Monday, 22 November 2010

The Book Aunt

One of the best bits of Christmas for me is the bit where I get to buy books for children. At the moment there are six on my Christmas list, but I could do with dozens. As soon as anyone I knew had babies, I jumped at the opportunity to fill their shelves with books. Up until then, I'd only been able to buy children's books for myself, and, even though I'm in that line of work, buying children's books still felt rather like something I had to make excuses for. So I determined that the instant I had children to buy for, I'd become the Book Aunt, the one who searches for the very newest thing you've never even heard of, or a fabulous old book  everyone's forgotten about, the book exactly suited to each child.

I've had moments of doubt, it has to be said, particularly as the boys I've bought for have grown older and during the times when some of them have been reluctant readers. I don't often get strong enough feedback to show if I'm hitting the mark or not. I do check though, when I see these kids: 'do you like to read?' 'what are you reading?', and one has dropped by the wayside now because he claims he never reads (what on earth will I get him this year?). Occasionally, thrillingly, I get a response which is truly overwhelming. Once, as I sat at the table with my brother-in-law and his family, the boys brought piles of books to the table and showed me all the books they loved: books I'd bought them, books they'd bought inspired by things I'd bought them and books they thought I should know about. One nephew, aged 13, travelling alone by train across half of France said he hardly noticed the journey because he was engrossed in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines trilogy, which I'd bought him for his birthday.

So this year I have six children to buy for. First, there are my three girls. For them, I have to restrain myself a little. I could buy each of them a whole pile of books, but we already have more books than they could possibly read in a childhood, so I restrict myself to one each.

Elspeth is 13. She's on the verge of reading adult books, but I think she still finds them rather taxing. I Capture the Castle  went down at great speed, but she ground to a halt with Jane Eyre (at the bit when Jane goes to live with her cousins and works in a school; I'm not surprised). The great joy with Els is that I know whatever I buy for her I'm probably going to read and enjoy too. The teen market seems to be dominated by fantasy and what they call 'dark romance' at the moment, but much as I'd like to indulge I have to tread carefully with fantasy for Els. She didn't really go for either Philip Reeve or Philip Pullman, and I don't think she'd like Terry Pratchett either. Having said that, she loved the Twilight books, she's a big Buffy fan, and she enjoyed the R J Anderson fairy books. So I think perhaps I'm looking for something  with a supernatural element in it, but set fairly solidly in the real world.

Daughter number 2, Marianne, aged 10, likes animal books and non-fiction. The latter is not difficult, as this is my field, but animal stories are a trickier proposition as this is not an area I find particularly appealing. However, there are hundreds of animal books out there, and fortunately this year a friend has recommended one that was read to her daughter's class and they all raved about, a book I'd never heard of. I do always love to pick up a new author. Of course, I can't reveal what this book is at the moment, because you never know who'll be reading these words, but if anyone's interested, I'll let you have the complete list after Christmas.

So on to daughter number 3, Livia, aged 7. Here the problem is that we already have so many books bought for the others and gathered over time that finding something new can be a challenge. A couple of years ago she was still at the picture book stage and that was easy as there are always so many fabulous new picture books. For her, I will probably look in 1001 Children's Books, or I might just browse through some lists on Amazon. Liv's at the stage where she will read absolutely anything; it almost seems that the act of reading itself gives her as much pleasure as the story does. She doesn't seem to have any particular book preferences at all.

Two nephews to cater for next, 13 and 11. They get two books each. I tend to go for the new unless something old has struck me as a must-read for them. First, I'll refer to Books For Keeps, the now online children's book magazine. This is really invaluable in keeping up with what's out there. Going to a general bookshop will only give you what is already popular, books and authors children have already come across. A specific children's bookshop would be more useful, but those are few and far between (though I dream of opening my own...). BFK is not always right up to the minute, but is guaranteed to come up with something that will be new to kids and worth reading.

Dan, the younger boy, used not to be very keen on reading, so I went through a period of buying shorter books, non-fiction and funny books to try to draw him in. In case you're wondering, I've been keeping a notebook for years, writing down what I've bought everyone, so it's easy for me to look back and see. Now though, Dan's been won over. I'm not saying reading is his favourite thing to do in the world, but he knows how to engage with a book and enjoys it while he's doing it. For him, I will get the book I'm buying for Marianne and also something else with the help of BFK. I'm thinking adventure, probably, but avoiding the Charlie Higson sort or the superhero stuff and going for a more classic type of adventure.

For Kieran, who is nearly 14, it's the same problem as with Els. He's a sufficiently mature reader to tackle adult books, but will they appeal? I'm thinking horror might do the job here, or maybe extending a theme I know has been successful with him in the past. With Kieran, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm going to have to stop soon, start sending him other presents, ordinary presents, as I now have to with my other nephew.

But as you lose them at the top end, in come more at the bottom. This year I'm back to picture books again as we have a new godson. I think it'll be one of my old favourites for Mac, aged 1, with the promise of many more to come.

Monday, 15 November 2010

book love

The first book I ever loved was The Oxford Book of Latin Verse. I'm not sure how old I was. Perhaps I loved it before I could even read. Certainly I couldn't read Latin. I loved it because it was beautiful. It was small enough to hold easily (even when I had smaller hands), with plain dark blue hard covers, with the title in gold on the spine. Did it have something on the front? Perhaps the OUP colophon? I think it might have. It was thick, perhaps two inches deep, and inside, there were hundreds of thin, thin pages made of that sort of paper I associate with bibles, paper which makes a satisfying crackle as you turn the pages. The text was very small, densely packed lines of verse. I would arrange ranks of dolls and teddies, then face them, and 'read' them fairy tales from this book, sometimes with the pages turned towards them as primary school teachers do, even though there were no pictures for my pupils to look at.

I can't imagine why anyone would want to read an electronic book. I've read the reviews; I've had a look at them in shops. I understand that you can hold thousands of books at once in the palm of your hand, annotate them, send passages to friends, find words and phrases at the click of a button. But they're not books, are they? I love the smell of a book, new clean pages or fusty old paper. And the weight of it in your hand: the perfect hand-sized paperback; the tome so heavy you have to lean it on the pillow and read lying on your front; but not for me those extra-big airport paperbacks, they don't stay open like a hardback and they're too heavy for a paperback. I own some books that I know I'm never going to read. I keep them because they're beautiful.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The best present of all

To buy good book presents you have to hit upon a thing that the recipient will not yet own, probably will not even know about, possibly which they would never think to buy for themselves, but nevertheless which will be exactly right for them. Years ago, long before we were married, and maybe when we weren’t even going out, Robert brought me a children’s book back from a trip to the US: an almost wordless picture book called Good Dog Carl about a dog who is left to mind a baby but instead allows the baby to eat everything in the fridge, then baths it in the fish tank, before popping it back in bed just before the mother comes home. I don’t know why he bought this book, he’s never bought me another children’s book, but it was a perfect present for me, and I would never have bought it for myself. But the best book present I ever received wasn’t actually a book at all. For my eighteenth birthday, my brother Jon gave me a £50 book token. That seems pretty generous now, but this was 1983, when just a tenner would buy you five paperbacks, rather than one and a bit. I spent it all in one go, an orgy of book-buying, like a lottery winner’s shopping binge. It’s probably the most fun I have ever had buying books. Cookery books usually work for me too. I think most of my most used ones have been bought for me by other people. I love to read, I love to cook, and yet I can't think of an occasion when I've ever actually bought myself a cookery book. It's not a section of a bookshop I browse much, unless I'm looking for a present for someone.
Oh, and by the way, if you should be thinking about giving me a present, and now you’ve read this, you wonder if maybe I’m much to exacting about what I want, so it’s much too hard to give me books as presents, let me reassure you. You know the presents I like best of all, the ones I save for the end, are the flat rectangular ones.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Claire's Room Libry (sic)

I don't write my name in my books any more. I wonder why. When I was little I was fiercely protective of my books and all of them were labelled in felt-tip  'Claire's Room Libry' (oh yes, apostrophe in right place but bit poor on the spelling). There aren't many of these left yet because at when I was about eight I took all the books I considered beneath me to a second hand bookshop. They only took the good ones (of course) so I was left with some very tatty Beatrix Potters and a large copy of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'. The latter I hadn't actually taken to the shop, I have to admit, and every Christmas Eve I read it to my children and then put it carefully away.

After the 'Claire's Room Libry' period, I simply wrote my name for a long time, apart from a brief period when I got a stamp for Christmas. It wasn't specifically a name stamp, but one that you had to fit letters into a holder, but it was so fiddly that I quickly gave up with my whole name and wrote 'C J Watts'. Then followed an experimental period when my name appeared in every possible format: 'Claire Julia Watts', 'Claire J. Watts', 'Miss Claire Julia Watts', often followed by my address, and once of twice by my school address as well. How lost did I think my books were going to get.

It gets interesting when I started to add the date. I love to pick up a book and be able to work out when I first read it. For a while, inspired by my friend Simon, I even put where I bought it, but this didn't last long, I think because sometimes  that delay between buying a book and reading it makes a nonsense of recording the purchase.

For a while I also wrote my name in the secondhand books I bought, but not for long. It's as if secondhand books don't really belong to me; they're just passing through. I love it when secondhand books have inscriptions written by other people and these feel like an essential part of the book.

Now though, I don't even write my name. I wonder if this is because I've been here in the same house for so long that I don't feel that there's any likelihood of my books going astray? Or is it through some precious notion that, like the secondhand books, books are just passing through. Actually I think it may be less sentimental than this. Nowadays lack of space forces me to be quicker to judge whether a book is worth its space on my shelves. Perhaps I don't claim ownership before I've read a book because I suspect I may be taking it straight to the charity shop when I've finished it. Or it could be that the books in my house feel more shared now. Often as soon as I have finished a book Robert will read it, and sometimes I buy books for him that I actually want to read myself. It's the same with the children's books. Time was I would just buy children's books for myself because I wanted to read them. Now I give them to the girls and read them later.

I do still mark the books in a way. I tend to leave things in them. Postcards are a favourite, letters, sometimes bus tickets, receipts or flyers. Really anything that happens to be lying around that I've used as a bookmark when I was reading. It's a bit of a thrill when I pick up a book to read again and find something like this. I came across a letter I'd written to a friend when I was in the san at school, aged about ten. Why did I have the letter when it was written to someone else? Who knows?

Perhaps though, I should start writing in books again. I could always write after I'd read a book, ifI decided a book was a keeper. Or go back to doing it as I buy the books. After all, if I like to read other people' names in my secondhand books, perhaps other people like to read mine.

Monday, 1 November 2010

page counting

I'm having to force myself to read Crime and Punishment, setting myself 20 pages a day, which conveniently is about two chapters. Even this is a struggle. I think it must be the pace of the story. I've read 135 pages and really all that has happened is that Raskolnikov has committed the double murder, fallen ill and recovered. It plods and I plod with it, and what ought to be gripping is tedious. I can't imagine my sympathies are supposed to lie with Raskolnikov; he's really very irritating and unlikeable, quite apart from having committed murder on a whim. I know I've read books before with protagonists I didn't like much and enjoyed them, but really with Raskonikov I couldn't care less. Also, having watched the TV serialisation, as I read, I have the feeling that I've read it all before. This can be a good thing with a book you love (see last blog!), but here it's rather as if all the possibly novelty has been leached out of the book. So I plod, contantly flicking over to see how near I am to my daily target. Only 360 pages to go!

Why am I bothering? It's for my book group at the end of the month, so I feel I must read it. There have been a few duds chosen over the couple of years I've been going, but, you know, I think I prefer the meetings when we discuss something I really disliked. You know there's going to be lots of debate about the book, at the very least me versus the person who chose the book, who presumably likes it. And so far, every time I've come away feeling more positive about the book, or willing to give the author another chance. Much duller when everyone agrees that a book is wonderful and you run out of things to say after 45 minutes.