A guest post by Sue, Mum to Katie, and Nanou to Rowan.
Some of the books I particularly remember from my childhood were the special ones that my paternal grandmother, known affectionately as Marty, kept in a wardrobe for visiting grandchildren. I visited quite frequently, often staying during school holidays and I have vivid memories of these times and being snugly curled up in a very comfortable bed with a selection of books for reading ‘in the morning’ before Marty got up. Books were important to her and an obvious presence in her home. She valued them greatly and indulged in purchasing them from the Folio Society, a luxury she couldn’t really afford. Although we didn’t get many presents from her, when we did they were often books.
All the children’s books in Marty’s wardrobe were produced in the late 1940s or early 1950s and so all now suffer from yellowed paper which is quite embrittled; most have been read so many times that they have been mended in the past with Sellotape, and so are quite stained along the spine edges.
My favourites were the titles from Peg Matby’s Ben and Bella series and Marty had a number of them. However, there were also four books which now are of interest looking back as an adult and with my ‘social historian’s hat’ on. They are the Adventure series produced by Barker & Company and printed in Australia “by the New ‘FANTASCOPIC’ Method.” (I haven’t been able to find out exactly what this method was, but it supposedly produced more realistic colour.) Two of the four titles have been passed down to me: The Zoo Garden Mystery by John Tombs and Excitement on Elf Island by Elsie Sheppard; both are held in the National Library of Australia and listed as printed in 1948. Other titles are The Story of Thought Castle and Fairy Grandmother’s Story. There is no mention of illustrators and as the style differs, I imagine that Tombs and Sheppard were both author and illustrator. A number of internet sites list the titles as rare and have them for sale, for widely varying prices, but most do not seem to have stood the test of time any better than mine.
A re-reading of the stories is somewhat disappointing. I did like these books as a child, although now I cannot imagine why! Both have the text pre-eminent in a central box on each page with illustrations awkwardly placed surrounding them. Both are text heavy and John Tombs particularly tends to over-write. The language is very dated and at times overly moralistic, but what does interest me now is seeing the resurgence of an Australian orientation, post-World War 2. This is obvious in the case of the The Zoo Garden Mystery. My copy has koalas in a gum tree on the cover and indigenous fauna mixed with exotic zoo creatures central to the story. This focus is less obvious in Excitement on Elf Island, but the gum trees are there and are something that the publisher feels the need to explain.
Time and perspective change. The importance of these books was not intrinsic. What was important was the love of books that they helped develop.