I feel for my poor father. An avid sportsman, he had two children who showed minimal interest in any outdoor sports at all. I can still recall his frustration on warm summers days, when, keen to get out in the garden with a bat and ball he would attempt to evict his sluglike offspring from whichever nook or hiding place we had secreted ourselves. My brother would often join in with a game of cricket or some throw and catch before scuttling back to his Airfix models but I would resolutely refuse. It's hard to read in direct sunlight.
I've always been a bookworm. My mother taught me to read before I went to school. I devoured words. I would read the labels on shampoo bottles in the bath. I read every book in the school library before the 4th year. I read the childrens books at the local library and when I'd read all the ones I liked I moved into the grown up section. I have shelves full of books. Boxes full of books. A personalised signed Pratchett. I have a Kindle. I love reading, me.
I've read more books than I can count but if you asked me to pick a favourite I could do it in a heartbeat. It's not a highbrow masterpiece. It's not a Booker prize winner. It's a childrens book.
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl sticks in my memory as being the most amazing book of my entire childhood. I doubt it will ever be replaced in my affections by any other. It conjured up vivid images in my imagination of little Charlie Bucket, his impoverished but proud family and most importantly of all, that river of chocolate.
I won't bore you all with the details as I'm sure you've all read it. (What? You haven't? Get thee to a bookshop!) Perhaps it was my sweet tooth that made me love it with such a passion but all I know is that Roald Dahl filled my head with pictures. It was more than just pictures, though. It was sounds and smells, imaginary places, magical little people, a glass elevator, and oh yes, a river of chocolate. Beautiful pictures, imaginary scents, grotesque baddies, a hero and his grandfather, a peculiar confectioner and a happy ending to boot.
Fast forward to 2011 and I'm having a conversation with my friends six year old son. He's a nice little boy, not too grubby and well behaved. We have funny little conversations which I generally enjoy, well, apart from the one where he told me that the reason I was so short was that I ate too many Sometimes Foods. I still think his mother was behind it. Anyhoo. We were having a nice little chat about books one day and I told him about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He wanted to know more and so I downloaded a free sample to my Kindle before my next babysitting venture. Once the parents had gone out and the younger brother was safely tucked into bed, I began to read.
It's a lovely thing, reading to children. They go into a trancelike state. They sit still and pay attention. They are transported to another place. Their eyes might be staring at the words on the page but you know they're not reading them. And so it was with little Ted. By the end of the first chapter he was snuggled in so close that I could feel his breathing against my arm. I knew that the words I was reading out loud were filtering into his ears and sloshing around inside his mind. I knew he could see Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine, Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina squashed into the bed. I knew that in his minds eye he could see Prince Pondicherry in his chocolate palace. Charlie Bucket was alive inside someone elses head.
Little Ted was disappointed when the free sample ended and wanted to know what happened to Charlie Bucket. I went home the next day and visited www.bookdepository.co.uk. Within 10 minutes a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had been purchased and sent to a little boy.
About a week later I received a 'phone call. "Thank you for my book. It came today."
"You're welcome," I replied. "Did I tell you that it's my most favourite book in the whole wide world?"
"Yep," said Ted. "I'm going to get Mummy to read it to me tonight. Thank you so much. I love it."
People might think it's just a book. It cost less than ten dollars. But it's so much more than just a book. It's an introduction to the power of imagination. It's the front door to a world of magic and make believe, of little people, of gruesome children and their gruesome parents. It's about edible blades of grass and a river of chocolate.
It's the best gift I've ever given.
So, what's your book?