For World Book Night on April 23rd this year I was invited to an event at which we were asked to bring along our favourite book to discuss and share. The enormity of this task almost put me off going. I felt myself wriggling and squirming inside. I seem to get asked this question quite often and people seem to expect me to know, but I find it virtually impossible. I can never make up my mind on one book and I am sure that asked this at different times in my life the answer would be completely different (or even at different times of the week). Maybe I haven’t read my favourite book yet (I hope not!).
Decisions like this always remind me of a most embarrassing occasion when I was 17 and on a creative writing course at the wonderful Arvon Foundation. We were asked to choose a favourite poem to share one evening. I thought I ought to choose something portentous and important but not too well-known, so after a great deal of deliberation and searching in the library, I chose a poem by Yevtushenko (I can’t even remember what it was about now). When I shared the poem in the evening the guest poet (Gavin Ewart- there I’ve said it) really let rip and slated it as full of self-pity, pompous and mawkish (and more words along those lines). As a rather shy teenager I was mortified. I felt exposed as a fraud, my earlier admiration for the poem melting away under such eloquence. I think I realised that I had chosen the poem for the wrong reasons and I had very little to say in its defence when faced with this barrage of unexpected criticism (I thought everyone would listen politely and then move on). I have not been able to bear to read the poem since (or anything else by Yevtushenko incidentally) although I now think it was wrong of him to be so dismissive, whatever he thought of the poem. However a lesson learned: choose something you really like, and can stand up for-not something you think you ought to like.
Which brings me back to this book, Myths and Legends, which was (eventually) my choice for the evening. I think books which have a profound effect on you in childhood must be up there as all time favourites. And this one certainly did. I was given it for my eighth or ninth birthday and loved it for the illustrations as much as the stories. Whilst I knew some of the Greek myths and legends from school, many of the other tales such as Tristan and Isolde were unfamiliar, and the story I liked best was Beowulf, with his crazy mother and all the arm-ripping, blood-dripping gory bits were good too (and well-told without too much elaboration in this version). Much can be said about the importance of myths but the bottom line is that they are great stories and somehow, in a way which is inexplicable, can fascinate and entrance readers of all ages and in all eras.
This beautiful book was first published in 1964 (mine is a 3rd edition from 1969). It was written by Anne Terry White and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. The language was a bit challenging for me but had a formal, detached style which seemed to fit well with the haughty and remote gods and heroes of mythology. However the illustrations made the chief impact and I remember quite clearly spending hours trying to copy them. As a child I loved the way that the images were patterned and decorated and not too realistic, allowing my imagination to fill in the gaps. The highly stylised and angular figures seem to really evoke the mythological characters who are almost, but not quite, human.
Many people will know of the Provensens, an American husband and wife team who worked together for over 43 years writing and illustrating over fifty children’s books (there is more about Alice at http://www.childrensliteraturenetwork.org/birthbios/brthpage/08aug/8-14aproven.html ). They won the Caldecott medal in 1984 for The Glorious Flight (about Bleriot) which is very different in style although it still has a slightly dream-like unreal quality. Although I didn’t think I knew their other work, I have often seen The Glorious Flight on school library shelves and Shaker Lane, another title which was published in 1987. I shall investigate some of their other works although I doubt they can beat Myths and Legends: definitely an all-time, genuine favourite. On the evening I think the other people in the group, although maybe initially surprised that I had not chosen a ‘proper’ novel, liked the book too and understood why I had brought it along.
By the way Escaped Librarian hopes to be back more regularly, current technology issues permitting!