This morning, it was announced that the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) had named the Japanese writer Nahoko Uehashi and Brazilan illustrator Roger Mello the winners of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Founded in 1956, the biannual “Nobel of Children’s Literature” honors outstanding contributions to both writing and illustration. Past winners have included Maurice Sendak, Paula Fox, Tomi Ungerer, and Tove Jansson. They are, of course, named for the Danish writer of the world’s most disturbing fairy tales, and the recipients are given a medal, emblazoned with Andersen’s likeness, by the Queen of Denmark.
The very first Andersen Award was presented to the prolific British writer Eleanor Farjeon, for her extremely bizarre collection The Little Bookroom. This book, illustrated by the peerless Edward Ardizzone, is composed of twenty-seven stories, all somewhat remote in tone, frequently redolent of loneliness, and often carrying a vague air of allegory.
To this day, a copy of The Little Bookroom sits on my nightstand, although I would be hard pressed to explain exactly why it should prove so comforting. The cozy title is misleading, although it derives from an actual room in the author’s childhood home. As she writes in the foreword,
Of all the rooms in the house, the Little Bookroom was yielded up to books as an untended garden is left to its flowers and weeds. There was no selection or sense of order here. In dining-room, study, and nursery there was choice and arrangement; but the Little Bookroom gathered to itself a motley crew of strays and vagabonds, outcasts from the ordered shelves below, the overflow of parcels bought wholesale by my father in the sales-rooms. Much trash, and more treasure. Riff-raff and gentlefolk and noblemen. A lottery, a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.
Perhaps this gives some sense of the book’s appeal: it is rigorously unpatronizing, even though the author frequently adopts the lilting cadence of an oft-told fairy tale. In fact, some of the stories look, at first glance, like fairy tales: “The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon,” “The Little Dressmaker,” and “The Giant and the Mite” feature casts familiar to anyone raised on Grimm. But just when the reader is lulled into comfort, the stories turn strange and elliptical. Desires are not gratified; people behave like people; life goes on. For instance, when the king’s daughter cries for the moon, the entire kingdom is dispatched to gratify her whim and chaos ensues. But,
“What’s for dinner?” they were asking all over the country; and the Women stirred the pots, and the Men went back to work, and the Sun rose in the East and set in the West; and the world forgot in less than no time everything that comes about when the King’s Daughter cries for the Moon.
Similarly, “The Little Dressmaker” seems to be leading towards a familiar conclusion: rewarded for her virtue and beauty, the protagonist will marry the young prince. Instead, the young prince turns out to be a footman, though they do indeed live happily ever after. In this respect, Farjeon was of her times: the literary fairy tale was a common form in the pain-shaded years following World War I. But she also wrote stories set in contemporary England, dealing frankly with matters of class and with childhood isolation. Whether her subject is homely or fantastical, her tone is unsentimental.
My copy is a library discard, still bearing a yellowed piece of protective plastic. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t own it, and the tattered hardcover shows its age. Like Farjeon’s childhood home, my parents’ house was an overwhelming jumble of books, and all kinds of things made their way onto my bookshelf.
Book editors hiring new assistants or interns tend to roll their eyes at certain phrases that pop up again and again in applications: “love of the written word,” “the smell of books.” These are common enough to suggest a fairly widespread fetish, and conjure images of opium den–style rooms full of slack-jawed addicts hungrily burying their faces in decaying Bantams. And yet we know what they mean. Paper stock and binding glue aside—and not to get too precious about it—few can deny that there is something deeply evocative about the sense-memory of a large expanse of assorted, uncurated books—much trash, and often much less treasure—at a library sale or used bookstore. As Farjeon writes, these “must all come to dust in some little bookroom or other—and sometimes, by luck, come again for a moment to light.”