Lost Treasures

It was like a small death – a lemming leaping over the precipice with the mob because someone thought it was a good idea.

Only to survive and wonder how you could be convinced such an act could be constructive in the short or long term.

At 21 I relinquished the loves of my young life, the booksof my childhood, for a worthy cause.

Not my worthy cause – the workplace of my future mother- in- law was a mental hospital in Melbourne’s north where she was matron.

She knew of my treasure trove, and in collusion with my mother presented a case to forsake my hoarding habits and have a good clean out of the book case. After all – I would be married in a year and travelling and my childhood stash would be an encumbrance to my parents.

But – should I have children of my own, wouldn’t this precious collection be the source of rousing imaginations of a new generation?

Some of the books from my grown up chlldren’s library.

I recall painfully sorting through my dearest companions. I still had Enid Blyton from Noddy to the Faraway Tree to the Famous Five and Secret Seven, a weighty old Blinky Bill with his stick and kerchief on a sepia cover I’d been given when I was very small, and May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie which I adored.

I think these two important contributions to Australian children’s literature helped form a very early and healthy interest in the environment. I wonder if Gibbs knew just how menacing the banksia men were to the very young.

Two lavish pop-up books of classic tales were prized. And solid volumes of handsomely illustrated fairy tales were the popular choice for ‘tonight’s bedtime story’.

The grey- blue covers of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson stories were the perfect foil for these collections: unembellished, the print small, and perhaps a single ink drawing to indicate the theme of the story, itself etched in a young girl’s consciousness and sometimes the stuff of nightmares. But always irresistible, loving to be horrified.

Mine was a rich collection of its time, from marauding, spiky banksia men to tales of brave young pre- pubescent girls leading their friends into dangerous adventures where their independence, innovation, courage and loyalty to one another were the keys to triumph and mystery solving .

The covers featured spirited, fresh young crusaders – and the books themselves were fittingly kept in pristine condition.

The Girls Own Annuals were a different mix of robust stories and vivid illustrations, but still the inspiring young girls reaching out, exhibiting a sense of freedom their glowing faces, pursuing strong moral codes with heroic enthusiasm.

These large, hardbound volumes were hard won. I had to run hard over 100 metres at my uncle’s company’s annual picnic races to win the coveted prize. So whether these were an annual subscription for a deserving young girl – or you won it by sheer leg-work, they were highly sought.

My copy of Gulliver’s Travels was also hard to part with. It was a gift from a favourite aunt which stimulated hours of my own interpretive drawings.

Growing up in the 1950s a young girl was privileged to receive the glossy volumes dedicated to the inspirational young Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret – at home at the palace, at leisure, robed for pomp and ceremony and splendidly attired for horse-riding and dog walking in the wilds of Scotland. The splendour of Elizabeth’s coronation; carriages, gold ones at that, ignited a girls’ imaginings.

And that’s what the books of your childhood were all about – the magic of words and pictures.

Stirring your creativity, conjuring dreams, ideas, fantasies beyond the well-thumbed pages.

Although the matron always kept in touch, I never did marry her son. And I always regretted donating my little library.

In the past 20 years I’ve set about rebuilding another young readers’ collection. Superbly written and illustrated picture books – many of them the creation of friends, and many favourites by Enid Blyton.

The e-reader has no application for children’s literature.

Few tasks are more satisfying than reading to children. Being read to as an adult is pure indulgence. I was introduced to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe under my lover’s counterpane, and many other titles he felt compelled to share.

An e-reader doesn’t fit the picture.

The fifth annual Booktown in the former mining town of Clunes in central Victoria attracted more than 15,000 book lovers in May this year, most of them hungrily on the hunt for their special interest titles.

Clunes, the 15th site for an International Booktown , has a local population of less than 1,000. It invites second hand, antique and bargain booksellers from across Melbourne and regional Victoria with author panel discussions .

A handful of Melbourne expats have built this remarkable event into one of the most unique experiences for book lovers in Australia – and not an e-reader in sight.

One well known author said this was the experience of hunting, interacting with like-minded people, sharing the joy of finding that precious pre-owned book.

The tactile experience of clasping a book and page-turning is a similar one for those who refuse to abandon their newspaper. And you can’t smell the history on an e-reader. You wouldn’t take it to the beach, soak in a bath.

Like the ipod, the e-reader is convenient. An easy travel companion. A handy tool for an academic environment.

I wonder however I ever lived without my ipod. But I’ve never discarded the vinyl, and my collection of CD’s simply grows. Vinyl is the collectable for gen Y, and vinyl is again the preferred pressing for many of today’s musicians.

The book is the eternal gift, we will always bask in the warmth of our book collections. Our libraries will only increase in value as the important repository for valued works going out of print.

While authors and publishers may have taken a hit from the e-reader, the book will remain eternal.

Denise Civelli

I have known Denise Civelli ever since I started as a cadet journalist at the Geelong Advertiser. She edited me, and I think that is why I place such high value on the relationship I have with an editor. She was meticulous, scrupulous and she had ethics that often put her at odds with some of her bosses. I loved her for her scruples. And having started with the best, I know better than most exactly what it means to be edited well.

Denise began her career at Melbourne’s Leader newspapers and the city’s first Sunday newspaper before travelling and working overseas for some years, primarily on magazines and newspapers in London and Toronto. When she returned to Australia she moved to Geelong, filling various roles at the Geelong Advertiser and expanding its readership base, particularly in background, investigative news and features.

She returned to a working life in Melbourne some years ago, sub-editing and freelancing for the Age and Herald Sun, and other media organisations.

I was very interested to see what angle she would take in this forum. As ever she surprised and delighted me.

8 Responses

    1. Rosie Borella says:

      What lovely book memories, as well as beautiful writing!
      Denise, you really struck a chord – I also remember books from our precious childhood library being given away.

      I don’t remember being asked – just came home one day to find they’d been given to the younger kids down the road. Your sense of outrage was choked down by being railroaded into doing something good for somebody else. Of course it was a good thing to do, but it was still a dreadful loss – I certainly didn’t feel ‘too old’ for those books. And that’s the point – over time, you come to treasure them more and more.

      I am yet to find another copy of C.J. Dennis’s ‘A Book for Kids’, which kept me enthralled for hours. It contained what I remember as an achingly beautiful story of a cloud horse, that the child would meet each night when he climbed the bald hill at sunset. Perhaps I don’t even remember it properly – but I do remember how much I loved the book.

      I imagine your ‘new’ library for kids contains many of your old favourites, rediscovered.

    2. Deb says:

      Denise, I feel your pain at losing your childhood collection of books, though mine went in more prosaic circumstances, I still miss particular books, even if I’ve managed to get other copies, it’s not quite the same.

      Booktown in Clunes. I tell myself every year that I’m going to go, but never seem to get there, which is really bad considering I have family all over the place up there that I visit on a semi regular basis. Next year for sure! Mind you, Clunes and Talbot have some great bookshops that I love to browse in when I’m up that way.

    3. “The e-reader has no application for children’s literature.”

      I’m trying to understand this statement as it could be interpreted a couple of ways. None of which make sense to me though. It seems pretty obvious that digital formats are already being used for children’s literature.

      Am I missing something in your argument?

    4. carolko says:

      Hi Denise:

      ‘The book is the eternal gift…’ What a beautiful line.
      And true; yet as a children’s gift, it is often passed over for money boxes and toys – empty things that have no history or culture.

      Several months ago, my partner and I attended the christening of his niece’s baby. I am a project manager; organised is my middle name. He… not so. At the christening of their first baby, we turned up sans gift, (due to his lack of organisational skills) which has plagued me ever since. This time I decided we would turn up with a gift for each.

      Decisions… Decisions…. What to buy.

      We didn’t get a money box, nor clothes or toys and given the gift table’s legs that were bowed under the mound of such items, I was relieved that our present represented not only who we are, but a wish for these tiny little people to hold on to the things that we both hold precious. Music and Literature.

      Our gift consisted of classics. One box housed Ella Fitzgerald on vinyl and Wuthering Heights. The other, Miles Davis on vinyl and Treasure Island.

      How did the parents react..? Raised eyebrows and a comment about their lack of record player – ahhhh but I live in hope that with those gifts, we light a fire in the heart of those children and they too, will learn that the ‘book is the eternal gift’.

      Thanks Denise!

    5. Erica Wagner says:

      My mother made me give away my entire Noddy collection when I was about 8 – she said I was too old for them now … I was upset but because I didn’t know how to say no, I did it … but that was the last time …

    6. Paul Collins says:

      This brought back memories of my own near-miss with my beloved Marvel Group Comics lol. I didn’t read books till I turned 18, rather I collected Daredevil, Spiderman, Captain America, etc. I left home in NZ when I turned 18 and entrusted my father to take care of my worldly possessions in two trunks. Some premonition warned me to collect my comics on my first trip back home. Before I could collect my second cargo — precious posters and photos of hundreds of 20th Century Fox and MGM memorabilia (I worked for both companies in the early 70s) — my father in his wisdom decided my “old junk” was taking up room so he tossed most of it. The rest he let get wet so when I arrived all I held dear was basically pulp. My comics would have suffered the same fate. I wonder what moves parents to arbitrarily dispose of their children’s memories. My cubs jumper with badges, my maori stone axe heads I found buried in a paddock, my leather jacket … but I digress. It’s the power of your writing Denise that brings memories flooding back.

    7. nick bland says:

      Here we are again in ‘e-books versus warm and fuzzy memory’ territory, reverie held forth as a shield against pixelated invaders. But the competition is an illusion. no-one is coming to perform a raid on our our nostalgia. No-one is trying to erase the lead-based ink smell of a freshly opened hardcover from our memories. Quite the opposite. Stories are arriving in our lives from places we never thought to look. Warm motherly arms are not repelled by a book that needs to be plugged in. Stories don’t lose their resonance just because we can’t see them on the shelf. The future is not going to steal any of this. In fact our generation/s have a huge responsibility to make sure our skills are carried on to those who won’t put their words on paper but in pixels. An example. Challenge a tech saturated teen to an obscure google search. You’ll win, I guarantee it. you’ll get to the best answer on the net a long time before that teen will get there because you spent your life perfecting research skills sans-google. You once wanted to know the lyrics to an old Woody Guthrie song so you trawled the paper cards at the library and you scanned the microfisch and you you found them. You chased leads and you used your nouse. You worked things out longhand. It is yours and my responsibility to make sure that the knowledge that brought great writing this far isn’t usurped by a generation hell-bent on finishing something five minutes after they started it. If we stay mired in this fear of the future then we’ll fail to pass on all we learnt and then e-books really will be crappy and literature will change too fast to be connected to that which we know and love. if we guide this thing ourselves, the next generation will have those cherished memories of stories shared. Shun them and the next generation will make something you REALLY don’t like.

      • I agree, Nick- we have to be in it and we who come from the print book world have to open our minds and hearts despite the fact that many of us are actively afraid of the technology because we don’t understand it and we don’t know how we ever will. But we do! Think of your first attempt to use a mobile phone, or the day when there were no longer actual keys to depress but just an enigmatic glass screen. I feel like a bear trying to type still, and yet posts like those yours earlier in the month, and like Nick Hagger’s today, excite me and rouse the brave and curious child in me, and make me hunger to know more. But I can also still remember my own beloved comics, wet in the rain because someone put the box out of my mum’s shed, or precious books given away without anyone asking if that was ok with me when I was a kid, and I have a thousand memories connected to print books that will always remain special. But it is not either or- I don’t have to abandon my own past and my love of print books to get excited about and to embrace the potential for new forms in which stories can be told- even if it turns out I am not the one with the skills to make the shift.