Judith Ridge, The Book that Made Me (Walker Books 2016)
tl;dr: This book would make a brilliant gift for a teenager (what the book trade calls a young adult) who loves reading. And part of the money you spend on it will go to the Indigenous Literary Fund. Also: I tell my own story.
Judith Ridge has been a tireless worker in the field of children’s literature for decades, organising, promoting, debating, judging, studying, editing, writing, teaching, networking – oh, and reading. This is her first book. Characteristically of Judith’s commitment to young people and literature, it’s a labour of love: she and the contributing authors have agreed that all royalties from the book will go to the extremely worthy Indigenous Literary Foundation. Also characteristic of her, it’s a showcase for other people.
It’s a showcase in the first place for the 31 writers, mostly of YA fiction, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, who were invited to write about a book that ‘made’ them. The invitation allowed for wide interpretation. As Judith says in her foreword, she was asking what book
made them fall in love, or made them understand something for the first time? Made them think. Made them laugh. Made them angry. Made them feel safe. Made them feel challenged in ways they never knew they could be, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Made them readers, made them writers – made them the person they are today.
Readers get to know a little more about writers whose work they know and love – in my case Markus Zusak, Shaun Tan (who couldn’t confine himself to anything like one book, but in effect gives a whole reading list of sophisticated picture books and comics, as well as having line drawings throughout the book), Benjamin Law, Alison Croggon, Ursula Dubosarsky (the only verse contribution) and Simon French (one of two pieces that brought tears to my eyes). And we are introduced to new writers we may be interested in – in my case all the rest. To name half a dozen:
- Will Kostakis, who writes about a book he put down after reading six pages and decided to write his own story
- Queenie Chan, who writes of the joys of manga, telling part of her story in comic frames
- Ambellin Kwaymullina, one of the Aboriginal contributors, author of a dystopian series of books, who writes eloquently about the non-written stories that ‘made’ her
- the late Mal Peet, who tells a wonderful story about turning up at a Moby-Dick tutorial at university with the Classics Illustrated comic
- Kate Constable, whose piece featuring Tom’s Midnight Garden is a lovely essay on how a reader’s circumstances affect how she reads.
- Jaclyn Moriarty, who explains beautifully what Roald Dahl can do for his young readers.
As well as the contributors, the book is also a showcase for the 200 or so novels, series, picture books, comics, plays and poetry anthologies that rate a mention, ranging from Homer and Melville to Dr Seuss and Archie comics. In a neat bit of mise-en-abîme, some of the contributors wrote books that some of the others say ‘made’ them. No one mentions Harry Potter.
Something the book does for me that it’s unlikely to do for most of its intended readership – the difference being that I’ve been reading for half a century longer than any teenager – is make me wonder how I would answer the book’s question.
The rest of this post is today’s version of the book that made me.
I was a compulsive reader as a child. I remember lying with my mother on her bed after lunch and watching the words as she read to me – from among other things a Hans Christian Andersen collection – correcting her if she got a word wrong. I loved Donald Duck (though not so much Mickey Mouse) and Superman (rather than Batman) and Classics Illustrated comics. I had Kingsley’s Heroes and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia at home, Enid Blyton, W E Johns and Richmal Compton from the town library, the Queensland Reader and Bible Stories at school. I had to be told not to read at the table during meals. I read in bed at night by the faint light from two rooms away (our North Queensland house wasn’t big on internal doors). When I reached double figures I took on the likes of Great Expectations, Ivanhoe and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
The worlds of books fascinated me. They had snow. A child could look out his bedroom window and talk to another child sitting at her window in the house next door: my nearest neighbours were a sugarcane paddock and a cow yard away. Moss grew on the south side of trees in books: in the tropics the sun comes from either the north or the south, depending on the time of year, and moss grows anywhere it can in the rainforest. In books it can be broad daylight at nine o’clock at night and no one has heard of bandicoots, or cane toads, or sensitive weed, or cane fires, or pomelos, or bagasse, all of which were ordinary parts of my life.
I’d like to be able to write about the wonderful moment when I picked up a book and found my childhood world reflected there. But no, that didn’t happen – and still hasn’t, really. When an aunt started giving me Australian books for birthday presents – Ash Road, I remember, and Simon Black in the Antarctic, both by Ivan Southall – the worlds I found in them were only slightly less other. They weren’t exactly foreign, they just didn’t show the world as I experienced it, where it would rain heavily for days on end, where houses were on stilts, where we guzzled mangoes on our back veranda and where Aboriginal people came occasionally to use our phone to call for a taxi. I grew up feeling that books were never about the real world, but were completely made up – either that or the world of my actual experience was somehow invalid.
What comes to mind when I ask myself if there is one book that set me on a literary path is not a book at all, but an after-dinner talk.
One Sunday a month was Holy Name Sunday in our church. Members of the Holy Name Society, all men, would sit together in Mass, away from their families, and at one point they would all stand and make the church ring with a rousing anthem:
We stand for God and for his glory,
The Lord supreme and God of all.
Against his foes we raise his standard.
Around the Cross we hear his call.
____Strengthen our faith, Redeemer,
____Guard us when danger is nigh.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we'll live, for God we'll die.
____To thee we pledge our lives and service.
____For God we'll live, for God we'll die.
I was totally in awe of the display of full-throated masculinity. And when I was thirteen I was allowed to join the Society. (Girls joined the Children of Mary and wore pale blue cloaks, which was cool, but boys got to bellow in church.)
I was only in the Society for a year and don’t remember doing anything apart from singing on Sundays, but I did attend that year’s annual dinner. It must have been exciting to be there as one of the men, no longer a boy, but that’s not what I remember. What I do remember is that as we were finishing dessert, someone tapped a glass with a spoon and introduced the speaker, Vince Moran. He wasn’t a family friend, but I had seen him around – Innisfail was a small enough town.
His talk wasn’t an inspirational address. Basically, he told three jokes. What was exhilarating for me was the way he told them: not one after the other, but intertwined. He got to a certain point in his main story line, which had something to do with a cat who was a great tennis fan, then went off on a digression, then from that digression onto another digression, and circuitously back, jumping from one story to another in what seemed random moves, until, just when it seemed the whole thing had become hopelessly muddled, he brought all three strands home with three punchlines in quick succession. The cat, I remember, lost all interest in tennis when he found out what racquet strings were made of.
For all my countless hours of reading, and though I knew from the ABC Children’s Hour that it was a good thing to remember the names of the people who wrote books, this was the first time I realised that stories were made by people – by people who eat food, and go to the toilet, and have to tie their shoelaces like the rest of us. An ordinary man standing at the front of the room had just presented us with a fiction he had crafted himself. (I think he was the same Vincent Moran who wrote for Homicide in the 70s and The Flying Doctors in the 80s.) I don’t think I quite got as far as realising that Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton were also mere mortals (I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised that reality even yet), but a door swung open in my mind. Books might not reflect my world, but people who lived in my world could make them.
I won’t count The Book that Made Me in my tally for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge, but the editor and by my count more than half the contributors are Australian women, so I’m adding the logo here.
Great review, and very evocative story of your own “books that made me”.
I think teenagers who are keen readers are very likely to have a story about the book/s that made them – sometimes, about the book that saved their life.
A 15-year-old may not seem “made” enough to older adults to have such a story, but they have the whole of their lives so far – and often an intense experience of becoming themselves.
You’re right, Deb. I would certainly have had an answer myself, though I don’t know now what that answer would have been. In my defence, I was thinking of the question fairly narrowly, as being addressed to someone well on their way in a literary career.
Ah, indeed there would be few teenagers who could reflect on what books had made them the authors that they are – some writers have their first novel published while in their late teens, and of course they get asked what their influences are – but that’s not quite “the book that made me”
More fabulous writing and memory.
The Book that Made Me – I shall seek it out – not available via amazon kindle – but if filled with your own piece plus others of the calibre of writer you refer to I want to read it.
Pictorial Social Studies and Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia a World Pictorial Atlas (featuring Australasia) and the 20 leather-bound books of the Alexander Classic Library were some of the books sent to me from Sydney by my maternal grand-mother – while the West Tamworth PS Library and that of my Tamworth HS too furnished me with thousands of hours of reading pleasure and learning. My step-father however hated to see me reading – wherever I might sit to do so – so not something positively encouraged – though something I could do before formal schooling (aged four) midway between the death of my father and the step-father’s appearance on the scene. I think now there was a great deal of escape from the present in my reading – in fact people could speak alongside and their voices truly could not penetrate that protective cocoon of reading. I think I have possibly said to you before that Dombey and Son I had read at least three times by the time I was 13 – and Nicholas Nickleby was in there, too. Dark and gothic real life meeting Dickens’ evocative dark and gothic from the early-mid-19th century! The Bible (thanks to my fundamentalist Seventh-day Adventism) was something I had read three times by the age of 15 (when I did a final full reading to fulfil some merit award achievement before turning 16)! And always books from friends and family for birthdays and Christmas – I see one from my much older step-sister – who never lived with us – maybe that was why she did not know of my step-father’s antipathy to me reading. He himself read a book a night (adventure novels as I recall – a half-dozen borrowed fort-nightly at a time from the town library) – a man of contradictions (war-damaged)! But how right you were re books transporting us to other worlds, other times, landscapes, realities – what were all those northern hemisphere trees – the larches, spruces, horse chestnuts – the birds – chaffinches, larks – goodness knows – but in print as familiar as eucalypts and cypress-pines, peewits and Australian magpies and ravens/crows and parrots and galahs and budgerigars! But thanks (?) to all the introduced exotics – there was quite a lot of crossover – willows and poplars, foxes and rabbits! But was a river or a creek in Australia the same thing in a European setting – who could have imagined the wide divergence of what was encompassed in those words in different settings – even here in Australia – coastal flow or over the ranges – for you – in the wet or in the un-wet (!!). Anyway – thanks Jonathan!