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Little Hands

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Henrietta Rose-Innes’s formative reading experiences

Eward Gorey - The Disrespectful Summons
A long time ago – and yet perhaps it wasn’t such a very long time ago – but in an age before Shark’s Egg and The Rock Alphabet, and long before she ever dreamed she’d win the Caine Prize, Henrietta Rose-Innes had little hands and this is what she read …

Henrietta’s earliest memory of books and reading:

My mother read to us every night – picture books and also poetry. She had interesting tastes. She sang us The Destruction of Sennaccherib as a lullabye, and also Tyger Tyger Burning Bright … all terribly exciting (and perhaps counterproductive, as lullabyes). We got read all the English classics – Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland. And especially comic books: Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke were the big three. I remember trying to decipher those books on my own, making up stories to match the frames. My mother taught me to read as well. We had a series of strange readers, in lurid colours and containing rather peculiar stories. There was one I remember vividly which involved little red demons invading some poor peasant household, putting the little old lady and the little old man in a sack and poking them with little red fingers, and – I’m not making this up – cutting their dog in half! Now that’s one illustration that’s branded into my brain. Where did she get those books from?! They were great. It seems there were no saccharine children’s books in our house, or if there were I don’t remember them at all. The ones that stuck with me were the ones that stirred me up. I believe that children have a great capacity for pretty complex emotions – wonder, dread, melancholy, exhilaration – and I don’t think it does them any harm to be mystified and even a little terrified by what happens within the sanctuary of a book.

Herietta’s picture books:

So many come to mind. I loved the Moomintroll Books - little creatures having adventures in a wild and magical northern land. My mother introduced us to the black humour of illustrator Edward Gorey years before he became widely popular. There was one, called The Shrinking of Treehorn, about a child who doesn’t grow any bigger, and his parents don’t notice … Oh, and Ant and Bee! Entomologically correct insect buddies in little hats, having cryptic adventures in a surreal, touchingly blank universe. I also really liked the Richard Scarry books, with those manic, exotically American scenes, full of vehicles and machines and animals being busy, busy, busy. I was fascinated by the few hints of 70s culture that accidentally infiltrated our house – does anyone remember the Barbapapa books, with that extended family of amorphous, collectively-living lovechild blobs? Oh and of course the debonair Babar the Elephant Doctor Doolitle, with stylish 20s illustrations … a good dose of scary 19th-century cautionary tales in Struwwelpeter … the more you think about it the more you remember.

Henrietta, as an adult, reading with children:

I don’t read to a lot of children, not having many handy; but I do now have a superb nephew who is very into books. I’ve had to put away my pride and be prepared to do silly voices. We’re enjoying introducing him to all our old favourites, and his enthusiasm is a good reminder of the potent, undying allure of books.

*
A Moomin Note:
Moominfamily
“A Moomintroll is small and shy and fat, and has a Moominpappa and a Moominmamma. Moomins live in the forests of Finland. They like sunshine and sleep right through the winter. The snow falls and falls and falls where they live, until their houses look like great snowballs. But when spring comes, up they jump….” – Kaye Webb, editor of Puffin Books 1974.

‘Jansson’s Moomin books, originally written in Swedish, have been translated into 33 languages. After the Kalevala and books by Mika Waltari, they are the most widely translated works of Finnish literature. There is a Moomin Museum and a Moomin theme park named Moomin World in Naantali.’
(Quoted from Wikipedia)

Babar and History…
According to Wikipedia:
History of Babar

The books are written in a charming and appealing style with an attention to detail which captivates both children and adults. Underneath they could be seen as a justification for colonialism, with the benefits of French civilisation being visited on the rustic African elephant kingdom. Some writers, notably Herbert R. Kohl and Vivian Paley have argued that, although superficially delightful, the stories are politically and morally offensive. Others argue that the French civilisation described in the early books had already been destroyed by the Great War and the books were originally an exercise in nostalgia for pre 1914 France. Ariel Dorfman’s The Empire’s Old Clothes is another highly critical view, in which he concludes, “In imagining the independence of the land of the elephants, Jean de Brunhoff anticipates, more than a decade before history forced Europe to put it into practice, the theory of neocolonialism.”

Aims of The Little Hands Trust
• To support initiatives that promote reading for enjoyment.
• To mentor African literary artists, including writers, illustrators and editors, to produce creative, suitable and appropriate children’s storybooks for children of various ages with a focus on early childhood (ages 0 to 9 years).
• To collaborate with African publishers to increase and sustain publication of children’s books in African languages. To initiate and support translations of stories between African languages, from African languages to ex-colonial languages and from ex-colonial languages to African languages.
• To help to orientate and educate adults in the importance and significance of reading to and with children.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    August 1st, 2008 @10:14 #
     
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    Ah, Henrietta, this explains a lot about your dark and twisted mind. Your mom sounds fantastic.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 1st, 2008 @10:33 #
     
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    She is, she is. Also (neo)colonialist, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, but that comes as no huge surprise. Tintin and Babar, goodness.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 1st, 2008 @10:51 #
     
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    That brings back scarce memories! I remember Barbapapa - you can watch them on Youtube now.
    And Richard Scarry - Busy Busy World - I'm convinced that's where I developed my love of travel.
    And Babar - Madeleine's got that chic continental feel for me too.

    As for the nexus of terror and colonial English children's books: Poor Tom Kitten being rolled up in a roly-poly pudding by Samuel Whiskers the rat warped my tiny mind... I couldn't look at it. Did you have the pleasure of Beatrix Pottering, Henrietta?

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 1st, 2008 @11:19 #
     
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    Louis ... this is a little creepy. I actually did write about the appalling roly poly pudding in this piece too, but thought no, that would just weird everybody out too much, so I took it out. I was horrified by that. Anyone who thinks B Potter was about sweet little flopsy bunnies SO misses the point. She was about death, dread and bare-knuckle (-claw?) survival in the lettuce patch.
    I actually bought a copy of that book the other day, for thrills. But I think I will not expose my little nephew to Mr and Mrs Whiskers until he is older and stronger.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 1st, 2008 @11:22 #
     
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    oh my god it's on Youtube too.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 1st, 2008 @12:20 #
     
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    You're right Henrietta! The McGregors stuffing the little rabbits into a sack... claustrophobia-inducing stuff.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    August 1st, 2008 @12:39 #
     
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    The best kids books are a little creepy. Anyone read recent release Emily Gravett's Wolves?

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 1st, 2008 @13:02 #
     
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    I love Wolves - Emily Gravett's fabulous book that stirs up a debate with a 5 year old about what is fiction really? What is real and what is imagined and was anyone really really eaten. And so on. I think though, I liked a bit more than Kate did.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 1st, 2008 @13:40 #
     
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    Well, it is remarkable how childhood reading can set templates I guess. I have been musing on this throughout this little hands series.

    My enduring childhood memory is Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, which obviously set me off on the path of the poor cousin of literature, but the true art, ;-P

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/136/136.txt

    And then, reading Henrietta's little hands this morning, it suddenly struck me that my obsession with things WWII - and possibly the German football team, and Michael Schumacher, and BASF tapes, Boris Becker, Steffi Graph, bockwurst, german mustard, rye, U-boat computer games - may stem from the first novel I read as a child, a Heinz Konsalik (in Afrikaans translation) set in Berlin during the war. That's what I call colonisation. I can't remember though whether the novel focussed on the German army or Soviet Army. There was a lot of suffering and starvation - mouldy bread, people drinking water from potholes, gangrene...

    Any Konsalik/Konzalik fundis out there?

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    August 1st, 2008 @13:45 #
     
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    Not a Konsalik fundi, but I do love a good rye...even stale rye, in fact, a very good feature of rye is how long it lasts...not mouldy though, I draw the line at mouldy

    I have to thank, you Henrietta for introducing me to Eward Gorey (He of 'M is for Maud who was washed out to sea...N is for Neville who died of ennui'..) Those spindly black drawings are enchanting. I especially like this one from The Gorious Nosebleed http://www.lunaea.com/words/gorey/nosebleed1.html

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  • <a href="http://meganhall.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Megan</a>
    Megan
    August 1st, 2008 @14:03 #
     
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    Great idea, this little hands thing, though it does give me pause as to what we're reading our nipper at present, and the possible effects later (uncorrected personality traits etc. for all those R Hitchcock fans)...

    The funny thing, Henrietta, is how many of the picture books you mention were also in my reading. I still have The Shrinking of Treehorn, and I recently got out my three Ant and Bee books to re-use and revisit (pays to be an only child with a father who can't throw things away). Must be that mid to late 70s childhood thing...

    And Rustum, yr comment reminds me of the big book on Stalin or was it Stalingrad that you were reading, a while ago now. Lots of doom and gangrenous digits and no food etc.

    And to think that the next generation will only have Barney to look back to -- shame.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 1st, 2008 @14:31 #
     
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    Pleasure, Alex. Neville is of course my fave in that alphabet.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 1st, 2008 @14:49 #
     
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    Rustum, but also interesting how quite specific tastes and fascinations seem to develop in children very very young, pre-literacy, which would predispose them to certain literature from the get-go. I just looked through the Garden of Verses on the Gutenberg site you directed us to, because I know we had it in our household, and it's amazing to me how 90% of it I don't remember at all, but two or three of the poems I recall really vividly. And they are ones that reflect my adult predilections, to an almost embarrassing degree. I mean, have I not fundamentally changed since age 3? (I do notice that I repeat the same material in everything I write, from when I first started writing, too.) Anyway, none of this is probably any surprise to someone with kids, but for me the workings of the infant brain are pretty mysterious.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 1st, 2008 @15:03 #
     
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    For Gorey fans, here's The Gashleycrumb Tinies: http://users.aol.com/emarko/gorey.html

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 1st, 2008 @15:04 #
     
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    Henrietta, yes, but another layer: I know which were my favourites and went straight there (after recognising the titles); but as you say, I can now see what the preoccupation was, since the preoccupation persists: how books, reading, dreaming could lead to another world.

    Of course, the pictures helped.

    Egad, I feel like I'm on a couch...

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    August 1st, 2008 @15:15 #
     
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    Megan, that was The End of the Third Reich, by Vasili Chuikov (Marshall and Twice Hero of the Soviet Union is his title) and is about how, immediately following the defence of Stalingrad, Stalin put Chuikov in charge of the march on Berlin. It wasn't a big book though, but quite insightful about how such long marches work, etc. He has a previous book, on the defense of Stalingrad, but difficult to find.

    There are some recent books on S-grad by a british writer - can't wait to get my grubby paws on a friend's copies.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 1st, 2008 @15:43 #
     
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    Weird, I was just watching the old World at War episode on Stalingrad, like, last night. My god, what's happening to us? All these convergences ...
    (Megan, you're the only other Treehorn fan I think I've ever met.)
    Again, I blame my mother.

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  • <a href="http://dawngarisch.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Dawn</a>
    Dawn
    August 1st, 2008 @16:47 #
     
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    Apropos what appeals in childhood, and how these themes pop up again in adulthood, I like what James Hillman and Helen Luke suggest - that we are all born with a proclivity to certain symbols which guide and mould our lives. I see it in my life and writing too - gnawing at the same bone in its various guises. The Little Mermaid, for example, and the pain in my feet, and how far women will or will not go for love of a man.

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  • <a href="http://dawngarisch.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Dawn</a>
    Dawn
    August 1st, 2008 @16:50 #
     
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    Thanks for the Gorey links. Any serious writer who has not read 'The Unstrung Harp, or Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel' should do so at once!

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  • Dorothy
    Dorothy
    August 1st, 2008 @23:53 #
     
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    I remember, as a thumb-sucker, being absolutely terrified by the story in Stuwwelpieter, where the naughty boy who sucks his thumbs - even after being warned by his mother -has his thumbs being cut off by an avenging somebody (and there is a graphic drawing of the poor boy with blood dripping out of where his thumbs should be!) And when my one son was younger, I remember he absolutely hated stories that ended sadly - he made me change endings (eg the moralistic ending of 'Cry Wolf' had to be adjusted for a peaceful night's sleep) So I'm afraid we are rather addicted to the more kind of saccharine tales with happy endings - books can be scarey - especially if you have wimpish tendencies.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 14th, 2008 @15:27 #
     
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    Yes Rustum, this is like a childhood regression conference -- amazing how what we read as kids shapes us. I skipped a lot of the scary stuff (I absolutely agree about Beatrix Potter's savagery), but I remember being appalled by Hans Christian Anderson as a little girl. Dawn has reminded me of the horror with which I read The Little Mermaid, after which I believed that True Love meant walking on razorblades and tearing out your tongue. Catastrophic! No wonder I plumped for The Cat That Walked By Itself.

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