The Child that Books Built:
A memoir of childhood and reading

by Francis Spufford
214 pages,
ISBN: 0571191320

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Children's Books
by Jeffrey Canton

In the June 3rd issue of the New Yorker magazine, readers were treated to an imaginative short story from the pen of A.S. Byatt. "The Thing in the Forest" plays with that most memorable folk and fairy motif where forests represent dark and dangerous places where anything is possible, where one might encounter a wicked witch complete with gingerbread house, a canny wolf whose knowledge of woodcraft is much superior to one's own or, as we discover in this short story, a loathsome many-headed worm with vestigial legs, hands, or feet and the capacity to regenerate heads or trunk, legs or feet if divided. I mention this short story because the forest is one of those symbolic places that childhood reading is full to the brim with. And it is with the forest that Francis Spufford begins his imaginative look back into the books that fostered him as a child and as an adult.
Spufford wants to discover just why "I read as a child with such a frantic appetite, why I sucked words off the page with such an edge of desperation." This "inward autobiography" is both his own story of his relationship with books and an attempt to define "the reading of the whole generation of bookworms." It's part confession as he shares with us his very mixed feelings about his younger sister suffering from a rare and fatal illness and whose survival was the dynamic that drove family life. It's part social history as he traces the children's book boom of the 1970s when child readers were treated to new offerings by writers we now consider modern classics¨books byAlan Garner, Jill Paton Walsh, Peter Dickinson, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Joan Aitken, William Mayne and Penelope Framer and the influence of Puffin Books on children's reading habits.
He tells us that to write this book he went back and re-read in sequence the books that carried him from early childhood to age nineteen. As well, "I made forays into child psychology, philosophy and psychoanalysis, where I thought those things might tease out the implications of memory." He leads us into the dark forest of Bettelheim's analysis of fairy tales and Piaget's theories of language and reading development of young children. He explores forests through which Mole scurries through the black darkness, Wart finds his mentor Merlin, and Pooh and Piglet track a woozle.
He explores the islands of imaginative worlds, recollecting his first encounters with Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy and most magical for young Francis, C.S Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. "The books I loved best of all took me away through a wardrobe, and a shallow pool in the grass of a sleepy orchard, and a picture in a frame, and a door in a garden wall on a rainy day in boarding school, and always to Narnia." But even Narnia had its limits. As Spufford's hunger for books grew so did the imaginative terrain that books offered him¨he takes us on a journey to De Smet, South Dakota where Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up and where, and as we'll discover, her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, wrote the memorable Little House books. His journey into towns takes him to Louisa May Alcott's Concord, Mark Twain's Hannibal and Harper Lee's Maycomb. And as he grows up, his reading lands him in a hole¨as he moves from children's books to adult books, he devours James Bond novels along with Jane Austen before discovering science fiction and fantasy. He finds John Christopher's Tripods trilogy and Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. He moved on to Borges and Calvino. Always the passion for books and reading fuelled his imaginative life even when he slipped into Anarchist readers, soft porn novels and espionage fiction.
The Child that Books Built is indeed a very personal life history but Spufford makes it more than just a reading autobiography. It's a book about trends and ideas, writers and readers and the passion for books. Most significantly, it's a study of the profound influence children's books have on our lives as reading children and as reading adults. It's not just books that build the man¨it's children's books.
Jeffrey Canton is editor of the children's books section in Books in Canada.

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