I’ve asked some of my friends and favourite bloggers to write about their favourite books from childhood. There’ll hopefully be a few posts like this – if I can convince other people to take up the challenge. If you’d like to join in, email me.
Today, writer and editor A.C. Wheeler talks childhood abuse (so beware of triggers), Collodi’s Adventures of Pinocchio and a stolen library book.
I come from an abusive childhood. It’s often the first thing I state. I don’t often state, however, that two books both confirmed and rescued me from it.
It’s funny, and I mean that in a peculiar sense, that what no one rarely mentions is in childhood how you have no sense of anything other than that you directly experienced. Kids are self-contained until they reach around age ten, and until I was eight, abuse was daily and normal. I’ve received all kinds of gasps on the reaction spectrum when I tell details. One question is the most common: how did you cope? Well, you don’t know anything else. One child has their normal, and I have mine; and you cannot go back and impart the knowledge that what is being experienced is not, to the bulk of society you’re unwittingly born into, normal.
The secret: I’m not even sure I’d want to state that to my younger self if I could, and my book is one reason why.
There is no other title, I’m afraid; no one I know has even heard of the same contents, never mind read them. I’ll tell you what I know, of course – it’s too precious for me not to – but the nitty-gritty is more accurately not-y-gritty. Still, knowledge has power. And one facet of that power is education, something that is also incredibly dear to me, and why I’m so happy to write for this blog.
I’ll explain. I had my normal, but still, I wasn’t happy with both witnessing and experiencing this continuous situation, and I wanted different – even though I wasn’t sure there could be different. So I waited for an opportunity, keeping an open mind in case the possibility arose. Words were the chance, when I found them. By age two I was reading, picking through tiny cards with words like dog and cat and book, above all book, and by age six, I was ploughing through any adult books in the house. Even better, I was left alone when I was holding a book, and so it became a surprisingly effective shield.
By that point I’d found school, which I was indifferent to… until I found the library. Now here was a wonder: words and worlds and all bound up, waiting. Toddle along, take a book down the shelf. It’s blue, the colour of an elderly damselfly, with a black square and gold lettering. Collodi, it says; Pinocchio. No rewriting or sweet songs shoehorned here; here there is violence from stupidity or frustration. Pinocchio’s feet are burned off by his own carelessness. Poor Jiminy gets crushed with a mallet fairly early on, and haunts the hapless puppet. And the Blue Fairy is long-suffering; there’s a woodcut of her as a goat, watching forlornly, as her guardian is swept into the whale’s belly. She must let go so Pinocchio learns, she knows, but the loss of him from his own bad choices hurts no less.
And that echoed, possibly a bit too much. So it was important, it left a mark and gently offered a reassurance that my experiences weren’t singular. But I think I wanted them to be that way; and so while Pinocchio is without a doubt one of the two books, it didn’t have the impact that my book did and still does now. My book was very simple – an anthology of folk tales from around the world. Wales, India, Egypt, Israel, and so many more: each story gave a new perspective on life. There wasn’t just one tale in how it was different – there were dozens.
Put simply, I was hopelessly shy, and just didn’t know how to trust. Pinocchio said that life was hard, and that it was possible to care through anything, but I wanted to know it could be different, that it would change. The sense that something could be different came from my book, and it became a veritable lifeline. I took it out again and again and again; and then one time, I didn’t return it. No one at the library mentioned they wanted it back, and so it became mine. It’s the only time I’ve stolen something, but I don’t begrudge myself for keeping what was such an aid to me.
When my mother left my father, I could only take a few things. I didn’t take my book. It’s one of my few regrets. Another is that I cannot remember the title, or publisher. I have only my memory of the stories I read and reread, and this collection I protect as passionately as a dragon’s hoard. They are treasures worth as much as gold and jewels to me. Collectively, they are one of the few good memories I have of my childhood before the age of eight.
And they have an impact now. They tell me about times and places I can’t visit, sometimes not now, sometimes not ever. Either is fine – they’re in the stories. They are snapshots of beauty and love and joy and morality, and they remind me of life’s infinite differences. And just as they helped me feel better then, too, so they do with others now. Over time I finally developed the ability to trust others, and in that trust, open up enough to help and heal. I’m a healer by default – I cannot operate unless I care for someone. It’s a validation and denial that I cannot be, or perform, the experiences that at the same time are so integral to my being. And the stories from around the world have shifted, over time, from shields to blankets. They no longer are a defense against an unpleasant life, they help sustain the positive one I have today. I tell them to those I love and care for, when they’re feeling down (and I include myself in that): to mentally revisit the pages in bottle green board covers, the cheap glue yellow and crumbling, the edges torn off at the bottom, and let them live in retelling. I breathe the paper and ink, and exhale the words, watching nothing-right-now with a distance formed from memory. I have told these stories in stories of my own. I have told them to a sick dozing lover, and to someone deeply asleep and dreaming. I have taken the ones I love to a lake in Wales, where a man bakes bread to win the undine that lives there as his lover and companion, and to India, where a blackbird goes to war against a king for his wife. Another time we go to Egypt, where a prince tries to fight his fate that he will die from a fight with a snake, or crocodile, or dog. And I have spent moments alone by the sea in Israel, where an angel tells a man only known as Tobias that he must shed tears to see again, to loosen bird droppings that have caked his sight for years.
Every time, I tell them for the same reason – to give the same comfort I once received. The memories of them recycle and are renewed, spiralling outward and fractal-like into new forms; variances into variances. It’s been a gift and an honour to share these stories from my book that are burned into my brain; even if the title has long gone, none of this would be possible without this single book.
An editor and writer with an active interest in communication, Ms. Wheeler is a Writing & Publishing graduate, specialising in fantasy fiction. She lives just outside London.