Monday, 23 September 2013

‘It was all very exciting. Even the policeman wept with joy.’

In respectful memory of the magnificent Margaret Mahy 1936-2011

By Prue Goodwin

I have a whole collection of books – picturebooks, novels, poetry and short stories - that have literacy (both reading and writing) as pivotal elements of their plots. I read extracts from them to illustrate my lectures on literacy learning. For example, when talking about writing I read the first few pages of Love that dog by Sharon Creech; Ink-Slinger, an anthology compiled by Morag Styles and Helen Cook, provides a wealth of poetry; and Frindle, by Andrew Clements, is perfect for discussing vocabulary. But there is one book that goes with me to every presentation I give, no matter what the focus of my talk. Its title? The Great Piratical Rumbustification and The Librarian and the Robbers by Margaret Mahy. In addition to these stories both being hilarious, the illustrations are by the king of illustrators, Sir Quentin Blake.
My favourite story for sharing with colleagues is The Librarian and the Robbers. The story tells of the experiences of a local librarian, Miss Selena Laburnum, and especially of the gradual development of her relationship with a band of wicked robbers. Following her kidnap, Miss Laburnum finds herself nursing the robbers through the ‘raging measles’. Only access to the library can ensure their recovery. While the Dictionary of Efficient and Efficacious Home Nursing enables Serena to tend to the poorly thieves’ medical needs, she soothes their fevered brows reading children’s books aloud to them.  Later in the tale, the eventual transformation of ‘almost illiterate’ robbers into avid readers leads to the council opening a children’s library.
Never in all their lives had those robbers been read to. In spite of the fever induced by raging measles they listened intently and asked for more.
‘Tell us more about that B’rer Rabbit!’ was the fretful cry of the infectious villains. ‘Read to us about Alice in Wonderland.’
What makes this book so invaluable?
Well, to start with, it celebrates the power of listening to good books being read aloud. According to Mahy, listening to literature is not only ‘efficient and efficacious’ enough to help cure measles but it also gives listeners of any age a hunger for more books; in particular, for more stories. Following the measles episode, the tale continues with the robber chief bursting into the library (whilst being pursued by a policeman) in order to obtain more books for his gang. Miss Laburnum ‘hides’ the Robber Chief (whose surname is Loveday) on shelf beside authors with surnames beginning with ‘L’ (‘Alphabetical order is a habit with librarians.’).
‘Miss Laburnum,’ said the policeman, ‘I have just had occasion to pursue a notable Robber Chief into your library. I can see him there in the bookshelves among the L’s. May I take him out please?’
‘Certainly!’ said Miss Laburnum pleasantly. ‘Do you have your library membership card?’
Everything about this short story relates to books, reading and libraries from her kidnap at the beginning of the book through to the delightful conclusion involving her burgeoning relationship with the Robber Chief; (‘Oh, Miss Laburnum, will you marry me?’). It is beautifully written, witty and engaging from beginning to end. It also contains one of my all-time favourite quotes: As a result of an earthquake, Selena is trapped beneath a bookshelf and its contents of ancient books. ‘Pulverised by literature,’ thought Miss Laburnum. ‘The ideal way for a librarian to die.’

The magnificent Margaret Mahy presents reading as an exciting undertaking.  In short, her version of literacy is an irresistible invitation to take part in a range of unexpected and slightly anarchic adventures – reading to robbers, dancing with pirates, playing with poetry and generally subverting the frequently stuffy worlds of adulthood and education. Whilst her stories confirm that reading can provide future security and happiness, she also convinces us that books, libraries and being a reader are all packed with the thrill of revolution. If you aspire to a life full of unexpected exploits and all things delightful, become a reader! Treasure awaits us all on the shelves of the library.

No comments:

Post a Comment