Early Reading Experiences

As part of Short Story Day Africa, we’ve answered these questions.


What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

Greg: A book called The Blue Banana. An enterprising boy finds a blue banana and takes it to the king. A villain called Grizzlegrub tries to steal the banana but ends up in the moat. Grizzlegrub had a bald patch on the top of his head, like the one I have now. children reading

Lisa: I was the last of three kids and so nobody could ever be bothered to read to me. I remember that I had an old fairytale book at the bottom of my cupboard – heaven knows why it was there or even if I’m correct, but that’s my memory – and it terrified me. At one point, in complete fear, I tore off the cover, but that didn’t seem to make the book any less petrifying – if anything, it made it worse. So you could say that my early memories of books were in fact very negative.


As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

Greg: The Famous Five, by a mile. I was completely swallowed up by them.

Lisa: Ah, at last, something in common with my spouse – I also loved The Famous Five, but George alarmed me a bit – she was so brave and always up for adventures. I loved boarding school stories as well – Malory Towers, etc. – there was something both intimately cosy and scary about the set-up. I read anything; I was very undiscerning as a kid – I guess I’m still a bit like that.


Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

Greg: I did not grow up. I imitate maturity, but still feel a lot like I did when I was six: authorities unsettle me, and I like to be alone on my bed, eating copiously and reading.

My childhood was in Claremont, Cape Town. I paid many fines over the years to the Claremont Library, where I often took out And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and Yertle the Turtle. In later years I haunted the shelf at Dewey number 737.4, the section on coin collecting. I was obsessed with Thalers – big European coins of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – and with German hyperinflation banknotes of the nineteen twenties. Dr Seuss and chunky old coins… such things influenced me deeply, though it’s not easy to say how. In general, large parts of my identity stem from my childhood reading. I recently reread a seventies thriller called Shibumi, by Trevanian, which I took from my eldest brother’s shelf when I was around ten. I was shocked to see how directly the character of Nicolai Hel – Russian-German-Japanese mystic, international assassin, man of shibumi – had shaped my long-term aspirations.

Lisa: I loved the library at my primary school. The sheer number and range of books was exciting – in reality, the library was probably extremely small, but very soon I picked up that hanging out in the library was nerdy, and I had to pretend to hate the place. I loved the Claremont Library as well, but my mother took me there very erratically and we’d always have to face massive fines and a stern, disapproving librarian. Another memory in common with my spouse: stern librarians.

Unlike Greg, I never read non-fiction as a child. I only wanted to lose myself in stories.


As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

Greg: I love, love reading with the children. We enjoy favourites from my childhood (like J.P. Martin’s eccentric and delightful Uncle), brilliant new books (Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series makes us laugh) and classics that I’ve never read before (The Wind in the Willows – as a children’s  book, as close to perfect as I’ve read yet). One great feature of many children’s books is that they unashamedly try to be thrilling or funny.

Lisa: I never read to my children. I’m terrible.

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