Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Beautiful as pearls

The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories (Puffin Books) The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers
If you've been reading this blog, by now you can probably guess what sort of child I was. Lost in a story. Nose stuck in a book, and rude to my mother when she called me to dinner - after all, she interrupted. Tucked away behind the shelves at the back of the school library during lunchtime. And always reading. Nothing ever felt as immediate or interesting or understandable as the life I lived in stories. Real life - negotiating my mother's moods, schoolyard politics and factions, pop culture - was bewildering. I never quite got the hang of it all. But books - now that's where I belonged.

And yet, trying to find a good book is hazardous for a child. You troll through the library, fingers running along the spines. A title catches your eye. You pull it out, and examine the cover, and read the blurb, the first page. And then, holding your breath, you plunge in.

If you're lucky, you'll find a good one. But so many kids' books are awful. Violent books, providing the material for terrifying nightmares. Sentimental books that stick and cloy. Dull books, devoid of interesting words or language play. Books completely lacking in humour or grace. You waded through an awful lot of muck before you found a gem. Yet given how much muck I waded through, I still missed lots of good books, even authors. It startles me. How could I, always on the alert for something interesting or funny or beautiful, have missed Alan Garner or Margaret Mahy as a child?

I stumbled across Margaret Mahy only this year. We were away at Easter, and my daughter needed something else to read. I picked up The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories for a dollar at a grotty book exchange, and we instantly fell in love. This intoxicating collection combines the suburban with the magical. All the stories are delightful, but two particularly stand out. 'The Midnight Story on Griffin Hill' tells the tale of a cross and alienated writer who ends up reading his stories to a midnight audience of griffins. The tears they weep as they listen roll down the hill and fill an old quarry, which becomes a swimming pool for his sons. 'The Singing Bus Queue' sings gloriously as they wait for their bus. Gradually, the whole town comes to listen, so the killjoys have them thrown into prison for creating a disturbance. There, at midnight, they begin to sing in separate cells a song so clear and high that the prison crumbles, and they walk out of the ruins to sing the night away with the whole city, the moon and the stars. These are stories I would want my children to internalise - I would want myself to internalise, in fact. Stories about ages past and suburban bathrooms; stories tinged with sorrow and beauty; stories about exuberant adventures and unfurling secrets; stories marked always by good humour and delight.

The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories, also by Mahy, is overall less moving but more action-packed. My three year old daughter loves the book, and carries it around the house with her. She is particularly attached to 'Don't Cut the Lawn', about a man who tries to mow but is continually stopped by mothers whose babies are nesting in the 'tussocks and tangles' of the long grass: a lark, a cat, a hare and a dragon. She also loves 'The Downhill Crocodile Whizz', about a small crocodile who lives at the top of a very long steep hill, and whose grandmother gives him rollerskates for his birthday. Of course, he straps them on and immediately whizzes down the hill, chased by a growing collection of dogs, children, an old man in a wheelchair, a big brass band in a bus, and the army before he rolls to a stop in the park at the bottom. It's cheerfully chaotic, just the thing for a young child.

The title of Mahy's book The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers is enough to make me laugh, even before one gets to the tale of three little boys, a peg-legged babysitter with an eyepatch, a hook and a bottle of rum, and the illicit party they hold for all the retired pirates in town. The story about pirates rumbustificating is paired with The Librarian and the Robbers, in which a calmly beautiful librarian, kidnapped by robbers, introduces them to the world of books before engineering her escape and inspiring them to mend their wicked ways. Both stories are joyfully ridiculous, beautifully written, and hilarious.

Mahy loves exuberant words and the way they can rumble and roll; she revels in alliteration and metaphor ("The forest sighed and swayed... and the sea murmured as if a crowd of people were turning over in their sleep" ('The Giant's Bath' in Chewing-Gum). Her writing is rhythmic and strong, and some of the more catchy phrases have passed into our household language. Like the Frisbee sisters, we now brush so that we can have "teeth as strong as tigers' teeth and as beautiful as pearls" ('The Chewing-Gum Rescue').

Her writing is strongest when she links the thrilling mainstays of childhood imagination - tree climbing, pirates, robbers and dragons - to everyday experience (brushing teeth, bus queues, bathrooms, grumpy neighbours). Unlike so many stories of adventure or mystical beasts, these stories aren't about 'somewhere else'. Instead, they suggest that a world of possibility awaits the reader in her very own street, bathtub or veggie patch.

The books are wonderful to read aloud. My three year old loves some of the stories, but it is my five year old who is really absorbed. And they will read and re-read these books for years to come. Children of twelve or so will still enjoy the many layers; and even I, at the ancient age of 34, often re-read a story or two before my bedtime with great delight. Mahy is a prolific writer, and you are sure to find some of her books in the Junior section of your local library.

> Margaret Mahy The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories (London: Dent, 1982); The Downhill Crocodile Whizz and Other Stories (London: Dent, 1986); The Great Piratical Rumbustification: AND The Librarian and the Robbers (David R Godine, 2001 (1978)).

No comments:

Post a Comment