I don’t have many rules when it comes to books and children. Deliberate destruction upsets me, but I’ve got pretty good at magical mends over the years.
Walking home from school holding a book in front of your nose? Fine, just look up when we’re crossing the road please. Not talking to me for an hour after school because you just have to finish your book? Okay, but I can’t say I won’t be lonely. Staying up hours after lights-out because you just can’t stop reading? I was that child. Censoring your reading? Never! Or at least I thought never. And then, well, I looked at Roald Dahl’s The Witches and found myself saying, not until you’re seven.
Since reading really clicked for T two summers ago she’s made her way through pretty much everything Roald Dahl wrote for children. For a long time she read Danny the Champion of the World over and over. Then, after her birthday last year, there was the Matilda phase. Camping in France last summer, she sometimes read aloud to us in our tent by the river, and it was magical. That same holiday we visited the beautiful gardens of Marqueyssac and walked a long, steep trail up to a cliff top view of the Dordogne below. After a quick glance at the view, T fished in my bag for her book and sat on a rock and carried on with Matilda.
It’s been fun to watch her racing through the books that made our childhoods. In most cases, the literal books. Every few months B would dig through the box under our bed which contains all his childhood books and pull out something new. He seems to have had all the Roald Dahls in hardback. My yellowed paperback copies don’t stand a chance. Watching her devour Matilda I remembered the Christmas day when I unwrapped it and I read it from cover to cover. Then B pulled The Witches from the box, and I said, not until she’s seven.
Mrs Smart read The Witches to our class the year I was eight. We loved it. But the bittersweet sadness of the ending — a boy who remains a mouse after defeating the witches, but is happy to do so because his mouse lifespan is equivalent to the number of years his beloved Grandmamma can hope to live — I wasn’t sure about that. I wasn’t sure about the death of his parents early in the book in a car crash either (“Soon after my seventh birthday…”).
And then, then she was seven, and The Witches came out of the box. I don’t stand a chance with T: she’s such a fluent and avid reader, and we have so little uninterrupted time together, that I knew she would read it alone. She devoured it. Her verdict: wonderful, funny, not at all sad, and only a little bit scary.
But later that night, when I climbed into bed, I realised that she wasn’t taking any chances with The Witches. Often, if she’s been reading something unsettling, she’ll put that book under a teetering pile of other books on the floor by her bed. It’s a habit she’s had since she was small, so that the bad fairy doesn’t get out. But The Witches had been carefully placed beside my bed, held in place by my bedside table (okay, my bedside Ikea stool!), the Grand High Witch’s face totally obscured.
I haven’t learnt my lesson. I’ve now said no to Harry Potter until she’s eight. But they really do get scary. (So scary, I still haven’t read the last one. I’m saving it for a metaphorical rainy day!) Is it just me, or does anyone else find themselves imposing unexpected book rules? Where will this end? I’ll know things have gone really wrong if I find myself banning Judy Bloom.