Friday, May 15, 2009

Remember everything

An American Childhood
What makes a good autobiography? Having recently read Alice Pung's Unpolished Gem, I have been thinking about this. Is it merely a collection of good stories, funny anecdotes, interesting yarns? Is it a mature reflection on the past? Or can a good autobiography offer something more?

Over the years, I have read and re-read An American Childhood, Annie Dillard's memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I read it first as a teenager living in the States, and delighted in the stories (particularly of her mother's jokes and antics), and in the flash of recognition of the world of privilege. I was living in Washington, DC, at the time, and from time to time glimpsed the world Dillard inhabited. Reading it again this week, I am delighted by her writing, her insight, and the way she can take the reader right back into the skin of a child.

Dillard grew up in the upper echelons of Pittsburgh society. Her playmates descended from the founders of American industry and banking; local streets were named after the families of her acquaintance. Hers was a world of private schools and servants, dancing school and country clubs. Families knew each other all their lives; it was expected that children would grow up and slip into a niche waiting for them. Much of her education appeared to be grooming to become a wife of old money.

And yet it was also a world of immense freedom. Dillard had the leisure and opportunity to investigate her world, riding further and further from her neighbourhood as she explored her city. She had access to books, microscopes, butterfly nets, drawing materials, everything she needed to feed her passion for knowledge. Whether it was collecting rocks, capturing insects or learning the rudiments of sleuthing, Dillard approached everything with intelligence and vim, and had the time to engage deeply and passionately with the world. Her parents gave her free reign in the library, and as well as the field guides she loved so well, Dillard devoured Hardy, Eliot and Dickens as a child.

Her memoir charts this privileged and joyful upbringing. She writes so vividly that we are taken alongside her as she explores the woods, is chased across the neighbourhood by an angry stranger, and pitches a baseball at a target in her garage. She clearly recalls the deep concentration of the child, the absorption in self-appointed tasks. Dillard writes with great good humour about her family, and we fall in love with them, just as we fall in love with that time and place, a time and place we have never known.

Yet what makes this book a masterpiece is not just the stories; Dillard also reflects more generally on the slow maturation of a child. She vividly recalls the way a child sees the world - her terrible fears, underlying assumptions, grandiose ambitions (to remember everything, to learn all the world's languages) - and in so doing, draws us back into the way we too saw the world once. She writes with insight and beauty about the dawning of consciousness, and describes the child's growing awareness of herself, and of time, history and society. And as she writes about the world as perceived by an intelligent, passionate, investigative child, we too are invited to see it with fresh eyes, young eyes, which are thrilled by almost everything.

> Annie Dillard An American Childhood (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Friday, May 8, 2009

A 'pissalis'

The Very Hungry Caterpillar In the Night Kitchen We're Going on a Bear Hunt Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten Grandpa and Thomas Too Loud Lily Owl Moon Moon in the Man Honey Sandwich Auction! Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo The King of Capri Clarice Bean, That's Me (Clarice Bean) I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato

Warning: I am a proud mother as well as a very frequently interrupted reader, and what follows is a soppy announcement: My 3 year old daughter 'read' me The Very Hungry Caterpillar today. I was idly enjoying it as she sighed, over and over again, And he was still hungry... And then my heart did a great big happy flip flop as she told me that he made a 'pissalis' (a chrysalis, to those of you unfamiliar with the pronunciation of a 3 year old).

It renewed my already flaming passion to fill my house with good books for kids, books which respect the reader and are packed full of interesting language. To hell with the thousands of inane kids' books, soggy, bland and boring. May they rot. Here's a list of some of my favourite picture story books, in no particular order. These books are graceful, funny, beautiful, intelligent, and a joy to read. We've read them all dozens, if not hundreds, of times, and we're not sick of them yet! Some of their phrases have become part of our family language; now if that's not a test of a book, then I don't know what is. If you haven't come across them, seek them out, then settle in with a young child for a leisurely afternoon.

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak ('Milk in the batter, milk in the batter, we make cake and nothing's the matter.' Sung loudly while making Sunday morning pancakes.)
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle ('and he was still hungry').
We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen ('we're not scared...').
Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten by Bob Graham ('Catch, Mr Wintergarten!').
Grandpa and Thomas by Pamela Allen ('Swish, swash, swoosh, sings the sea.')
Too Loud Lily by Sofie Laguna ('Lily Hippo, not so loud!').
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen ('and I almost smiled, too').
Moon in the Man and Honey Sandwich by Elizabeth Honey (two collections of poems, mostly memorized by my kids by the time they were three).
Auction! by Tres Seymour ('a dollar, a dollah, who'll give me a dollah?')
Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo by Julius Lester ('Ain't I fine?!').
The King of Capri by Jeannette Winterson ('and the fifth thing that the Wind did was to blow the mustaches off the nightwatchmen'.)
and for slightly older readers, Clarice Bean, That's Me (Clarice Bean) by Lauren Child ('Right now you are NOT the flavour of the month young lady.') (My kids repeat this and laugh themselves sick. They also love the Charlie and Lola stories, especially I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato).