Poet and children's bookseller Freya Daly Sadgrove is a strong believer in the power of the right book for the right person at the right time. Here, she writes about why (in her own words) 'books are great as gifts not just because books are great and reading is great but that giving a well-chosen book is about the connection between the giver and receiver'.
There are lots of categories of Thing that I love to give and receive at Christmas – tickets, homemade crafts, things you had no idea you both wanted and needed (my sister is unbelievably good at those) – but this article is dedicated to the singular pleasure of being given a really excellent book. Having always been a big nerd, I’ve been given a lot of books in my life, but here are some of the ones that are inextricably and unforgettably linked to the people who gave them to me.
My aunty Siân is an excellent book-giver. Books from her always stood out for me as a kid because she would write inscriptions that became part of the whole experience of the book. I always try to emulate Siân when I inscribe books for other people – especially children.
'TO FREYA ON HER FOURTH BIRTHDAY 30/1/97 Happy birthday to a little bug from a big bug. Remember that spiders everywhere are our special friends… Love from Siân xxx'
I would just like to say that that is a very good way to get a person to try really hard, in a long-term way, not to be too scared of (and consequently cruel to) things that are small and different to them.
'Happy Birthday Freya. Welcome to the Wonderful World of Wallies!' Then she’s drawn a picture of herself as a Wally, saying 'Love from Siân x'
It took me years to figure out why there was an arrow saying 'Wally' pointing to a picture that was clearly of Siân. It’s great to grow up and suddenly understand things (it is not great to grow up) (fortunately I haven’t done it too much and I still love this book).
Gran used to be a painter. I suppose she’s still a painter, but she doesn’t really get to paint anymore because she can’t see very well at all now. She painted beautiful landscapes from around New Zealand and Australia (where her family has dispersed to) and I can always pick them out amongst the art on the walls of all my aunts and uncles, because they are the best and loveliest and they remind me of the paintings at dad’s house. What I’m saying is, I don’t know whether it’s genetic or experiential but I feel very connected to my Gran in terms of where we see beauty in visual art.
Gran spent Christmas with us after a trip to Australia when I was nearly five, and she brought back a book called Bush Babies by Tricia Oktober for me.
It’s got three stories in it, and I was completely entranced by the pictures. I still can’t believe that Galahs exist. The picture of the galah with her pink and grey feathers and her gold hat and her purple crystal ball and her cloth imprinted itself on my deepest preliterate sensibilities to the extent that it is part of a sort of personal mythology in my head.
Nana and Grandad
Grandad knows heaps about art. Nana knows heaps about people. Nana and Grandad always picked out the most incredibly beautiful picture books to give me when I was growing up. Here is one that stands out especially.
They gave me A Christmas Carol when I was eight or nine, and while you’d call it a picture book, I never felt too old for it. A beautiful big illustrated book can make a nerdy kid feel very sophisticated, which I think Nana and Grandad have always had a very good sense of. I definitely felt especially clever to be reading Charles Dickens. The book is huge and beautiful; it would’ve been about a third of my height when I first got it. I remember touching the pictures and touching the text on the page each time I read it because it all felt so tactile and full. I always knew this book was treasure.
Tracey and Michael
The Christmas just before I turned eight, I’d asked for a skateboard and I got one. It had a pot-bellied green alien on the bottom and I’d never felt cooler in my life. For a few hours, all other presents paled in comparison, including the weird-looking book I got from my aunty and uncle called Howl’s Moving Castle.
The book found its way around the left side of the TV (which was capacious because it was the olden days) and I didn’t pick it up again until a couple of months later. My dream of becoming a cool skater chick had been short-lived, and I was experiencing painful boredom. Sometimes painful boredom is what teaches a kid to stop judging a book by its cover; I picked that book up and I read it, and I’ve read it nearly every year since.
Here’s the title page, and you should know I never put my name in books as a kid, but I did for this one because I loved it the most, but I also did it before I was even aware of the fact that my last names don’t actually have a hyphen between them. Judging by the handwriting I’d say I was about ten when I wrote this in there – at least two re-reads in.
There’s no doubt in my mind of the following things: Howl’s Moving Castle is my favourite book of all time; Diana Wynne Jones is my ultimate hero; you can lead a seven-year-old to water, but you have to wait till it’s eight and bored before it’ll drink. Tracey and Michael gave me a book that I first read two-thirds of my life ago, and that continues to make life bearable and better to this day, and probably will forever and ever until I die. The power of books, man. I love my family.
Freya Daly Sadgrove
Freya Daly Sadgrove is a writer, performer and bookseller in Wellington, New Zealand. Her poems have most recently appeared in Sweet Mammalian, Shabby Doll House, Scum, and The Spinoff. She tweets @FreyaDalySad.