Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Just call me Elle

I'm having a supermodel moment. It's not that I'm suddenly tall, slender and toned. My hair is still cropped short, my eyes are still wrinkly around the edges, my skin is still tan only in odd patches. But these days, as recommended by Elle MacPherson, I'm pretty much reading only what I have written.

Here on the desk in front of me, not quite obscuring the monitor, is a pile of books waiting. There, on my bedhead, is another. They are studded with bookmarks, but only a few pages in. Week after week I took one book to the physio, clumsily holding it with my left hand and trying to turn the pages as my damaged right hand was zapped by a machine. Nowhere near finishing, after a while I took a different book in just so the physio had something new to ask about.

Because my life is all about 'or'. I have short times without children, and in them I can either read or write; read or exercise; read or talk with my husband or friends. And time and again, I am choosing to write, because I have a desperate need to express myself; choosing to exercise, because without a good run I get foully grumpy; choosing to chat, because I have family and friends who love to drop round. I am grateful for the time to write, the chance to run, the comfortable chats, and yet...

And yet. I haven't read a whole book for a month or two. Just a few pages here, a short poem there. Kids' books galore, of course. And the words I have written.

Just for an hour, just for a day, I would love to be free from the 'or'. I want a few 'and's in my life. I want to read AND write AND run AND talk with friends AND have time to sit in a cafe and look at people. I want a life of leisure, with a nanny AND a housekeeper AND a chauffeur AND a cook AND a gardener. I will sit in my spire, curled in a shabby old armchair, far far from the cries of children. I will pause between pages and gaze at the clouds, or muse on a spiderweb catching the sun. I will think Deep Thoughts, and idly scratch notes in a battered old notebook.

And then, with a shattering roar, my children erupt into my fantasy. The baby smells of poo. The three year old is hungry. Miss Five is huffing and puffing because life is so unfair. As I reach for the baby wipes, plan a sandwich, smooth a ferocious brow, I remember some of the wonderful books I have read. And instead of resenting how little I can read now, I find myself grateful that I carry such stories with me, constant companions through the extraordinary demands and storms and loneliness of motherhood.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So much... and so little

Oscar's Half Birthday So Much Catch That Goat!: A Market Day in Nigeria Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo Full, Full, Full of Love
Our house is full of books. We periodically shuffle things around to find ways of fitting them into the bookcases we have. We keep board books in a big tub, and picture books in Papa's old milk crate. Books teeter in piles on the dining table. They sit on our bedside tables, and are stacked on our bedhead. I find them shoved into the bathroom shelves by young readers forced to take baths. We have books of anecdotes in the toilet (where else?), recipe books in the kitchen, and random books piled on every surface. It drives me mad, it's such a mess - but it makes me feel comfortable, and tells me that I'm home.

Only three miles away is a primary school on a housing estate. I recently received a message forwarded from a teacher there. Of the kids in one class, only three had a single children's book at home. Those books were scribbled and torn. A kid in another class had brought in a book he found in a cereal packet so that it could be kept safe from his many siblings. Most of the kids are refugees; most come from the Horn of Africa. The teacher was appealing to book lovers to donate new books, so these kids could all take home a book or two for their very own.

Book person that I am, I cried and cried. And now I'm out a-hunting. What sort of books to buy? These kids are poor African refugees living in flats, probably separated from loved ones. And yet almost every children's picture book I have seen features happy white nuclear families living in the suburbs. Where are the black families? The single parent families? The families living in high rise estates? And I'm not talking about 'issues' books, just normal books that portray every day people living every day lives in flats, or with one parent, or in all sorts of households. People who are black, or Middle Eastern, or Asian. People like our neighbours. Because it seems to me that these kids need to see familiar faces, familiar spaces, represented in books if books are ever to become safe places and welcome friends.

Here's my list so far. It's short, so I'm very open to ideas! If you have any suggestions of other books, make a comment so I can find them too. I know amazon, and I'm not afraid to use it!

*Oscar's Half Birthday by Bob Graham. Oscar is six months old! His mum (African heritage, cornrow hair) and his dad (dweeby white guy in birkies) and his sister decide to celebrate with a picnic. So they leave their highrise flat, go down the graffitied elevator, wander under the railway line and up to the local park. Locals join in the happy birthday song, including an elegant lady in hijab. Looks like my suburb!

*So Much by Trish Cooke. An Afro-Caribbean family gathers to celebrate Daddy's birthday. As they arrive, each member kisses or bounces or pinches or hugs the baby, because they all love him, "SO much!" Written with a Caribbean lilt, it's a delight to read aloud.

*Catch That Goat!: A Market Day in Nigeria by Polly Alakija. Ayoka has to look after the goat while her Mama goes out. But the goat escapes and runs through a busy Nigerian market, stealing goods along the way. Ayoka searches the market looking for the goat, greeting stall holders and counting what has been taken. The illustrations are gorgeously rich, their patterning evoking African cloth. And the adult reader is especially entertained by the market signs: Mama Put Cool Spot, serving cow leg soup; or Midas, The Ultimate Barbing Zone. An old housemate of mine lived in Ghana for a year; the signs in the book remind me intensely of her photographs which adorned our dining room wall.

*Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo by Julius Lester. Remember Little Black Sambo? Well, here it is reclaimed by one of the foremost African American story tellers of our time. It's set in the mythical country of Sam-Sam-Samara, where animals and people talk and are friends. The writing is in a Southern voice ("Ain't I fine?!" says Sam when he buys his new clothes), and Sam is wise to the tigers' goings on. Lester Pinkney's drawings are exquisite: trees have images patterned into their bark; tiny beetles are tucked into odd corners; faces are wrinkled and gentle and wise.

*Full, Full, Full of Love by Trish Cooke. An African American family gathers to enjoy Sunday lunch together.

Any other suggestions?