I stepped off the red eye into the Darwin humidity at around midnight. The plan was to go to sleep and the next day, my four-year old granddaughter would wake me instead of her parents. They were looking forward to a rare sleep-in. I could count the number of times I’ve seen my granddaughter on two hands. Four thousand kilometres has its drawbacks. I went to sleep that night wondering. With such big time gaps in a relationship with one so young, I am never sure how popular I will be. Apart from a sarong and swimmers, my 7 kilos of hand luggage was mainly books. Books for me and books for her. A few days before I had grabbed 4 illustrated Roald Dahl books off an Aldi table, thinking, hoping they were about her level.
The light had started to filter through the shutters when I heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs. And there she was. My beautiful eldest grand-child, eyes wide, ready for the world, a mass of blond curls just like her mother, standing at my door, attached to a dog on a lead. “This is Charkey,” she said as she pulled him to my bedside. “Is Charkey cheeky”, I responded as I sat up, bleary eyed, shoving a few pillows behind me. “Aren’t you a lovely dog.”
Formalities over, I directed her to a parcel in my luggage, wrapped in cheap Xmas paper, which she carried to the bed and tore open. Her reaction was difficult to read. But this was to be short lived. “This one is about a crocodile’, I enthused. “Let’s start with it”. And I began to read, as she leant into me, looking at the fabulous illustrations by Quentin Blake. With the help of a pot of tea, we read the whole book in one sitting. The rest of the day was all about crocodiles. At the Museum, she led me by the hand to see the exhibit ironically called ‘Sweetheart,’ an enormous stuffed crocodile that drowned during a relocation attempt. She took great delight at pressing the adjacent button that produced the sound of a roaring croc, not something I ever want to hear outside the museum. Together we sat at a craft table and constructed a collage of a crocodile pretending to be a palm tree, just like in the story. We bought her Mum a pen in the shape of a crocodile from the Museum shop, “because she likes to write stories”. Later in the pool we imagined a nearby palm tree to be the crocodile trying to fool the children.
I was reminded of the power of books. Reading the story in the morning allowed us to instantly enter a shared world that bridged any distance created by time, space or perspective. I then realised that this is what books can do for all of us, any time any place.
My mind cast back to 1981 when I read Babies Need Books by Dorothy Butler, a New Zealander. This was a foreign concept for me. As the third child born in three years, my mother scarcely had time to hang out the fourth load of washing, let alone read me books. In fact, I have no memory of ever being read to as a child and consequently discovered reading much later than some. But better late than never.
People scoffed when they saw me turning the pages of a book in front of my eldest daughter from 3 months of age but the baby’s response was enough to spur me on. Her wriggling instantly stopped as she became mesmerised by the sound of my voice and the images before her. Soon her chubby hands were reaching for the pages. I filled the lower shelf with board books that could be sucked, thrown, fought over or sat on. Later she graduated to the less robust variety.
Now at 35, she has published two children’s picture books of her own, is a prize winning adult short story writer and regularly directs a live story telling event. I would like to suggest that all those who scoffed might like to think again!