Friday, April 08, 2005


I took Scrappino to the library yesterday. Scrappino is a voracious reader. He is always reading; fiction, non-fiction, comics, anything. You rarely find him without his nose in a book. And I’m not referring to The Hungry Caterpillar or Where the Wild Things Are. I’m talking proper paperbacks. [Would it be obscenely “my son the doctor” of me to add that, at his recent open night at school, his teacher told me that she had assessed his reading ability and found that he has the reading age of 12?]

The problem is (and I recognise that it’s a lovely problem to have, but still, the problem is) that Scrappino is invariably drawn, as if by some unseen force, to books that are part of a series, rather than stand alone books. His first love was the Horrible Histories series. They are a terrific set of books, written for children, each one dealing with a different era of British History. The gimmick is that the author concentrates on the nasty, gory parts of history. So you find titles such as The Slimy Stuarts or The Vile Victorians. And although the idea might have begun as a gimmick, the outcome is that Scrappino has an incredible knowledge of history. (I don’t mind admitting it, it’s much better than mine.) But if you start a series with The Scary Stone Age and work your way up to The Blitzed Brits you end up with a lot of books. At the last count, there were 22 in the series. And the author is still going strong.

So my initial purchase of one book (rrp. £4.99) has escalated beyond all expectations. One book led to another, and then a third and a fourth. And so on. A fiver a time, over twenty books in the series. You do the math.

And it’s not just non-fiction that plays this trick on unsuspecting parents. Fiction is just as wily – if not more so. Scrappino’s favourite set of fiction titles is the Roman Mysteries series. They tell the story of four children living in Ancient Rome who solve mysteries. A bit like the Famous Five, only with togas and no lashings of ginger beer. There is a dog though. I bought him the first book in the series without realising that it was the first of 15. Only 8 have been written so far, which at least gives me time to save up. But still, 15 fivers works out at a fair old outlay. And there’s no guarantee that the author will stop at 15. Would you, at £4.99 a pop?

Without fail, Scrappino manages to find books that inevitably lead to others in a set. While his classmates collect football stickers, and badger their mums for new packets of Panini stickers each time they go to the supermarket, Scrappino is on the lookout for titles he’s not read in whatever series of books is the current favourite. I have tried to steer him to stand-alone one-off titles. But with little success. At a recent trip to Smiths, he chose a copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. As I was paying, I decided not to tell him that the book is the first in a series of six. But a child with a reading age of 12 is quite capable of reading the “Other books by CS Lewis” page, and so he is now badgering me for the next five.

I suppose the fact that CS Lewis is no longer alive to charge me a fiver for new paperbacks is some comfort. But a dead author is not necessarily a guarantee that the required outlay will be small. I dread the day that Scrappino discovers Enid Blyton (45 Famous Five books and 37 Secret Sevens). Luckily, once you’ve read one Famous Five, you really have read them all. But it takes at least four books before you realise that fully.

The upshot of all this reading is that Scrappino is the proud owner of a lot of paperbacks. Unlike most adults, myself included, who read a book once and then never look at it again, he does make the most of every title. He will read, re-read and then re-re-read every one. Often, if I’m reading out loud to him at bedtime, I will catch him reciting the words under his breath, without looking at the page. He’s got it down pat, off by heart. So he does at least make the most of every purchase.

But, be that as it may, I have decided that enough is enough. I explained to Scrappino this week that we just can’t keep buying every title in a series of 20. We are going to have to economise. And so I suggested a trip to the library.

I haven’t taken Scrappino to the library for years. I used to take him to the library when he was much younger, for “Song Circle with Debbie”. But I soon gave it up. It was full of unbearably pushy mums, who would interpret a slight jiggle when the music started as a sure indication that their baby was ‘very musical’. The kind of mum who treats parenting as a competitive sport. “Is Scrappino walking yet? Our Jonny was walking at 3 months and talking at 10 months. Our Minnie is taking her 11plus next week and she’s only 5”. You know the kind of parent. [The kind that boasts about their 7-year old’s reading age, perhaps??]

But needs must, and so off we went yesterday to the library. As it’s been a while since we were last there, I stopped before we walked in and reminded Scrappino how libraries operate. “First off” I said, “you have to be really quiet. Don’t run around, don’t shout, whisper, and try not to drop anything”. I opened the library door, took one step inside and was hit by a loud wailing. Song Circle was just finishing and the place was overrun with very musical toddlers. The children’s section of the library was full of screaming kids demanding juice, boisterous toddlers trying to snatch tambourines out of Debbie’s hands as she packed everything away, watching the clock and no doubt cursing under her breath. And, inevitably, there were the children desperate for the toilet. (There are always children desperate for the toilet.) For reasons best known to Barnet Council, there is no toilet in our local library. Well, there is, but it is for staff use only. So this huge library, with a massive kids section offering daily children’s activities, has no kids loo. Round the side of the building there are always frantic middle-class mums, letting their kids wee against the wall, hoping that their neighbours don’t see them. They smile weakly to each other and mumble, “oh well, only natural, perfectly natural” and dream of the days before they had kids when an afternoon on the Broadway involved buying shoes and drinking coffee rather than allowing over-tired two-year-olds to pish in the street.

At the desk, I asked the assistant if we could borrow a book. She asked me for my library card which I duly handed over.
“It’s out of date. You’ll have to get a new one”.
“You’ll need three lots of ID.”
“Three lots of ID? But you know who I am. You issued that card to me. Two years ago”
“But it’s out of date. You’ll have to get a new one”
“Yes, I’m happy to get a new one. But I don’t see why I need ID. You know who I am. You gave me that card”.
“But it’s out of date”
I can’t be bothered to argue.
“Okay, forget the card. Can we sit in the library and read the books here?”

Once the throngs of toddlers had dispersed, Scrappino and I had a bit of space to take a look around. He inspected the books on one wall while I looked at the other. I found fiction first and then spotted The Roman Mysteries. “They’re over here” I said. And then, like the voice of God out of nowhere, came a huge rumbling. “SSSSHHHHH!!!!!”. In the corner, sat the most officious librarian you’ve ever met. “Please keep the noise down. This is a library”. I looked over at the door where, at that very moment, a mother was changing the nappy of a screeching 1-year-old, but I resisted the urge to point out the obvious.

Scrappino picked up the book I’d spotted and sat down to read it.
“You can’t sit there. That’s the Information Technology Suite. It’s reserved for pupils doing GCSE revision. You’ll have to sit somewhere else”. The information technology suite was a large table with four computers on it and four empty chairs round it.
“But there’s nowhere else to sit” I replied.
“He’ll have to sit over there” and she pointed to the toddlers play area.
“What, in the fire engine??”

Scrappino did his best, but it isn’t easy trying to concentrate on a book when you’re squashed into a red box, designed to look like a fire engine, with your legs hanging over the doors and your head cocked to one side because of the wooden ladder. “Tell you what,” I said “let’s go into the adults area.”

If Scrappino had expected a more relaxed reading environment in the adult’s library, he was disappointed. We found chairs that didn’t require the skills of a yoga expert to sit in. But it was the noisiest library I’d ever visited. It had that quiet noise – where you can hear every radiator hum, every light bulb buzz, every chair creak. And noisiest of all, were the librarians themselves. Despite the kids’ librarian’s shushing, I could hear all her colleagues chattering in the corner, with that half whisper half shout sort of voice.
“What time are you on til Jean?”
“I’m on late today. You?”
“Off at five. Do you want a cup of tea before I go?”

Scrappino asked me, “I thought you said you can’t talk in a library”. Both librarians turned to us and “SSSSHHHH!!!” at Scrappino.

And it wasn’t just the staff making a noise. After we’d been sitting down for ten minutes or so, Jean started pushing the library trolley round our chairs as she re-stacked the shelves. Is there a carpentry business that specialises in wooden library trolleys. They must attach special wheels that screech as they move along the carpet, or make a loud click with every turn. And Jean was not happy just placing the books on the shelves. She had to throw them down with a thud each time. And yet when Scrappino sneezed she glared at us and pointed to the Quiet Please notice.

We soldiered on for about twenty minutes. Scrappino had read a quarter of his book and I had wandered up and down the aisles, looking at all the Catherine Cooksons and Maeve Bincheys. Then suddenly the doors open and it’s like the AGM of the local WI. Fifteen or so old women arrive with a young man and make their way towards us. I once saw a David Attenborough documentary where he placed a camera in the way of a herd of stampeding elephants and just let it roll. The footage was terrifying. And not unlike 15 elderly women charging towards you carrying ring binders, reading glasses and pencil cases. Jean rushed up to Scrappino and me and told us that we would have to leave. Our chairs were now needed by the old dears who were enrolled in a ‘Computers for the Retired’ course. I stood and watched in horror and disbelief. The modern keyboard was not designed to accommodate the arthritic hand. And there is little more pitiful than the sight of an eighty year old lady staring at the computer screen, first at a distance then close up, first with her glasses on and then without, and asking her neighbour, “Is that the cursor or is there a mark on the screen?”. And then wiping the screen clean with the wet corner of her hanky.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh. It is amazing to learn a new skill later in life. And the t-shirt that their instructor was wearing “Learning for Life” with the byline underneath “studying shouldn’t stop at sixteen” is certainly noble. But as Scrappino couldn’t get a chair anywhere in the library because of teenagers surfing in chat rooms and OAP’s looking for lost cursors I did wonder whether he might have to wait til he was sixteen to begin learning.

So we came home empty handed. I’ll be back to Smiths in the morning. It may be pricy, but I don’t need three forms of ID, they won’t make Scrappino sit in box and they won’t look at us like we’re evil if we sneeze. It’s a shame, but doing things the cheap way isn’t worth the effort.


Anonymous P in the USA said...

Thanks for a great giggle. R & I both enjoyed it. Your voice comes across so clearly that I feel like I am talking to you and I am missing you at the same time.

6:34 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic read your library blog, got some strange looks in the office due to my giggling fit at my desk, i could actually visualize and understand every moment as i take my two kids to the local library.

May i suggest you may want to frequent the odd car boot sale you will find books for next too nothing especially the tried and trusted editions of the likes of the Famous Five etc etc...

Good luck and happy hunting.

P xx

11:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic read your library blog, got some strange looks in the office due to my giggling fit at my desk, i could actually visualize and understand every moment as i take my two kids to the local library.

May i suggest you may want to frequent the odd car boot sale you will find books for next too nothing especially the tried and trusted editions of the likes of the Famous Five etc etc...

Good luck and happy hunting.

P xx

11:06 am  

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