry in a grand tradition.

  2. Enid Blyton's Adventure books.
    Aged P

  3. LOVE the inner child! Did she ever read "The Outlaws of Ravenhurst"? Or "The Trumpeter of Krakow"?

  4. As it so happens, just this afternoon I went downstairs to our bookshelves and pulled out my childhood copy of A Little Princess to reread again! (Ballet Shoes was good, too, though :) )

  5. Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did, Daddy-Long-Legs, and What Katy Did Next (which I'm rereading now).

  6. The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.

  7. My all-time favourite was Apple Bough by Noel Streatfield, followed by anything by Enid Blyton.

  8. Amused, I loved Outlaws of Ravenhurst... also Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch, almost everything by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Lost Prince (Burnett), and The Wind in the Willows

  9. So many books I must read now! I read the Anne and Katy books, plus most of the Rosemary Sutcliffe books. Definitely I must read "The Apple Bough" and "The Trumpeter of Krakow." I never read anything about Poland when I was a child except articles in "Time" magazine about Solidarity. Thank you for all your important books!

  10. Louisa May Alcott's "Eight Cousins" and it's sequel "Rose in Bloom" are later in life finds for me, but they are simply delightful! And they show the need (or at least positive role) in the family for the Bachelor Uncle.



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