Back on the subject of family books: I was given this beautifully illustrated, abridged children’s version of Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty one Christmas when I was about 6, I think by an uncle and aunt who knew of my obsession with animals. It swiftly became my favourite book and hence survived amongst the boxes of childhood mementos in my parents’ attic, to be rediscovered by me, with delight, 3 decades later. I was managing a small academic library at the time and snuck the dilapidated volume into our annual binding order, getting the broken spine repaired and the original covers preserved under laminate binding. I thought my nieces might like to have it, but they weren’t as enthralled with it the way I was back then, so I’ve kept it.
I think it was the illustrations that I really fell in love with, they seemed so lifelike to me:
I even named my plastic Britain’s carthorse after Duchess, Black Beauty’s mother, and imbued her with the same gentle character as the mare in the book. Other equine characters, such as the bad-tempered Ginger, also found their way into my plastic and china menagerie of “ordiments.” And it seemed to me that our family cat, Frisky, actually appeared on one page:
Of course, the story entranced me too, and I believe I learned lot from it. There is plenty of drama, captured in Phoebe Erickson’s illustrations:
I believe this book also provided my first lesson about cruelty to animals, which upset me greatly, as evidenced by the scratches I have made all over the pictures of Black Beauty suffering. I don’t think I wanted to see these:
So I became a child campaigner for animal welfare. I think I also gleaned some awareness of social inequality from this book, as Beauty’s fortunes fall from a comfortable life with wealthy landowners, to a harsh life pulling a cab for the cruel Nicolas Skinner (although my own family background may also have contributed to this awareness, of course!) But thanks to the happy ending I would read it over and over again, and enjoyed the full, unabridged version just as much when I was old enough to read it a few years later.
This book wasn’t the first one in my life. Some of my earliest, pre-school memories are of my Grannie Lane reading to me, in her lovely silvery Hebridean lilt, from my two favourite books. They were both about animals: Dinah the Deer, and Frisk & Frolic, two playful foals. Later I would cycle to the local library at Castelnau at least once a week, seeking a constant supply of animal stories. Later still I became a Saturday assistant at the same library, and the rest is history.
I wasn’t always such a bookish child, however. I clearly remember one Christmas, possibly before the Black Beauty one, when all the gifts I received were books. I was increasingly disappointed, exclaiming “Not another book!” as I unwrapped one after the other in sulky ingratitude. I must have been hoping for something else (quite possibly a pony). Mum’s cousin Doy usually spent Christmas with us and was always generous with our presents, he was like a fond uncle to us kids. His gift to me came in an envelope and I can remember my smug comment as I opened it, “Well at least this one won’t be a book!” It was a book token.
I learned a valuable lesson about appreciating gifts that day. I grew up to be a bibliophile with a career as a librarian that has, this year, taken me to Ethiopia to help start a public libraries project there. So I would just like to say, to everyone who ever gave me a book in my childhood: a huge, heartfelt, long overdue Thank you!