Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 01 Dec 2018

Books by Murray McCain & John Alcorn

This little gem was first published in a pocket-sized edition in 1963 for the princely sum of seven shillings and six pence. As the inside flap of the dust-wrapper says:

“This is a one-of—kind: a wonderful book for children and grown-ups about books. How books are made, what they do, what people do with them. It is called Books! Flip through it and you will see why it is likely to turn children into book-lovers and parents into Books! Lovers. Get books! Keep books! Give books!”

The beauty and brilliance of this small offering is that behind its seeming simplicity and brevity is an extraordinary complexity of idea – it captures in very few words what has taken some authors volume upon volume to explain. It poses a simple question – what is a book? – and then goes on to answer it with a degree of sophistication that belies its whimsical good humour.

What will be immediately obvious to anyone picking this up will be the way in which it captures perfectly the spirit of the time in which it was first produced – it is as if a essence of the 1960s had been captured between the pages of a book that is trying to explain to its reader what it is. Everything about the design and illustration is as daring and inventive as the text. There’s an outrageous sense of the surreal and a willingness to use fonts in a way that flies in the face of convention and that speaks of the revolutionary spirit of the age within the art world at that time. You get the very strong impression that this is a book that Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam might have grown up with.

As for the text, it takes on the book from all angles – outside as well as inside. So the way the book is constructed and finished with a dust jacket as well as what words are used inside are treated as equally important. It even praises the role of the printer, the publisher and the bookseller:

“Thousands of new books are published every year. Printing presses roll night and day to keep them coming. Trains go eighty miles an hour to deliver them everywhere. The bookseller opens big boxes of books and puts them on a shelf…The postman wears out his shoes bringing them up to front doors…”

I especially like the way the author deals with the issue of words – providing the reader a page of ‘hard words’, ‘happy words’, ‘funny words’ and ‘sad words’ which are themselves enough for a younger reader to spend a long time finding out their meaning but will also just have fun saying some of the words out loud. For adults there’s the sense of the absurd and comic about the lists.

But if you want a pithy little something to capture just how simple and simultaneously thoughtful this book is, it’s this:

“A book is full of surprises, feelings and learning and what growing up is like and loving and all the really big things there are.”

Sometime in 2013 the publisher Ammo reprinted the book in a large format and I understand its proved to be a good seller in the vintage and nostalgia market. This new edition is four times larger than the original but, for my money at any rate, not one bit better. In fact, I would argue that something important in the integrity of the original has been lost by the size increase and an important part of its charm is dissipated.

That’s not to say the new edition is poor or to be avoided – quite the opposite. It’s just that the original has some Sixties magic trapped inside its covers and I was remarkably lucky to find mine in almost mint condition for a few pounds. I’m afraid that if you want an original you’ll probably have to pay more than that and you might well settle for the new edition instead because having a copy of any sort is better than having neither.


Terry Potter

December 2018

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