Introducing Rabbit Hole’s first spin off series, Little Dogeared Books.
When my sister Ellie was about three, she climbed up on to a rock at a beach called Granny’s Pool, and sat there, splashing her little pink toes in the water. We were there on holiday; our annual pilgrimage down to my grandparents’ holiday house—a white cottage with a yard full of rabbits that was called, fittingly, ‘The Burrows’.
Granny’s Pool was a calm tidal pool, excellent for bathing, especially for a family with five young children under ten years old. We all frolicked on the shore, venturing out a little way into the lapping water and climbing among the rocks that dotted the shoreline. Mum and Dad sat close by, keeping an eye on us and no doubt feeling quite exhausted from their ‘holiday’.
The story from there on becomes a bit contradictory. My sister swears that she was sitting on the rock for ages, crying out in terror to parents who were far away on the beach and couldn’t hear her. My mum says, in fact, she was a little less than 3 metres away and was rescued almost immediately. The reason she was crying, as Mum saw at once, was right below her. Reaching all its tentacles menacingly out of the water was a big, wet, wriggling octopus.
This story is quite a favourite in our family. My mum and sister rush to tell their competing versions of it at family dinners. I don’t have much memory of it myself, aside from a vague sense of panic and surprise, followed by an excited search by my brothers and I for any sign of the octopus. We never found so much as a tentacle.
But after we got home, when my sister was still a little traumatised by her encounter, I took out my textas and my scissors and I made her a book. It was called ‘Ellie’s Octopus’, and it was about a little girl who gets scared by an octopus, then realises it was just trying to make friends with her. She still has this book somewhere, although the texta illustrations are faded and the sticky-tape yellowing.
I love that my first instinct to comfort my little sister was to make her a picturebook.
It wasn’t the first book that I wrote and illustrated as a child, but I think there was something in me even then that recognised the power that books have to comfort us, to console us; to change the way we respond to the world.
Why Little Dogeared Books?
Now, as an adult and aspiring writer-illustrator, I seem to have once again tapped into the deep well of enchantment that picturebooks contain. I’ve always been entranced by them; I remember returning, furtively, to the picturebooks of my childhood at ten, at fourteen, at twenty-one, and still being completely captivated by what I found there.
I don’t believe for a second that picturebooks are only for children, although they do hold a special magic for a child who is beginning to discover the creative possibilities of words and images.
I was lucky enough to have parents who collected widely and discerningly, so I was fed a steady diet of incredible writers and skillful illustrators, some from many years ago, some contemporary, from many different places in the world. I’ve inherited from my dad the thrill of trawling secondhand book markets, looking for the gems among the Barbie and the Transformers and the Frozen tie-ins. I often find myself choosing by illustrator, more than anything else— the joy of a beautiful illustration is still something I can’t resist.
My Dad’s collection held Ardizzone, Blake, Sasek, Ungerer, Wildsmith, Rackham. Mine holds Arsenault, Morstad, Greder, Jeffers, Alemagna, Blackwood, Tan. I frequent our local bookstores (may they always stay in business!), scouring the new releases and the featured books. I follow blogs and Pinterest boards and reviews. The deeper I go into this industry, the more transformed I am by the magic of the picturebook form.
I’ve amassed a bit of a collection now, which is sagging my bookshelves more and more as each month passes. And I find myself increasingly wanting to share the excitement and the inspiration and the pleasure these books give to me—Me; an adult, with no children of my own just yet. I know that when I do have kids, my whole collection may morph—I will be collecting for the tastes of others, as well as my own (and I think children develop their own tastes very early on). But for now, my collection grows purely on what I love, on what gives me back some of that childhood delight and wonder I had when poring over the colourful pages as a kid.
So each week—for this new series of Little Dog-Eared Books on Make Your Own Rabbit Hole—I’m going to write a bit about one of the books in my collection: the pictures, the words, the inspiration, the connections, the pleasure it gives me. Follow along if you’re interested—keep an eye out for the ones that excite your own childish sense of excitement—and feel free to share and post suggestions, comments, or stories about your own treasured childhood books.
TO READ IS TO BE MORE HUMAN
I like this quote from Perry Nodelman (Words about Pictures, 1990). He said that good picturebooks,
“offer us what all good art offers us: greater consciousness—the opportunity… to be more human”.
I like to think that the more I explore and the more I delight in the picturebooks I am collecting, the more human it is making me. I am rediscovering the empathy, imagination, and fearless creativity of childhood.
And for someone who once thought that making and giving a book to someone was the answer to life’s fears and troubles (and life’s scary octopuses), that has to be a good thing.
Read the first installment on "Pool" by JiHyeon Lee