Six-month-old Jack McKeone already appears to have firm views about the books he enjoys. BfK invited his father, Gary McKeone, to trace how Jack’s reading interests develop until he reaches his first birthday. Here is the first instalment of this baby book diary.
Jack Ferdinand McKeone was born on 29 September 2000. A Friday. His first parcel of books arrived with the early post on the following Tuesday. I have always loved getting books by post; the padded envelope, the bubble wrap, the feel and smell of the pages. A book is an object, a visual and tactile experience; the typeface and page layout, the dust jacket and boards, they are all, to me at least, part of the pleasure of reading.
When Jack’s first package of books landed, it was something of a marker, a rite of passage. There was a new reader in the house now, someone ripe and ready to make an early acquaintance with the world of literature.
Such grand notions quickly fall into perspective when the wailing starts. Then the book becomes a pacifier. Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum may well offer an ironic take on classic tales for children. Jack’s approach is more primal. The cardboard pages make a decent thud when he gives them a clout. There are colours to smile at and shapes to dribble on never mind the four corners to chew. A visual and tactile experience.
In his first six months we have plied him with books that are colourful, soft books, hard books, waterproof books, books with just shapes on the page, books that make noises. Has he any favourites? His interest in Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, particularly the pages outlining the caterpillar’s eating binge, persuade me that the wee man may grow up to be less thin than his father. It’s as if he wants to eat the apple, the two pears and the three plums before tackling the salami, the chocolate cake and the ice cream.
Yet with each book I hold in front of him, I’m intrigued to know what it is he actually sees. What do the shapes mean to him? Why do some colours captivate him more than others? One sound will make him smile and laugh while another will not interest him at all. Why? What is going on in that tiny, beautiful head?
Just now, sound is the kernel. Lucy Cousins’ Big Book of Nursery Rhymes is a bold, bright splash of a book but it is the rhythm of the rhymes, the music of our voices that registers with him. In Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer, a character recites a litany of place-names for, as he says, ‘the mesmerism, the sedation of the incantation’. That eloquent description defines precisely what I see happening with Jack. For all the attempts to eat the books, for all the clouts and slaps and grabbing at the pages, it is the sound of our voices, the rhythm of our reading that makes his emergent antennae twitch. His current favourite is The Grand Old Duke of York, especially if his parents perform the actions. We, of course, secretly hope that he’ll acquire our Irish accents.
His library grows weekly. The Giraffe without Spots, The Rudest Boy in the World, Peepo, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star are just the start of it. I often carry him into my study and let him look at the books on the shelves for no other reason than that I want him to grow up with books as a natural feature of his personal landscape. But you can’t rush these things. On one particularly tearful, early night, I walked him up and down the hall gently speaking the Yeats poem, ‘Song of the Wandering Aengus’ in an effort to lull him to sleep. He screamed. Perhaps he’s going to be a literary critic.
Gary McKeone is Literature Director, Arts Council of England