The Quest for the Magic Book by Kristin Darell (Prescott)

First published in Kindling II: A Writer's Edit Anthology

Writer's Edit Press, 2015

ISBN: 9780994165510 / ISBN-10: 099416551X

When I was eight years old I discovered I could fly. My great-grandmother had just introduced me to a mischievous little boy. You might have heard of him. His name is Peter Pan. He travels to and from an incredible place known as Neverland. You just have to travel straight on to morning, beyond the second star to the right. The kids that live there are called The Lost Boys and they have the most amazing adventures. There are other people to meet too. There are pirates, Indians, mermaids and one temperamental little fairy.

I may now be in my forties, but Peter and I have remained firm friends. Our trips are fewer and farther between, but when I do decide to let him take me on an adventure, the years fall away until I’m that young girl once again. The greatest gift he gave that eight-year-old me was a burning desire to find more stories, more friends and more information – he started my love affair with books. It wasn’t long before I was following four children through a wardrobe door and into Narnia, climbing the magical Faraway Tree or going on adventures with the Secret Seven or Fabulous Five. I clearly remember day after day huddled up sharing stories with an orphan girl named Anne, who went to 

ive at a farm in Canada called Green Gables. But despite the huge number of stories that have fed my passion from childhood to the present day, it is always J. M. Barrie’s mischievous boy that deserves the credit for turning me into a reader. Peter Pan is my magic book.

What is a Magic Book?

 

I first heard the term ‘magic book’ while listening to an interview with the 2014–15 Australian Children’s Laureate, Jackie French. It was an idea that resonated so strongly with me that I had to know more, and with two young daughters of my own I wanted to know how to track this elusive story down. Who better to ask than two of my favourite Australian children’s authors, Susanne Gervay and Libby Hathorn, and Jackie French herself.

Jackie told me "a magic book is the one that encourages any reader to read another book. There are books that kids will reach for and really enjoy, particularly if they are told they have to read a book, so they will choose a short and very funny one, but it won’t turn them into readers," she says. "The magic book is the book that turns someone into a reader. It doesn’t even have to be a good book, just the right book at the right time."

"There can be a magic book or books, which a child reads and re-reads," Susanne explains. "It is part of what makes a child a reader. That magic book becomes a safe place to find comfort, laughter, and friends."

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“Perhaps the anthology’s best piece is Kristin (Prescott) Darell's ‘The Quest for the Magic Book’. She details, with catching enthusiasm, the journeys of people finding that one book that makes them go ‘A-ha’… One that they will forever treasure. She also emphasises how one mustn’t force their magic book on others (particularly their own children, who must seek with their own eyes). She interviews a couple of my favourite childhood authors, Jackie French and Libby Hathorn. Prescott stirs up a nostalgia within this piece that is purely pleasant and warm, never regretful or saccharine. With this perfection in tone, she binds together a lovely, at times magical anthology.”

 

Louise Jaques, Poet – Review written for Writing NSW. Read the full review HERE

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Review for Kindling II

Libby says it’s a journey of discovery.

"I think it is much like the moment when as a child you realise you can make words for the first time by drawing sticks and circles that spell out something others can read, like your name. Magic," she says. "I think taking off into reading for yourself is just as – if not more – exciting. There may not be a magic book per se, but more a magical time when you realise you have the power over those sticks and circles and that they, if you find the right book, have a power over you! Again it’s the power of reading that is the magic."

 

The Battle for Attention

 

I was lucky to find my magic book at a fairly young age. It was a time when there were far fewer distractions and curling up on the couch with a good book didn’t have a great deal of competition. Now children have so many technological distractions including television, computers, iPads, smart phones and game consoles. How can the humble book get itself noticed?

Susanne says technology doesn’t have to be the enemy.

 

"Story is such a different way of engagement. It’s identifying with characters, narrative, ideas, illustrations and becoming a participant in the story. The delivery method can be through a traditional print book or a technological device. They are still books," she says.

This view isn’t surprising given the rising popularity of the ebook. Reading devices are convenient in many situations and I have a nice little library growing on my iPad. But for those of you, who like me also still love the feel and smell of paper and the sight of creased spines lining the bookcase, don’t despair yet. Books – the paper kind – will be around for some time to come, especially for young readers.

"Picture books are a category on their own," says Susanne. "They have an edge on technology as young readers love the tactile experience of a printed book. They can’t chew an iPad, but they love to chew books. Technology that is focused on games and whiz-bang apps provide a different experience to books. It’s about instant satisfaction with often a competitive excitement with immediate gratification and adrenalin rush. Young people will love books even in the face of this competition if it has been part of their lives from a baby to a young adult."

Libby Hathorn agrees that books will endure as long as parents remain their advocates.

 

"Cuddle up with children if they’re little, or sit very close if they’re a bit older and share the book, read it out loud," she says. "Also get them to read bits and wonder at the feel of the pages and the weight of the book itself and even the snap of the pages as you close it tight."

Jackie says as she travels around the country she’s been asking kids how many of them think books are boring.

 

"The smallest number was 40% and that was at the Saturday afternoon launch of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival and one of the featured authors was Andy Griffiths," she says. "He was there on stage with me. Usually it’s at least 70% or 80%, but only after every adult has shut their eyes and they know they can’t be seen. But on the other hand the same number watched TV last night and they thought that was boring too. Why do they do it? Because they hope something interesting will happen and there’s nothing else to do. It’s very easy to turn on the TV or a video game. I’ve lost track of how many tens of thousands of kids I’ve spoken to," Jackie says. "Mostly I’ve been talking about the magic book and getting through to kids that most books are boring. But I make a bet with them. I bet every one of them $5 that if they go to the library and look there will be a book they want to read so much that they reach for another one. If they cannot find it I will give them $5. It’s been nearly eighteen months that I’ve been making that bet and I’ve never had to pay up."

Jackie may have won her bets, but there’s no doubt it can be hard at times to work out which books are a good match. Many books are boring and even as an avid reader there are times I still struggle through stories I simply don’t enjoy. It is frustrating and disappointing and I love books. So what can we do to help people still searching for the magic?

 

Finding the Magic Book

My mother is passionate about books and I remember staring in awe at the enormous bookshelf in the house where I grew up. I could have used some of Peter’s pixie dust to help me reach some of those paper treasures. I’m lucky that my mother’s literary passions rubbed off in a good way, but Jackie warns that parents can equally be their own worst enemy.

"We think we know our children," she says. "We don’t. Often parents are the worst possible guides to the world of books, particularly those of us who love books. We have books we have loved so deeply we keep trying to convince our children to read them and we are missing all of the clues that say ‘no, sorry, they’re not going to’. There is no way of counting the number of parents I see, when I do a book signing, telling their child they won’t like a book they’ve chosen. That’s despite the child having clutched the book to their heart and obviously having assessed it and desperately wanting it."

The genres and stories I enjoy reading are now largely in alignment with the literary loves of both my parents, but that hasn’t always been the case. As my teen self explored cliché-ridden young adult romance novels I received a fair share of raised eyebrows, but never do I remember my parents overriding my choice. According to Jackie they are the exception.

"It happens with all of the best intentions so often," she explains. "We give kids the books that we think they will love but they’re not the books they love. The only real way of finding out what kids love is experimentation. You take them to the library and you introduce them not just to the fiction and the non-fiction, but also the adult’s non-fiction because the best in fact non-fiction is actually found in the adult’s section. Probably one in four kids, and that’s from my research, prefer narrative non-fiction. Possibly one subset of that doesn’t even want narrative non-fiction, they actually just want the facts, they don’t even want the story," Jackie says. "Show them magazines and newspapers as well as books and let them roam. We need to teach kids not just how to read but the sort of books they might like and how to find them."

"A home needs to have bookshelves, books beside a parent’s bed, see an adult reading," Susanne agrees. "Adults should lead by example so that children see that reading is part of everyday life. Reading to children before bed is such a precious time, as it connects books with parent attention and love. Make library visits an exciting adventure each month or each week and don’t stick to only borrowing books, but add toys, DVDs, audios to the list."

Libby agrees.

 

"Make sure there are books to hand, that bookcases actually boast books and not just DVD cases, and that you share the reading experience when appropriate or indeed leave a child with a head-in-a-book alone. An easy way to do the sharing is through poetry. And of course frequent libraries and bookshops," she says.

Once children have been exposed to the vast array of possibilities, Jackie warns they shouldn’t be pressured, just encouraged to have a taste.

 

"Tell them books are not like broccoli," she says. "You don’t have to eat it all because it’s good for you. If you don’t like it, you can spit it out, and that goes for broccoli too. Often kids don’t know what they want sometimes either. You can introduce them to a new genre of reading, or more complex reading by reading them a chapter or two and then if they want they can keep on reading. Make it easy."

"Don’t be worthy when you talk to children about books," is Susanne’s advice. "Find out who the kids are, what are their loves and what they need. Be a great source of advice. If it’s the right book, it is magic. For teen girls who are on their search for identity, then it can be John Green’s Fault in our Stars, AJ Betts’ Zac and Mia, my Butterflies or The Cave; for young children who love rhythm and words, it can be the Dr Seuss books; for boys who love humour but with more, it can be Oliver Phommavanh’s books. For any age Jackie French’s books are winners. Give them some tricky techniques like read the first few pages before buying or borrowing so they know if they like the book. Or read the back cover blurb. Or flick through the book and read a paragraph."

 

Winning the Battle

 

Finding Peter Pan seems so simple in retrospect and I know how lucky I am. However, there is no doubt magic books can be found and when they are, those stories can literally change lives. These testimonials are a good reminder of why every child deserves the right to enjoy a story.

"To me the most memorable were the letters, before emails were readily available, that came to me in the first few years after the publication of my first YA novel Thunderwith (now 26 years in continuous print)," Libby says. "They told me how the reader identified with the main character, Lara, and how important her journey in a new family set up was to them. I’d like to think it helped them become readers for life."

Susanne says hearing from the children whose lives she touches has a magic all of it’s own. Here is one of those messages:

 

Hello Susanne Gervay,

I am writing about a current book I have bought and read, I AM JACK. I get bullied at school almost every day and it makes me sick. I just didn't feel like going to school. I pretended to be sick and stay home for the day. I've talked to the School Councillor, I've tried to tell my mum, I've thought of getting back at the bullies, but all these things don't seem to work. But I AM JACK inspired me to tell everyone that I am being bullied. It makes me feel great and today I treated my mother with respect (I wasn't doing that lately because I was fed up with everyone) and I think she knows there is something fishy going on. I just want to thank you for what you have done and I think you are a great writer. I will enjoy reading all your other books.

 

Yours sincerely, Lowana

"Kids and adults believe in the I Am Jack books," says Susanne. "They feel it’s their story and emotionally engage. I wrote I Am Jack after my son was bullied at school and I wanted kids to know they are not alone and empower them with choices within the funny and sad and real times of their lives. The I Am Jack books resonate with young people and adults because, through the books, they have a friend who travels with them."

It isn’t just books that can be magic, as Jackie found out during a visit to a Detention Centre. She was there to share stories with a group of children. Between them they spoke eighteen languages and none of them were hers.

 

"How do you tell a story?" she questioned. "The children decided we would be animals. One by one by one they chose an animal and we were butterflies and we flew, for example. The parents were eager to bring their kids because in places like that the kids often become catatonic. They’ve been through a trauma and so much change they withdraw and so the staff and the parents really try to get the kids involved and doing things. There was one little boy who had been brought by his father," Jackie explains. "This child was completely withdrawn. He just sat there, he wouldn’t participate, he wouldn’t move. But two little girls had appointed themselves my helpers and they wouldn’t let him go. They kept pulling at his hands and said he should choose an animal. He said something and I couldn’t hear it. Then I realised it was a roar. He was a dragon. We became dragons and he led us all around the detention centre, all the kids in a line, and we were roaring and charging at the guards who were pretending to be terrified and standing on chairs. All the kids were roaring and flying around with the little boy leading us. It took him about 12 goes before he really roared but then he was a dragon. His father was standing there with that blank look that men get on their faces when they’re crying and they don’t want anyone to notice. But there were tears pouring down his face because his son had come back to the world. Never underestimate the power of a story."

Unleashing the Power of the Magic Book

All books or stories have the capacity to take us to an entirely different place and time, be it through facts or fiction. When I was young, it was the characters I was drawn to, but now I know the authors too. Names such as Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, C. S. Lewis and of course J. M. Barrie still bring a smile to my face and a flood of memories. I have also come to love many other authors, such as H. G. Wells, Harper Lee, David Eddings and Markus Zusak, just to name a few who have left their mark. If I were to meet them, I would like to tell them how their stories all remain with me and to thank them for sharing their magic. Perhaps a child somewhere will treasure my stories. After hearing from these three fabulous authors I was struck by the fact that there was no doubt in their minds there is a magic book or story for everyone as long as they are given the chance to find it. I agree. Discovering books was like finding my own Neverland and I know a book has power and magic when matched with the right reader at the right time. J. M. Barrie’s eternally young Peter is the embodiment of the desire most children feel for independence and adventure, without adult boundaries. As a young girl, it was no doubt those qualities that helped capture my imagination and made Peter Pan the lasting classic it remains today. 

Books, like Peter Pan, are timeless and have the ability to feed the imagination long after their covers are shut. I believe it is that quality that makes us seek out more stories. I still have my first library card dated 1976. It is full of creases from the many times I clutched it in my hand before giving it to the librarian to borrow yet another literary stash. It was made from cardboard and is so fragile now I have it in a plastic slip to keep it safe. That crumpled card was my pixie dust and my magic wardrobe. It was my ticket to adventure.

My daughters have all of this ahead of them. One is not yet reading, but already clutches favourite books, begging me to read them to her, or flicking through the pages. As for my eldest, I suspect her magic book is close. She now reads for enjoyment and as I watch her absorbed by a non-fiction book, giggling at a new Roald Dahl story or gasping in excitement at the latest Billie B Brown mystery, I can’t help wondering which story will turn her into a reader for life. Which of the adventures she’s tasting now will she one day identify as her Peter Pan, her magic book?

We can’t predict the future, but one thing remains certain, where stories are involved – magic does happen.