It was a hardback and about the size of a Ladybird book. It had plenty of pictures but they weren't full page ones, separated from the text, but integrated into the text. It told the longer stories of some of the nursery rhyme characters: why Jack and Jill had gone up the hill, what made Mary so contrary, and how someone had managed to produce silver and gold fruit on an ordinary nut tree, and so on. Very importantly, the pictures told much of the stories and looked a little like the sets for a play; I was able to use the residents of my dolls' house to help me create all sorts of new stories in the pages of my "Jack and Jill" book.
I had frequent occurrences of tonsillitis when I was a small child. This meant a bed was made up on the sofa, chicken soup for lunch and books to amuse. I couldn't read back then but the pictures told me a lot. Besides I'd had the book read to me so often that I knew the stories off by heart and I could almost recite them.
Dad used to come home every day for lunch. One day as I was lying on the sofa he came in quite proudly and announced "I've picked up this book for you on the way home." It was such a big deal back then; money was still very tight in the early 1950s and books were much more expensive than they are today.
I was delighted that I had a new book but when I looked at it more closely I was so disappointed. It was the "Jack and Jill" book.
"I've already got that," I said.
He was devastated.
"We can give it to someone as a birthday present," my mother said. She placed it carefully in the middle drawer of the sideboard. There seemed to be no question of returning it to the shop.
My father and I shared a love of books. There were a few in our home at that time but nowhere near the number I now have or he acquired later. I was keen to learn to read and insisted he taught me a little each night. I was jealous of my older cousins, frequent visitors to our home, as we lived with my paternal grandmother. They could all read and they seemed to enjoy such adventures in their books.
Dad and I used a children's illustrated Bible that he read to me each evening, pointing out some of the words. I gradually learnt to decode "the" and "a". I was further helped by the names of the shops. I could soon associate the letter shapes with the so familiar sounds.
Then school happened and I could soon read so competently that I would spend early Sunday mornings reading my father's Children's Encyclopaedia. I made it my mission to learn one poem a week and also to learn French. There were illustrated stories, with the words in French, in English and with the phonetic pronunciation of French.
The "Jack and Jill" book remained a favourite. I used it so much as a stage set and later as I learnt to read it became so very thumbed that the pictures began to fade and the pages began to drop out. One day when I yet again had tonsillitis it just fell to pieces. Already quite weakened by a very sore throat and a high temperature I burst into tears.
"Never mind," said my mother. "We've got a spare." She produced the one my father had bought when I'd been ill earlier. Perhaps he'd done the best thing after all.
About the author
Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown.
She edits CafeLit.
She writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation
She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing
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