‘Pack your bags – we’re off!’
Lu Fraser takes a look at bookish ‘belonging’…
I love suitcases – I really do.
I love the way they’re often a little battered and covered in strange labels, I love the moment when I zip a bulging suitcase closed and I love the feeling of shutting my front door, hauling my suitcase behind me, because it can only mean one thing – there’s an adventure about to begin! Even when I was four years old, I never grew tired of ‘setting off’ – dragging my little case down my Grandma’s garden path towards the greenhouse as I wobbled my way towards the cucumbers. Now that I’m a (sort of) grown up, the contents of my suitcase has changed a bit; I’ve swapped the plastic zebra for a phone that I can’t work and I no longer carry a jar of caterpillars, but one thing still remains the same – I always, ALWAYS pack a book.
Well…you’re probably expecting me to say it’s because I LOVE books or because I am an avid reader, or maybe because I’m in the middle of a book so good I can’t put it down or because it’s a habit or even because it gives me something to do when I’m sat by myself in a restaurant (and all of these reasons would be true!) but I’ve also come to the conclusion that it’s so much more than this. Books, it seems, have a super-power; no matter where I am in this world, holding a book in my hand has the ability to make me feel like I fit in – like I ‘belong’. It’s a very special sort of bookish magic, I think, and it’s not just because a book feels friendly or because it feels like I’ve brought a little piece of something familiar with me, anchoring me to my real life far away. Books, it seems, silently reach out to people you’ve never met before. Alone at a café table, book in hand, something tremendous happens; subtly, quietly, unexpectedly, my book communicates to other bookish people around me (and to the not-so-bookish, too!). A pause from the waiter as he takes in the cover, a slight smile from a passing shopper, a whispered comment from the next table as they recognise their favourite author. We may not even speak the same language but slowly, tentatively, my book connects me to those sipping coffee or wandering by – I may be sat by myself but I’m not alone anymore! Find a bookshop or a library and the effect is magnified a hundredfold as book-loving people amble through the shelves in a happy co-existence. We may read different texts but the underlying sense of ‘belonging’ – of sharing a commonality – is palpable.
Back on a more tangible level, open the cover of a book and you’ll probably find the theme of ‘belonging’ pervading the actual pages, too. I’m lucky enough to sit on both sides of the literary table, and to not only be a reader but to also be a writer, as well (and doubly lucky, I think, because I get to write for what is, in my mind, the very best age group of all – children!). Innocently, honestly, awkwardly, fantastically and sometimes painfully, children start on the jigsaw of life, trying to make sense of the world around them and how they fit into it – where they ‘belong’. It’s no surprise, therefore, that this is a theme you’ll encounter in the books created for them again and again – mine included. When I first imagined Gertie, ‘The Littlest Yak’, the idea grew from watching my own daughter trying to find her place in the world; the words ‘There isn’t a thing that a BIG yak can’t do’ showing Gertie’s utter longing to grow up and be like the rest of the herd – to ‘belong’. In ‘One Camel called Doug’, this concept grew into a squashy-toed caravan of camels, with Doug convinced he needs a whole host of humpity-chums to give his days a sense of purpose and make him feel complete and, ‘though my lips are tightly sealed regarding my new project with brilliant illustrator Kate Hindly, let’s just say the underlying current of ‘belonging’ has risen even more firmly to the surface in our next book.
If I’m being honest, the very act of being a writer gives me a sense of belonging, too; I’m part of a brilliant agency, I belong to a wonderful publishing family and I’m a fragment of an incredible writing community. And as for my actual stories and characters? Well, that’s the kind of ‘calm belonging’ that’s hard to describe – I know who I am when I write…I know exactly where I fit.
So, as I sit here looking at the empty suitcase waiting to be filled, there’s one thing I am absolutely certain of – no matter how far my travels may take me, as long as I have packed a book, I’ll always feel right at home…