Words and Pictures by Pamela Voelkel
I remember the first time I was mesmerized by the power of words. My fourth grade teacher in England was reading aloud from The Phantom Tollbooth and the puns and wordplay made me tingle inside, like I’d found the key to my own secret garden. Next came The Owl Service by Alan Garner – “she wants to be flowers and you make her owls” – loosely based on a Welsh legend called the Mabinogion which I went on to read many times, hooked by the rhythm and the poetry of the language.
I took to hiding under my desk during recess and devouring Roget’s Thesaurus cover to cover. I knew now that words and, by extension, books, were going to be a big part of my future. Which, given that we only had three books at home, was a big revelation. (The three books were a blue-bound biography of King George VI which had been given to my father – and every child in England – to mark the coronation; a yellow-and-black Teach Yourself Guide To Window Dressing; and a red-and-gold Book of Animal Stories full of grim tales, like Gellert the Faithful Hound, where the animals always died.) Anyway, it didn’t matter that we had no bookshelves at home because there was a big Public Library on my route home from school. Once, my aunt in California sent a book of stories with strange and exciting American words like ‘cookie’ and ‘faucet’. Still today, I get a frisson from the word ‘galoshes’.
Things weren’t great at home and I stayed in my room, reading the years away. My best friends were Sara Crewe, the Fossil sisters, and the students of Mallory Towers. I acquired a tattered copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and declaimed to myself in the mirror. (My favorite: “A chieftain to the Highlands bound/ Cries “Boatman, do not tarry!”) But time passed so, so slowly. I couldn’t wait to grow up and start my own adventures. Sundays, in particular, moved in slow motion. They began with the clink of wrenches falling on the pavement as neighbors up and down the street worked on their cars; they ended in stubborn tears and congealed gravy over an uneaten Sunday dinner. (I was a picky eater and survived mostly on mashed potato and apricot chutney.) I felt like I was in suspended animation. Then, in sixth grade, I found out what I was waiting for.
In retrospect it seems so unlikely, but one day my non-French-speaking class of eleven-year-olds in a windswept northern town was taken to the cinema to see a French film called Le Grand Meaulnes. There must have been subtitles, but I don’t remember them. I just remember being transfixed by the lull of the language and the images of a magical masked ball in a mysterious chateau. Later I read the book by Alain-Fournier, called in English The Wanderer. It’s about a boy who stumbles upon a lost domain deep in a forest and spends the rest of his life trying to find it again. There’s more to it than that – a romance and a bromance – but I was only interested in the bohemian inhabitants of the chateau who danced through rooms full of books and art, twinkling with fairy lights. It was as if my brain had been lit up with fairy lights. In the whole of my humdrum little life, it had never occurred to me that somewhere they made films in French, weird films where nothing quite made sense and scenes unfolded as if in a dream, and people lived for beauty. The lost domain was out there if you looked hard enough; my lost domain was out there too.
From that moment on, I knew I would escape; I would learn to speak other languages; I would see the world; I would even eat foreign food. (With that in mind, I expanded my diet at home to include packets of dried Vesta curry that you reconstituted with water – the most exotic food I could find in our local supermarket.) One day, I vowed, I would be a writer and live in a house full of books and art and fairy lights.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Le Grand Meaulnes since then – in English and, eventually, in French. I even saw the film again for the first time recently. It wasn’t at all how I remembered it but I don’t think that matters. You take something different from a story every time and it feeds you what you need at that moment.
Now, when we go on school visits, I’m always looking for the kid in the audience who is me. I talk about about my childhood and the importance of books and the power of ideas, and I’m hoping they understand that they too can escape. “Only YOU get to write the story of your life,” I tell them. Sometimes, afterwards, they come and tell us such sad stories about their lives so far, I wonder if it’s true. But we’ve met school librarians who feed their students, not just with a constant supply of books but with actual home-cooked food. That seems like such a powerful metaphor to me – to make the library a place of nourishment for body and soul.
Now I live in Vermont, in a house full of books and (children’s) art and fairy lights. Recently, I said to our youngest child: “I wanted you to grow up in a house full of books because I never had any when I was your age.” She looked around the living room, bookshelves on every wall, books piled up and overflowing on every surface. “That’s nice,” she said. “But I think you might have overdone it.”
Pamela Voelkel is half of J&P Voelkel, authors of The Jaguar Stones – a Maya-themed adventure series for middle-graders. You can read more about the Voelkels and their books at www.jaguarstones.com.