We didn’t mean to buy an old house. Outside it had seemed a bit drab, but inside the original woodwork wrapped around each room in parallel prairie lines that flowed into benches and simple wall openings or windows. Imperceptibly, the lines would become bookshelves lit within and nestled in the walls like unassuming enclaves adorned with precious artwork. But instead of visual art, there were books. I stood transfixed as the estate agent prattled about space for parties and window replacements but, I knew that this house had been built for our books.
In our home, space for books has always been just as important as space for food and clothing. Places to read have taken precedence over spaces to socialize because very early in life I learnt about the value of books. It made sense that I fell in love with this home and was willing to make some sacrifices to buy it.
Today I follow the wooden line up the complaining old stairs to the second floor where the children’s books are now kept. My work space is carpeted, more silent than the rest of the creaky house and it contains a collection of our illustrated books, many of whom hold memories bound in their pages. These shelves are our most colorfully stacked but this time, from the topmost shelf, I pull a white hardcover book. Turning it over, I look at the front where a little dark grey paper cut out mouse is holding a single red poppy in his tiny paper paws and then read the title floating above his head in loose, black, cursive writing. It simply says, Frederick. This is the first book of which I have any memories. This spartan little mouse holds not just a flower but very important memories that helped shape who I am.
It’s a simple story of a group of mice gathering stores for the winter, but Frederick didn’t join them. He assimilated colors, smells, images and words, all while sitting on a rock and causing the other little mice to question his passive participation. I’m not sure how much I comprehended of this narrative as a child but for many years I remembered the book’s clean white spaces and the delicious texture of the simplified forms.
Memories are fragmented. Perhaps the walk with my sister and the experience with the library and bus and Frederick were two different events but in my mind the memories are linked. I had been sick with the mumps. It was Africa in the seventies. When your sister got the mumps, your mother placed you in the bed with her and said, “better when you are young than when you are older.” So you got the mumps too and secured a lifelong immunity. Perhaps it was the confinement of illness that had prompted my mother to encourage the outing.
The jacaranda trees lined the road, their purple mysterious glow coloring our bare feet so it must have been October and early summer. Wrapped in a prickly, pink homemade scarf, I felt self conscious. That time of year, a scarf was an obvious confession of contagious disease. My sister was walking me to the Mobile Library. Her beautiful shiny black hair mirrored the light, curving around her head like a divine circlet. She was eight years my senior and to my four year old consciousness it was like getting a day out with God. I felt grown up and wanted.
I stepped from the bright pavement into the dim interior of the converted bus, the contrast instantly painting the world black. Temporarily blind, I first became aware of the smell so peculiar to old libraries which I now recognized as old paper and the aroma of a typical library binding of that time. The space slowly revealed itself as narrow and hoarder-like; dusky shelves towered over my head. The books were muted by their somber library colors and lined up vertically in a random pattern of various widths and tiny breadths. From somewhere inside this book belly, I was given clean, white Frederick. Something about this book cast a spell and woke in me a desire to see more books.
Unfortunately, my family were not readers. I have no recollection of my mother ever reading to me but many visual stills in my head of my philosophical father relaxing with his feet up reading Louis L’Amour novels he picked up from some thrift store where you could buy what my own children now like to call Fast Food Reading. My childhood home was chaotic and unstructured with a book collection consisting of an odd assortment of infrequently opened books fitting in one bookshelf alongside sentimental, dusty little ornaments. As the youngest of five children I was unsupervised and free to manage as best as I could with no books of my own. With four older siblings however, there was a charitable amount of exposure to the process of learning to read. The result was that reading came to me quickly and easily.
In first grade, I had a stiff brown and yellow uniform and a little, beloved brown suitcase. It had metal clips that made a satisfying clicking sound when closed. The interior was lined with patterned paper and filled with familiar beginner Afrikaans readers that smelled of jam sandwiches and wax crayons. No English books were allowed yet, that came later in fourth grade which explains the peculiarity of what my father did. When I was seven, he handed me an English book and asked me to read from it. He had a friend visiting and the big man towered over me in a smiling, expectant way. I did not understand why my reading was worthy of their interest but I took the unfamiliar, small, green book and read the first paragraph of the first chapter. The chapter heading was in a flowing cursive script, followed by small close print, different from the usual large second grade letters. My father seemed very pleased, apparently reading English at an early age without being taught was important enough to tempt my father into one rare instance of boasting. It was a precious affirmation that I was good at something. One small book had shifted my perception of myself and I understood that books could change you.
When I was nine we moved to a new neighborhood. Our first week there, while on a walk, we passed a house on our block and sitting by the gate was a girl surrounded by half a dozen puppies. Her curly hair, constrained in braids was a mesmerizing color of copper and spice. My mother had red hair too and I thought it the most beautiful thing in this world. Nothing else can glow like a head of red hair. She was giving the puppies away and unexpectedly, my mother allowed us to take one. How could I not become this girl’s friend? She lived on my block, was in my grade, gave away puppies and had hair the color of golden sunsets and rusty earth! Her name was Anna and it wasn’t long before we were walking to school together, sharing hair bows and having sleep overs.
Her home was the absolute opposite from mine: organized chores, after school activities carefully calendared, beds made, homework prioritized and one room in the house that was off limits, sterile in it’s cleanliness and reserved for grown up visits. We lived in a small town in South Africa, a country divided by race and isolated by sanctions. Content was carefully censored by the government, so life was small and generic. My friend Anna’s life, with it’s stiff rule following and acceptance of all things around her as being correct, fitted into this mold perfectly whereas I, as a dreamer, raised with few boundaries didn’t fit. In some ways I envied her, her organized life but it wasn’t mine and I was desperately seeking for my tribe.
Blocked into Anna’s schedule were regular library runs. The library was on the other side of the train tracks which we reached by crossing the “whites only” bridge on our bicycles. Anna had a way of sitting very upright, a combination of her strict Afrikaans upbringing and her cultish gymnastics practice but I would slouch over my red bike like a true bohemian. The library was not big, yet there was still a lot of space between the short shelves, its meager content still growing into its location. Most of the books had been bound in special library binding, austere hard cover affairs in dark greens, blues and maroons with nothing to tempt you but the titles in blockish white print. But that was enough for me. It was here that I one day discovered The Magician’s Nephew. Yellowed pages with intermittent black ink drawings, it told the story of two English children exploring abandoned homes, an evil magician, a white witch, an in-between realm with mirrored pools that sent you to different worlds and a magical lion! This story was so far from the controlled world around me but so parallel to the uncontrolled world within me. As Frederick had done, The Magician’s Nephew woke something and left me wanting and searching for more gateways to other worlds like the mirrored pools in the book.
Adulthood arrived, clumsily and unevenly. Art was my passion, I gathered colors like little Frederick and used them to create. I fell in love with a comparative literature student who when I described the magical book I had read as a child but could not remember the title of said, “The Magician’s Nephew?” Then proceeded to introduce me to the whole world of classics. Of course I married him.
When I was carrying our first child I would spend hours in the university library where he was studying. It was enormous and intimate at the same time and I sat cross legged for hours amongst the oversized art books, poring over images of Roman portrait busts and page after page of character sketches from that time period. But the child growing inside me turned my being in whole new directions. I started looking more towards children’s books. What do I want my child to read? Which doors should I open for this unborn person? How do I want to shape their consciousness? I remembered the feelings evoked in my childhood by Frederick and motivated by that memory, the search for the ideal children’s books started.
Two years later, while exploring a library with my daughter, I reached for a large white hardcover picture book and as it slipped off the shelf, my heart gave a little skip. There he was, my little grey mouse. Almost reverently I turned a few pages to confirm that what I was holding matched that early faded memory. I found a spot on a nearby carpet and beckoned to my daughter, indicating that I wanted to read her a book. She came eagerly, already understanding that it is when reading books that she got her mother’s full attention.
She lowered her tiny, warm body into the hollow space made by my crossed legs and rested her heavy head against my breast. I felt the top of her fine golden crown as she bent forward and reached for Frederick, revealing the rounded curve of her healthy flushed cheek as I looked down to open the book. Her little hand, still dimpled, touched the smooth texture of Frederick’s grey torn outline as I began to read, “All along the meadow where the cows grazed and the horses ran, there was an old stone wall.”
I was aware of her breathing against my core, her attention given fully to the story inside the book, the only movement her breathing and the turning of the pages. I relived this story from my childhood, the images of little mice gathering their stores, effectively depicted with textured paper made smooth by printing. I wondered what my daughter was thinking. How was she experiencing the story? As I began to read the second to last page, there was a shift and my emotion changed from wistful remembrance to tearful joy! I had forgotten how the tale ended and in this moment while sharing the story with my daughter I rediscovered the ageless magic of Leo Lionni. By the end of the winter, the little mice ran out of stores and turned to Frederick and asked him about the things he had gathered. He described the color of the sun and recited a beautiful poem that filled their little mice hearts with warmth. I read about the mice’s reaction, “When Frederick had finished, they all applauded. ‘But Frederick’ they said, ‘you are a poet!’”. On the next page there stood Frederick on his rock, his cheeks colored with cherry red pastel and written beneath him the last line in the book, “Frederick blushed, took a bow, and said shyly, ‘I know it.’”
I finally understood why this book had had such meaning to me as a child. Contrary to what I had thought before, Frederick had not been merely a visual love at first sight. Instead, even as a four year old I had already discovered that I gathered colors, that I experienced the world through observation. This book had been my first validation by confirming that it was okay to be the artist or the poet. No wonder I had felt certainty, it had grounded me, and understood me. It was a powerful message imparted to a young child through the simple form of a little grey mouse named Frederick.
Many books have joined Frederick on our shelves, each one chosen with the hope that within its pages will be a form of validation for one of our children. A book that would confirm that their existence is precious and true, so that one day when faced with who they truly are, they too could answer: “I know it”.