My childhood, books & the gift of stray dogs

To celebrate the publication of My Meerkat Mum (her 15th picture book), Ruth Paul reflects on the childhood stories and antics that turned her into a grown-up reader, writer and illustrator.

Once I won a prize. My sister forced me into winning it. She stood over me while I stabbed the colouring-in competition (instead of her) with my felt-pens and said, ‘there’s a gap there’ or ‘do it better’. Clearly, it worked, because a few weeks later a brown-paper parcel addressed to me arrived in the mail. OMG! What could be inside? Makeup? Hair things? A new pair of brown corduroy Levi flares miraculously packed into a very small box?

Nope. Turns out it was a book. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I was torn by this gift. 1) It was mine, all mine and NOT any of my sisters. 2) It was NEW and unsullied. 3) It had a tiny bit of gold on the dust jacket. 4) It had no pictures. 5) The title was really stupid. 6) The characters were way too posh. 7) There were too many words. 8) I couldn’t read many of the words before thinking about David Cassidy, and: 9) A talking Lion? I mean, honestly, it’s not like he even said anything funny.

So, the book sat proudly amongst the special trinkets on top of my drawers (or ‘dresser’ as the girl in the book called it) and watched while I read my sisters Pink magazines.

Truth be told, I wasn’t much of a reader. But as a child I was lucky enough to be the recipient of my father’s stories, usually told after a few beers (him, not me) and just before sleep (him, not me). They were magnificent, silly, funny, weary stories set in a fairyland-of-sorts where all the stray dogs that congregated at our house became royal characters. Their adventures were both naughty and banal. For example: the wicked Ogre had made something of a habit of eating the fairy’s piano, finding the white keys to be particularly delicious. So, in a classic sting, the fairies replaced the white keys with old white dog-poo, which the Ogre greedily gobbled up. Hilarious! I couldn’t get enough.

These stories became my first ‘series’. Of course, there were Enid’s famous fives and sevens, then later in primary school I developed a great love of the undoubtedly plebeian ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators’. These books were SOOOOOOOO good – Jupiter, Bob and Pete had a secret headquarters in an old caravan in a car yard where I could hang out with them and be part of their gang, and the mysteries we solved were epic. Whenever I was gifted one of these books, or scraped up enough money to buy my own, the thrill easily matched that of a sparkly new lip gloss.

Somewhere in amongst these adventure series in which kids deconstructed baffling crimes I started my own gang, setting out to solve the mystery of the Severn Street Dog Poisoner. Yes, all the stars of my father’s first series were slowly killed off as someone threw meat laced with cyanide into their paths. One by one, we had variously discovered Scruffy, Monty, Duke and Trigger lying like stuffed animals on the footpath or grass as we walked home from school. We had notebooks and a fort and secret meetings but only ever found one clue – a slash of graffiti on Southern Cross Crescent corner saying, ‘Dog Poisoner Gets Victoria Cross’. We explored every corner of Island Bay on foot looking for Victoria Cross but sadly never found it, and the mystery remained unsolved.

So, of books, reading and stories from my childhood: I learned that he staples of a good story are invention, familiarity, danger, discovery and revelation (plus dog poo and chewing gum). The thrill I got from reading those crap-but-so-much-fun-I-couldn’t-put-them-down books is the same thrill I get these days from vastly more literary offerings: a fantastic new Norwegian Netflix drama series, or a great novel like The Luminaries. In simple form, it is the pure pleasure of a great story, one of the biggest happy-making pursuits in my life. And one day I will attempt to write the novel solving The Mystery of the Island Bay Dog Poisoner with more success than I had as an actual participant.

I can’t finish this reflection without mentioning Hilda Boswell, illustrator of every Treasury and Christmas-present book from my childhood, beautiful and old-fashioned romantic pastoral watercolours that I could look at for hours. Again, I didn’t really understand them – the dresses, the flowers, the snow at Christmas. But they were elegant and escapist, and I now realise are testament to illustrative skills I will never in a lifetime achieve.

And so it came to pass that I grew up to be a ‘proper’ reader, illustrator and writer of stories. Even though we never became buddies, I think C.S. Lewis would approve.

My Meerkat Mum

By Ruth Paul

Published by Scholastic NZ

RRP $18.99

Buy now

Ruth Paul
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Ruth Paul is an award-winning writer and illustrator of more than 20 children’s picture books, including Stomp!, Bad Dog Flash and the Little Hector series. Many of her books have received Storylines Notable Book awards and been shortlisted for the NZCYA Book Awards, and I Am Jellyfish won Best Picture Book at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018. In August 2019 Ruth received the Mallinson Rendell Arts Foundation of NZ Laureate Award for book illustration. Her latest book Cookie Boo, published by Harper Collins in the USA, recently received a starred Kirkus review. Ruth lives off-grid in a straw-bale house on a farm near Wellington, New Zealand, with her family and her adorable dog, Teddy.