My sister is coming home. Mandy has been living in Singapore for the past ten years and will soon be back in the UK. Thinking of her return, I felt a pang of guilt at the book gifts I had sent out over the years – copies of my own writing, coffee table books of photography, collectors' editions of novels we both knew as children, trashy novels. She'd have to box them all up and have them flown back.
But then the thought of those books made me remember the others that have acted as stepping stones through our family life. Growing up, we were taught respect for books. Dad loves Great Expectations and Mum re-reads Pride and Prejudice every year (or so it seems). My youngest sister, Tracy, still enjoys the classics despite only reading comics as a child. We were taken to the children’s library on a regular basis, and my parents’ loft houses a small collection of childhood favourites, bought not loaned: the Mr Men, Milly Molly Mandy, My Naughty Little Sister, Mallory Towers, the Narnias... Oh no, the Narnia books are now on my bookshelf at home – old, tired, loved, with special inscriptions in Mum’s handwriting.
Each year our Sunday School gift was a book token and we would go to the only bookshop in town – now long gone – and choose a ruby and gilt hardback edition: What Katy Did, Treasure Island, Gullivers Travels. We didn’t have the Internet back in the 1970s but we did have a Children’s Encyclopaedia, which would occasionally be prised off a shelf during homework hours. So much reading, so many worlds to escape into. Ghosts, boarding schools, walled gardens, looking glasses and islands, all embedded into our family consciousness. Remembering this, I quickly banished any guilt about those books I’d sent over to Singapore.
Ours is a very ordinary family, with a special connection that began when books were handed down from one sister to the next. Now I find so much satisfaction in giving books to my friends’ children – some signed by the author! I enjoy wondering if these books will stay with a new generation well into their adulthood.
As I drafted this blog, I went to track down my ancient set of Narnia books and took one from the shelf, only to rediscover a special inscription that is as relevant today as it was all those years ago. Proof, if proof were needed, that children’s books – as writers and readers – are for life, and all stages of life.
Did I mention? My sister is coming home.