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Little Hands

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s formative reading experiences

Darrel, Super Zero & Just William
Once upon a time on the Bluff in Durban, when he was just a Brighton Beach SPS schoolboy, long before life as a jaunty and worldly award-winning journalist, TV/film-scriptwriter, bestselling author, and winner of the 2008 Percy FitzPatrick Prize for Youth Literature for his novel SuperZero, Darrel Bristow-Bovey had little hands and this is what he read…

Darrel’s first reading experiences:
My father never finished high school. He taught himself his various livelihoods – nightclub bouncer, welder, sewing-machine salesman, security guard – and he believed in reading. He believed that whatever you read, if done with the right heart, makes you grow bigger on the inside. After he became ill he read me books and told me stories about his life. Not all the stories of his life were true, but the same can be said of the books and I don’t see why one form of storytelling should be held to a sterner test than the other. I lay in bed night after night with my head on his chest and smelt soap and Old Fox Rum ‘n Maple pipe tobacco and listened to his voice, and I learnt that words and stories are the things that hold life in place, that keep it going. Fathers teach their sons about being men, even when that is not what they’re intending to do. I learnt that a man is someone who tells good stories, and has good stories to tell.

The Three InvestigatorsMy father read me many books, but I most remember Just William’s Luck, by Richmal Crompton, because my mother thought I might be too young to follow it, but I wasn’t. He read me Tom Sawyer and Enid Blyton. He read me Biggles and Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series, with Jupiter Jones and Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews. Once I’d learnt to read he bought me the complete hardcover Hardy Boys series, second-hand but good-as-new, from a man he met at the hospital. I started reading The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo to him but I was too slow and we never finished it.

Archie comicsI read everything I could find after my father died: Marvel comics, DC comics, Archie comics (swapped for 2c apiece at the Lighthouse Book Exchange on Sunday afternoons), Enid Blyton, the William books, the Jennings books by Anthony Buckridge, Tintin and Asterix, Mad magazine, my father’s Louis L’Amour cowboy books and Ian Flemings, the series of books by Willard Price (Underwater Adventure, Amazon Adventure, Elephant Adventure, etc) about Hal and Roger Hunt, who travel the world capturing animals for zoos for their father. It didn’t matter what it was, it was the reading that mattered. Reading meant being told stories, and being told stories felt like a strong heart still beating in the chest beneath my head. Growing up means accepting that it’s becoming your responsibility to tell stories to someone else.

Darrel’s picture books and such:

Sammy Joins the Circus My mother was in charge of the picture books. She read me Sammy Joins a Circus, about a misfit seal who finds a home with a travelling caravan of frightening outcasts and oddities. The story seemed set entirely at night in a bleak and silvered Eastern Europe landscape of castles and plains beneath a pale moon. I was glad Sammy finally found friends but even that fate made me sad. I wished he’d had more of a choice. She read me Dr Seuss, especially the Sneetches, and Richard Scarry. We used to lie in bed and hunt through the pictures of What People Do All Day, looking for the small worm wearing an alpine hat. Lowly Worm in an Apple
Years later I left home to go to university in another city and found my first lover, feeling grown-up and sophisticated on the nights when her fiance, a doctor, worked all-night shifts repairing bodies and lives in the emergency room. It was my first time as an adult in a bed with an adult woman, my first opportunity for pillow-talk. We lay on summer sheets listening for sounds of the doctor coming home too soon, and we had all the world and art to talk about, our bodies and the stars. I found myself at 2am telephoning my mother in Durban.

“Ma, what was the name of that worm in Richard Scarry?”

“Wh- … what time is it?”

“The one with the feather in his hat. I can’t remember his name.”

“Is … are you …”

“Ma! What was his name? The worm?”

I put down the phone and turned in triumph to my lover in bed beside me. “Lowly!” I said. “His name was Lowly Worm!”

It astounds me that I have only just this moment thought about all the implications of that scene.

Darrel reading with children:

From time to time I read bedtime stories to five-year-old twin girls, who take turns: one sits on my lap while the other wedges herself under my right arm and against my chest so that she can see the page while I read. After the first chapter, they swap. They aren’t my children but I wish they were. I do my best to make the reading interesting – funny voices where required, sound effects, dramatic pauses and theatrical hushes to simulate spookiness and suspense. If the narrative is flagging I’ll make up a paragraph of humorous incident and pretend it’s part of the story, although I suspect I won’t get away with that much longer. Humorous incidents involving pieces of buttered toast misplaced, sat upon, upended or lost down trousers are currently highly successful. Just the word “trousers” is good for a laugh. One of the twin girls responds very well to words; the other laughs easily. These are both qualities I admire in people. One of them asked me recently to make up a story for them, and then to write it down so that they can read it for themselves some day. This terrifies me more than any other request I have ever had.

BBC World Service– Darrel Bristow-Bovey reading from ‘A Joburg story’ and interviewed about being shortlisted for 2006 Caine Prize for African Writing. (Scroll down the linked page and click to listen to each of the shortlisted authors.)

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="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    February 2nd, 2009 @08:33 #

    I hadn't thought of Willard Price's "Adventure" series for years, but I read them and loved them as a child. This is a fantastic post - one of the best in the Little Hands series. Except it made me cry.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 2nd, 2009 @08:52 #

    I also loved this -- beautifully written and very moving. Darryl, if you check out the other posts in this series, you'll find that Lowly Worm is an abiding fascination for quite a few of us. And if you go to Fiona's blog, you'll find that she shares your passion for comics.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    February 2nd, 2009 @09:07 #

    Breathtaking -- That’s what I thought when I first read Darrel’s email with the replies. … Now, having scoured the Internet for a picture of ‘Sammy Joins A Circus’, I’m extremely fascinated by this Pixikult of these Pixi books. I’d love to see a real Pixi book – 'Sammy Joins A Circus', definitely, but I also fancy 'Mr. Blogg's Birdge', 'The Kittie Poosies' and 'The Flowery Umbrella'.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    February 2nd, 2009 @09:25 #

    Reading with your Dad, I love what you say about stories and how they made you feel like a man. Saw Baz Lurhmann's Australia last week, the essentialness, and the healing, redemptive power of stories and dreaming came through powerfully in that movie and in your piece about your formative reading experiences.

    PS I also loved Willard Price...


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