'A gateway to other worlds'

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Browsers from the world of children's books have found the Tardis in their libraries

Mary Hoffman has commissioned Stacks of Stories, a children's anthology in which invited writers and artists express what makes libraries special (Hodder Pounds 3.99) I have never understood the popular myth that libraries are dull and librarians duller. When I was a child my local library had turrets and pinnacles like a fairy castle. I realise now that it was just Victorian municipal Gothic, but it seemed magical to me then, and libraries still do.

In my fantasy novel, Special Powers (Hodder), the heroine sees her branch library as a gateway to other worlds and so it proves to be, used by beings from another dimension. That was my way of making the metaphor real.

There hasn't been anything glamorous about protesting against library cuts in the rain and cold outside my own civic centre in Haringey, north London; we could have done with some extra-terrestrial intervention at times.

I wanted the contributors to Stacks of Stories to write the most exciting stories they could in their preferred style and genre. They just had to have a library in there somewhere. They rose to the challenge magnificently, confirming my belief that libraries are a bit like Dr Who's Tardis - much bigger on the inside than out. No one ever said that was dull.

Bernard Ashley, a former headteacher who has written many novels for children, contributed a story about a Somali refugee child who finds a link with home on CD-Rom

I jumped at Mary Hoffman's invitation - the cause is in my blood. Schools in my day taught us to read with paper-covered "readers", and the class library was 30 thick, thoughtful and worthy classics brought in by our teacher from her own shelves.

At home, while we had a bookcase, it was more to furnish than to function. I didn't know Andrew Carnegie from a kick in the pants in those days, but I have every reason to thank him.

In Plumstead library I discovered Richmal Crompton, and went looking for new titles, going through series the way children today go through Goosebumps titles; from Woolwich library I borrowed books on football, the circus and theatre, my fantasy futures. I still use Woolwich library, researching in books, newspapers, computers, and taking home the spoils on photocopied sheets.

Libraries are where equal opportunities really are on offer. Whether from poor or well-to-do homes, each of us owns a wealth of books and on-line information reflecting all our cultures. If libraries ever fail to flourish, so will civilisation, which is why an antithet to burning books is to buy them, and make them the property of all.

Bernard Ashley's latest books are in the City Lights series (Orchard) Anthony Browne illustrated Geraldine McCaughrean's story, "Small World", about a boy who can only afford to go on holiday via his library Libraries have played a considerable part in my development as an author and illustrator. My first introduction to the thrills of reading occurred rather late at a small branch library above a bank in the small Yorkshire village in which I grew up. There I discovered the power of D H Lawrence (surreptitiously, as this was the time of the Lady Chatterley trial), and followed him with other Northern writers such as David Storey, Alan Sillitoe and John Braine.

It was also there that I explored the world of Surrealism through books on Dal! and Magritte and later, while reading a book on "careers for girls" (again, surreptitiously) that I learned of the existence of medical art. I was later to become a medical artist and to learn much about the telling of stories in pictures.

When I first considered illustrating children's books I went straight to the library to see what others - Brian Wildsmith, John Burningham and Maurice Sendak - had done. I had very little money to buy books throughout this long period of my development, and without libraries I sometimes wonder what would have happened.

Anthony Browne's latest book is Willy the Dreamer (Walker) Finally, Geraldine McCaughrean confesses all F reely and openly, I, Gee MacSea, admit to using libraries. My only plea in mitigation is that as a child I was repeatedly subjected to library visits, when I succumbed to the allure of escapist fiction and became addicted to the written word. Even when removed from vicious parental influence, however, I persistently re-offended.

It is true I took to supplying - first to maintain my hero-and-heroine addiction, later for financial gain - and that I experimented with various forms of bibliophilia: pastoral-comical, tragical-historical, tragical-historical-comical (the prisoner asks for several related counts of theatre-going to be taken into consideration).

On the proceeds I travelled widely, embarking at Wantage library for myriad far-flung times and places, smuggling out gems of information (with the connivance of librarians) in furtherance of my trade.

I acknowledge that there are already too many books, and that libraries only encourage the vice of reading (worse still, writing) in successive generations. I welcome local government initiatives to stamp out this deliberate inducement of minors to read, and look forward to the time when all such traffickers in mental luxury are expunged from society.

Geraldine McCaughrean has just completed The Bronze Cauldron, the third volume of her Myths and Legends of the World series (Orion)

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