Janice’s Reading Journey

Janice Maskort was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 2000 and 2010, and still lives in the city. She was born in Orkney and grew up in Kent. Janice worked for Kent County Libraries for several years, including in Maidstone, Rochester and Canterbury, until her move to Sheffield. Reading has been a pleasure, a mainstay, a need all her life.

Here Janice describes the beginning of her reading journey.  

Janice as a young child

I was reading long before school. I will never forget the moment when I realised that I could read. I was in church with my father and the hymn was All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I knew. Turning my hymn book round (I was holding it upside down), I realised that the black marks were the words! I was so excited I climbed on the pew and shouted, ‘Daddy, I can read!’ The Presbyterian congregation did not appreciate my joyful interruption, and I was smacked and went without pudding at lunch. I was so thrilled that I didn’t care and went round the house looking for print to practise on. As a librarian I was always moved when a child learned to read whilst in the library. It was like finding the key to a magic kingdom.

My parents were both serious readers and regular public library users. My mother was also a member of Boots Booklovers’ Library, which was in walking distance. Going to the ‘proper’ library entailed a long bus journey. Once my father bought a car, however, trips to the public library were easier.

There was a reasonable collection of books at home but very little children’s literature. I was always begging my many aunts and uncles for books as birthday or Christmas presents. As my mother was one of ten children and my father one of four, I did pretty well. In those days children often received postal orders as presents and if I could prevent my mother from appropriating the money for new shoes, I was able to buy a book. One Christmas my aunt in Canada sent me Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, but this was an edition all in pictures with truncated text. I adored it and was very disappointed when my father bought me the original version. I missed the illustrations.

The copy of Heidi bought by Janice’s father

I could not have survived without the library. I could always read at great speed; it is genetic and my daughter inherited the skill. Even then though the library was frustrating. We were only allowed three books at a time and I had read them all in the first 24 hours. Then a whole week before the next visit! Being able to read so fast was a blessing and a curse as my daughter also discovered. No teacher would believe me when I said I had finished the set book on the first day and I was always being surreptitiously tested. Eventually a new headmistress recognised my genuine distress at being accused of lying and told the staff that I could have access to all the books in the classroom. In later years I found myself trying to explain the ability to my daughter’s teachers.

My parents who were strict in some ways were remarkably liberal about reading and I was allowed to read anything. The only book my mother ever censored was a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. I still have no idea why. I have never subscribed to the theory that children should only read ‘age-appropriate’ material. I had browsed The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Kama Sutra before I was eleven. I only understood what I knew and ignored the rest. My mother asked me one day what the Kama Sutra was about. She had no idea what it was. I remember saying that it was very strange but had a chapter on flower arranging (as it has). Neither she nor I had any idea why my father laughed so much!

My father did get exasperated at my constant questions about unfamiliar words and introduced me to the dictionary. I found it helpful but also frustrating as each definition seemed to require another one and I often felt I was going round in circles. He gave me an atlas as well but when I couldn’t find Narnia, I decided it wasn’t very helpful. One day he arrived home with an old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. This kept me going for a whole summer. I read all the stories first, then history and mythology. I ignored most of the ‘informative’ sections but do remember lace-making in Nottingham, dress-making pins from Sheffield and shoes in Leicester.

As a child I suffered badly from bronchial asthma and in the winter, not helped by the awful fogs and coal fires of the period, I was often off school for weeks. This did little for my maths; I seemed to miss the introduction of long division or whatever. However I could read in bed. I preferred my mother’s choice of books from the library. She often took Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. My father brought The Last of the Mohicans and Wind in the Willows (which I never liked). But Dad also gave me David Copperfield, which began a lifelong love of Charles Dickens. There were lots of books for boys too, but I found all the stories of saving the empire and killing natives both boring and upsetting. I didn’t mind stories about animals as long as there were no killing sprees. My father, who often went abroad for work, did give me travel books and I adored Farley Mowat’s book about the Inuit people.

Rumpelstiltskin, from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (ca. 1889)

Original illustration from David Copperfield

Original illustration from David Copperfield

I was called an imaginative child, but in fact all children are. I lived my characters. If I was told off, I was Marie Antoinette in a tumbril or Mary Queen of Scots on the block. Like many children, I found comfort and solace in my literary companions.

When I was ten, I won a national painting competition. We had to paint ‘the most exciting place in the world.’ I was the only child to paint a library.  I won an enormous box of Reeves paints but was also allowed to choose a book. I opted for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and my father was disappointed, as he wanted me to pick something sensible like Woodworking Tips for Boys. I still have my prize book.

My sister Rebecca and I began classifying our own books early on. Well, I did, and she enjoyed stamping them out to our dolls. To this day I wonder why we classified Ballet Shoes as ‘E7’. It’s as incomprehensible as the Library of Congress classification scheme.

Not all of my large, extended family approved of my addiction to books. When I was diagnosed with severe myopia, at the age of ten, my poor mother often faced a chorus of ‘Well, we told you she would go blind’. I remember, in her defence, saying to one great aunt that sewing also made one go blind and told her about French nuns ruining their eyes making lace. She looked at me and said ‘Well, we don’t need to worry about your reaching that level of expertise.’ This was unfair because I can sew, but her embroidery was exquisite.

Orkney was an important influence. My mother was Orcadian, as am I, and in my childhood we went there every year. We visited lots of relatives and I was allowed access to all their books. There were a lot of Victorian ‘prize books’ and I read many moralistic tales in which daughters saved their fathers from intemperance and nursed dying siblings. Later on I did my dissertation on the impact of prize books as a major source of reading material in isolated and poor communities. This is probably where my love of Victorian and Edwardian literature began, although my mother’s admiration for Mrs Henry Wood might also have been a factor. She and I often intoned ‘Gone! And never called me mother!’[i]

Some of Janice’s collection of prize books

Orkney has a strong oral tradition so I experienced stories long before I could read. Language is powerful and its cadences and rhythms communicate so much. As a librarian I was passionate about telling or reading stories to children. For example, I have worked with children with severe learning difficulties and have never failed to engage with them through stories. And on another occasion, when I visited Africa for work, I followed a story-telling session. The children all knew and loved the story. I couldn’t understand a word but heard the build-up and the repetition of phrases. I was gripped. When we reached the denouement, I fell off my chair, which made the little ones laugh. While I didn’t understand the words, I felt the power of the story.

 

[i] This famous line is in fact not from Mrs Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, but from the stage adaptations.

Onder moeders paraplu. Or, Under Mother’s Umbrella

Here is another post, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s. The illustration below is from the wall hanging which Julia made at the time.

Here is the Dutch original:

Onder moeders paraplu
Liepen eens twee kindjes,
Hanneke en Janneke,
Dat waren dikke vrindjes.
En hun klompjes gingen klik, klak, klik,
En de regen deed van tik, tak, tik,
Op moeders paraplu.

Toen kwam Jan de Wind erbij,
Die joeg eerst heel zoetjes,
Toen al hard en harder maar
De regen in hun snoetjes.
En Jan de Wind, die rukte en trok,
En op en neder ging de stok
Van moeders paraplu.

Maar Hanneke en Janneke
Dat waren flinke klantjes!
Die hielden stijf de paraplu
In allebei hun handjes.
En ze lachten blij van hi, ha, hi,
En ze riepen: Jan, jij krijgt hem nie!
‘t Is moeders paraplu!

Textile by Julia Banks

And here is Eleanor’s English version:

Under Mother’s umbrella two friends were walking,
Jack and Johnny, they were stout friends.
And their little clogs went click, clack, click,
And the rain went tick, tack, tick,
On Mother’s umbrella.

Then along came Jan-the-Wind, who – first of all quite sweetly,
But then harder and harder – drove the rain in their faces.
And Jan-the-Wind, he pulled and pushed,
And up and down went the stick
Of Mother’s umbrella.

Jack and Johnny, they were hefty customers.
They held tight to the umbrella in both their hands
And laughed merrily with ‘Hee, ha, hee!’
And shouted, ‘Jan, you won’t get it!
It’s Mother’s umbrella!’

Here are other Dutch nursery rhymes and Eleanor’s versions in English.

A, B, C, The Cat Comes with Me
In The Hague There Lives a Count
Sinterklaas

Sinterklaas

A post for Christmas from poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s. The illustration below is from the wall hanging which Julia made at the time.

Sinterklaas Kapoentje,
gooi wat in m’n schoentje,
gooi wat in m’n laarsje.
Dank u, Sinterklaasje.

Saint Nicholas, little capon,
Throw something in my little shoe
Throw something in my little boot.
Thank you, little Saint Nicholas!

Textile by Julia Banks

A brief but interesting rhyme appropriate for the time of year. It’s tempting to render Sinterklaas as Santa Claus, but that probably takes him a step further away from the 4th century Greek bishop whose feast day on December 6th. That was when Dutch and other European children would traditionally leave their shoes out, in the hope that the kindly saint or his proxies would leave sweets, gingerbread and other goodies in them.

Mama Lisa’s World gives ‘kapoentje’ as ‘you rascal’, and is coy about it: ‘This is a very short song and the word ‘kapoentje’ is a very old word with its origin not necessarily being positive. Over time however, its meaning is believed to be more in the context of a nickname of sorts.’ In fact, if you take off the diminutive ending ‘-tje’ (the thing that in English turns John into [little] Johnny and pig into [little] piggy), you are left with ‘kapoen’, which simply means capon: a castrated cock fowl destined for the cooking pot. Maybe a disrespectful reference to the bishop’s clerical celibacy, but after all, ‘rascal’ was once freighted with much more disapproval than it is now.

Even before listening to the Dutch spoken by a translating tool, my eye was caught by ‘gooi wat’ – literally, ‘throw something’ – for which we have a perfect north-east English dialect equivalent in the verb ‘hoy’. And indeed, the initial sound of ‘gooi’ is soft and aspirated, like a throaty ‘h’. So ‘gooi wat in m’n schoentje’ might better be represented by ‘hoy summat in wor shoesies’.

But I’m a poet, I’m attracted to a lot of stuff that linguists and oral historians would strenuously disagree with or disapprove of – so do feel free to tell me I’m making up false cognates.

Merry Christmas and all the best for 2019!

 

In The Hague There Lives A Count
A, B, C, The Cat Comes With Me

In The Hague There Lives A Count

Here is a second post, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s. The illustration below is from the wall hanging which Julia made at the time.

Textile by Julia Banks

In Den Haag daar woont een Graaf
En zijn zoon heet Jantje
Als je vraagt ‘Waar woont je Pa?’
Dan wijst hij met zijn Handje
Met vingertje en duim
Op zijn hoed draagt hij een Pluim
Aan zijn arm een Mandje……
Dag mijn lieve Jantje.

Statue in The Hague, by Ivo Coljé, 1976 (source: Steven Lek, Wikimedia Commons)

In The Hague there lives a Count
He has a son named Johnny
If you ask, ‘Where does your Daddy live?’
He points there with his little hand,
His little finger and his thumb.
On his hat he wears a plume,
On his arm a basket.
Good day to you, dear Johnny.

In Den Haag daar woont een graaf is a very well known Dutch nursery rhyme. Jantje – we would say Johnny in English – may be Jan I (John I) who became the Graafschap Holland (Count of the County of Holland) in 1296, when his father, Floris V, was assassinated. Jantje was only 13 years old, and after two years gave up his position to his cousin John II. Jantje died within the month. The Hague was traditionally the Graafschap’s residence, and in 1976, to celebrate its 750th anniversary, the City Council commissioned the statue shown here from sculptor Ivo Coljé.

It is possible that the rhyme is not about Jan I. Jan was a very common Dutch name, and it neatly rhymes with ‘Mandje’ (‘basket’) and ‘Handje’ (‘hand’).

Source: Local Heart, Global Soul

Here is Eleanor’s first nursery rhyme post.

A, B, C, The Cat Comes With Me

By Eleanor Brown

Here is the first of an occasional series of posts, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children when they lived in The Netherlands in the 1960s.

Later on, when I was married, I did have a lot of spare time. Because we moved to Holland in ’65 and we didn’t have a television. I spent a lot of time learning Dutch, because I’d got by then two young children who would go into nursery school, and I would need to be able to sing to them, nursery rhymes and so on. So my Dutch is based on nursery rhymes; I can’t discuss anything political, but I can sing you a nursery rhyme! And so a lot of my time there I went to the British Women’s Club Library…

With no YouTube to visit for colourful animations including a friendly ball bouncing along subtitled lyrics in time with the music; with no Babel Fish (RIP) or Google Translate to show texts side by side with their translations; with no smartphone language app encouragingly keeping score of learning tasks completed, Julia had to find her own way into Dutch. She must have had to learn tunes, pronunciation and intonations at toddler groups; perhaps at mother and baby sessions at the library. She must have had to do some guesswork and dictionary work at first, piecing together the meanings of (sometimes more or less nonsensical) texts with clues from the illustrations in books.

As in English, many Dutch early learning songs tell no very rational or sequential tale: bears buttering their sandwiches and snakes hanging out the washing are wonders to be met with in a world where beren rhymes with smeren and slangen rhymes with hangen.

In the absence of a television, Julia made her own visual aid: she coded her own and her children’s learning into a cross-stitch needlework textile wall hanging that illustrates 12 traditional Dutch nursery rhymes. The texts (together with audio and translations) of some of these can be found at Mama Lisa’s World: Children’s Songs and Nursery Rhymes From Around The World but if you make your own translations, you can enjoy finding equivalents for the flavour, rhythm or silliness of the original.

They range from the briefest summary of domestic animal whereabouts:

Textile by Julia Banks

A, B, C,                                           A, B, C,

De Kat gaat me,                          The cat comes with me,

De Hond blijft thuis.                   The dog stops at home.

‘Piep!’ zei de muis                        ‘Eek!’ says the mouse

In ‘t voorhuis.                                In the front of the house.

to a long, earnest account of (Everyboy) Jantje’s moral struggle as he gazes at the ripe plums his father has forbidden him to scrump. They include such recognisable childhood experiences as pulling your friend along in a little wagon, holding tight to mother’s umbrella in the wind and rain, and calling your sister stupid when you drop your cap in the mud.