My daughter's usually the sort of child who's always humming or chatting quietly to herself as she plays. Just lately, though, I'll be in the kitchen or sorting laundry or doing another of the hundred other Mummy-type jobs, at times when she and I are the only ones at home, and I'll suddenly notice that the house is strangely silent. Where is she?
She's taken to disappearing off into a corner with a book, and it's lovely. Slow to learn to read, suddenly about six months ago something just clicked into place. Her reading confidence has zoomed and now she's discovered that wonderful cosy world where it's just her and the story. We have a rocking chair at one end of a long, L-shaped hall, and that's become her favourite spot. Yeah, I know us adults still love to escape into books, but there's something extra-special about that place when you're a child.
We've bought a lot of Usborne's Young Readers series - gorgeously illustrated abridged versions of the classics that are so beautiful they encourage children to keep reading, leaping from one reading level to the next without even realising they're reading a book today that they might have thought too difficult last week. She's been reading Little Women, Black Beauty, White Fang, Oliver Twist, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Bleak House, and oh, a whole bunch of other goodies. The other day in the car she told us the entire plot of Around The World in Eighty Days. Dh jokes that she's getting just like Lisa Simpson, and we'll have to buy her a saxophone next.
Where did this come from? I think I know. We didn't have a lot of spare cash when I was a kid, but my Dad was a voracious reader and couldn't be without his books. I went with him on his weekly library visits, to the austere, red Scottish sandstone building that housed not just the library but the local museum and art gallery. Its plain facade and high windows proclaimed 'this building is important!' and it was, too, housing all sorts of wonderful treasures. If we had time we'd take an extra trip upstairs to the gallery, which for me back then seemed like the epitome of culture - imagine, visiting an art gallery! - and I still have prints of some of my favourite paintings from there in my house today.
But the library was undoubtedly the most magical part of the building. The room that housed the children's books was warm and full of light, and though I don't remember the seating areas and the encouragement to linger that children's libraries have nowadays, no-one seemed to mind at all how long you took to choose your books. I was always the one rushing to get my pile of choices stamped with a minute to spare before closing time!
The day I was old enough to choose from the main library - the one for grown-ups - was like a right of passage. The turnstile in the doorway, the hushed atmosphere, and then the tall, dark wooden bookshelves that seemed to stretch for miles like a forest receding into the distance. It was utterly magical, a place in which you could both literally and metaphorically become lost then found again, safe and well, the possessor of several new worlds of riches. The library was a place of wonder. It was, quite literally, awesome.
The children's libraries now seem designed for story-telling, mask-making, theme days and author chats, and don't get me wrong, that's wonderful. Have the primary coloured seats, the little tables, the wall posters, yes, do! Anything that brings children to books and books to children is more than okay by me. But please - keep some hidden corners, some still and silent parts of the forest.
Why? Because there's nothing in the world to beat that quiet solitude, the sheer joy of sinking peaceful and alone into a book as you discover new worlds, making friends that will stay with you for ever, and it's all yours and yours alone. Only there, tucked away from the rest of the world, can you and D'Artagnan vanquish Captain Hook, pick pockets with the Artful Dodger and ride on Aslan's back to rid the world of the wicked queen and ...and still be home in time for tea.
That's what I think of when I look at my daughter curled up in the corner on that rocking chair. I see me, eight years old like her, riveted by Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. What bliss. It's completely, utterly wonderful to see, and long may it continue.