Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 28 Mar 2021

Finding old friends a new home: pleasure or pain?

My name is Karen and I am a self-confessed book hoarder. Perhaps it is something to do with these strange Covid times, but  I am reluctant to give away anything from my comfortable nest. My husband is very different to me and shows a disturbing propensity to dramatically cull his book collection as one of his preferred lockdown activities.

I can’t quite believe that I have now been retired from my job as a university lecture for over five happy years.  During my academic life I accumulated a huge quantity of books and gladly got rid of loads that were about tedious subjects like research theory. I even gave away several relating to children’s literature, because I was determined to clear some space on my shelves.  Not only did I teach this fascinating subject to undergraduate students, but I was also doing a PhD that required masses of reading and research. I loved having my own printed books to refer to rather than to borrow from libraries or using electronic sources.  Despite my hesitancy, I have at last admitted to myself that I no longer need a bookcase full of books on some pretty esoteric subjects. My task was to sift through them all and be ruthless (with my happy husband egging me on).

I have of course kept all the beautiful ones about illustrators like Helen Oxenbury and Charles Keeping that are brimming with illustrations – and there are lots of these that I have enjoyed rediscovering. They are usually very big and so take up lots of room, but they are safe.

Some renowned authors who write about children’s literature such as Marina Warner and Jack Zipes are just too good to give away. We were lucky enough to enjoy events with both these stars some years ago when they signed several books for us. They are safe too.

Which authors and illustrators of children’s books was I really interested in reading about? Just because I enjoy their output – do I really care about their lives? I tried to be more ruthless with these ones but it was still difficult. I just couldn’t bear to part with books about Edith Nesbit, Alison Uttley, Alan Garner, Tove Jansson and many more. If I don’t read them, some might go in the next clear out (but maybe not).

The more educational ones about reading and writing weren’t such a wrench to take off the shelves as I haven’t been a teacher for about twenty years, and doubt that I will ever have the inclination to look at them again. To be honest, I never read any of these when I was doing the job because the day to day teaching took up all my energy. It wasn’t until I was teaching more theoretical stuff at university that I realised just how many there were – and lots of them are badly written.

It was a painful process deciding which ones about social justice, equality, discrimination and identity I was going to get rid of, partly because they played such an important part of my professional identity for several years. I decided that I had to select a few significant ones to keep from my PhD research. The first was Disability in Modern Children’s Fiction by John Quicke (1985), (still packed with Post-its) because this was the one that had first inspired my research. I also kept Catching Them Young 1, Sex , Race and Class in Children’s Fiction ( 1977) and Catching Them Young 2, Political Ideas in Children’s Fiction (1977) by Bob Dixon because they were so interesting , and still very relevant.  Who knows, I might even dip into them again one day.

The initial cull was very hard but then I had another go and actually found it rather liberating! This may be because I had decided to offer the books to people who would definitely give them a good home. I gave first refusal to a couple of children’s literature academics who had been grateful to have books before. Then I offered the remaining collection free to anyone interested on a couple of specialist Facebook groups, asking for postage and packing. I had a big response from these as people from as far afield as Kuala Lumpur seemed delighted at the opportunity. I took several photos and started to make piles of books with addresses to send them off. Then it all got a bit complicated as some people didn’t have cheque books/ changed their minds at the last minute or wanted to know more about the content before committing. But I am pleased to say that it all ended happily with my once treasured books being parcelled up to begin new lives with a range of appreciative  owners soon. It was all quite cathartic in the long run and I still have a bookcase full of treats. I hope that I don’t regret doing it …  

Karen Argent

March 2021