My Catchphrases

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Saturday Spotlight: Guest Post: Katherine Langrish and Libraries

I can’t remember learning to read, but was certainly fluent by the time I was five. I can remember sitting on the hall floor in a patch of sunlight, reading ‘The Tale of Mr Tod’ aloud to my dolls and panda, and dragging a little wooden stool down the lane so I could sit on it and read Robin Hood aloud to my Uncle Richard as he washed his car. (Adults who like to read to children – as I do – must remember that children like to read to adults sometimes, too!) Our house was always full of books, many of them classics handed down from my mother and my older sister: Beatrix Potter, of course, and the Alice books, and collections of fairytales.

With so many books in the house, I didn’t need libraries, right?

Wrong. Without libraries I would hardly have been able to get by. Certainly my parents couldn’t have afforded to fund my eight-to-ten books a week reading habit – not even though I asked for books for every Christmas and birthday. Moreover, though a voracious reader, I was not a discriminating one, and would happily have stuck to a diet of nothing but Enid Blyton – deliciously greasy junk food for the mind which would have had as bad an effect on my mental development as a diet of Happy Meals might have had on my physical, if they had been available back then. Luckily for me, it was the sixties: a Golden Age for children’s literature, and my mother was determined that I should read as widely as possible. Of course I was lucky to have a mother who felt like this, but she was aided and abetted by the Children’s Librarian, who would remark (apparently casually, while stamping the books I had chosen): “Oh, if you like x, you’re bound to like y!” or “Have you tried such and such a book? I’m sure you’d enjoy it.”

In this way I gained the confidence to browse, to trawl the shelves in search of titles and authors I didn’t know, to pick out a book at random and flick the pages to see if I’d like it – to broaden my horizons. And so I found and loved the spellbinding fantasies of Alan Garner and J.R.R. Tolkien, the gentle ghost stories of Lucy Boston, the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, Jane Lane, Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease. I found books by Hugh Lofting, Eleanor Farjeon, E Nesbit. I found collections of myths and legends from around the world, by Roger Lancelyn Green and Barbara Leonie Picard.

“Oft have I travelled in the realms of gold,” John Keats says, “And many goodly states and princedoms seen”: and he’s not talking about back-packing in South America, he’s talking about the books he’s read. One small, pink, dog-eared library card was my personal free pass to the golden realms of literature.

We moved about a lot while I was growing up. Each move meant a period of readjustment, of trying to make new friends. But books were my friends, and public libraries and school libraries were places you could go to and feel safe in. From Ilkley in Yorkshire we moved to Ross on Wye in Herefordshire – where the library was and perhaps still is up a flight of old red sandstone steps in the market hall. There I discovered ‘The Bull from the Sea’ by Mary Renault, which opened up the new world of adult historical fiction to me; and then when we moved back to Yorkshire, I became a haunter of the tall granite library of Skipton, revelling in the early 20th century fantasies of Lord Dunsany. Riches upon riches, worlds beyond worlds.

Not only that. I took my degree in English literature – as was then possible - as an external student of London University. Most of the books I needed for my studies were borrowed from Skipton Library, or from inter-library loans arranged by the librarians there. In this way I was able to read plays by Ibsen and Strindberg, scholarly collections of medieval literature, works of criticism, Victorian novels, Jacobean drama, the essays of Lamb and Hazlitt. There are many people today who value this service as much as I did then. You can educate yourself in a public library. I know, because I did it.

When I look at my own writing, I realise how much I owe to those public libraries and the people – librarians and teachers – who nurtured my love of reading and showed me how to develop it. All my four books are historical fantasies for children and young adults, and I can see the influences of the fairytales, the historical novels, and the fantasies, which I devoured back then. ‘Dark Angels’ is a medieval fantasy which I could never have written without access to many, many library books. ‘West of the Moon,’ the omnibus edition of my trilogy of books set in the Viking era, harks back with delight to many of those children’s books I read as a child: from Henry Treece, Alan Garner, Rosemary Sutcliff, to ‘Myths and Legends of the Northmen’.

Without libraries (and I would have been without many if not most of those books if there had been no libraries) – I personally would never have earned a university degree, and I might not be a professional writer. We need to preserve the network of our public libraries, and we need the expertise of professional librarians to run them. If they are sold off, they will be gone for ever. (You can’t imagine any council suddenly deciding it has the spare cash to buy them back and reopen them, can you?) They are our heritage. And they are our children’s gateway into those realms of gold.

Katherine's Website

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Katherine's Blog: Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Don't forget Katherine's book West of the Moon is out on 3 Mar 2011.

Synsopsis: From Amazon
An epic and action-packed fantasy adventure that weaves together Norse legends, shadowy creatures and an unforgettable hero
When Peer is orphaned he is taken by his wicked uncles to live at their foreboding mill in the shadow of Troll Fell. Here he meets beautiful and spirited Hilde and after a terrifying encounter with the sinister creatures who live below the fell the pair form an inseparable bond. They are thirsty for adventure, so when a Viking longship docks at their village, they decide to set sail for Vinland – a mysterious place across the perilous sea. But are the ship's captain and his sword wielding son really honest sailors? What creatures lurk in the shadows and forests of the new land? And will Peer and Hilde ever return?
Spanning years and continents and filled with brilliantly imagined characters and creatures, this is gripping, atmospheric fantasy at its best.

Be sure to drop by Wondrous Reads tomorrow for the next stop on Katherines blog tour.


  1. I grew up in the same sort of bookish environment- both parents were teachers, I could read anything (and did), but we went weekly to the library which was a huge building downtown with a downstairs for kid's lit and an upstairs for adult. It's taken on an almost mythic quality in my memory. And we had books at school and a book mobile which traveled around and smelled of books.
    Now I live in a very small town with an active library and it is part of our routine. Can't imagine life without one, and isn't it a measure of civilization that you can go somewhere and borrow as many books as you'd like?

  2. What a delightful post. I have images of Katherine reading to her uncle now after dragging her chair. I loved reading about all the authors she grew up reading.

    A gorgeous post.

  3. Oh this post has me longing to make a trip to the library right now. :) I can't imagine a world without libraries - My earliest and fondest memories are of me getting sucked into a book while at the library. Thankfully I come from a family of readers so going to the library has always been a joy as there was no one to rush us into hurrying up about choosing books. Lovely guest post :) Libraries for the win always!

  4. Oh, you did take me back, Kath. And it is so important that we keep saying this - libraries make authors. But also, for other kids, they open horizons. I remember my brother, discovering the adult library, at the age of 14 bringing home Candide and Freud (to the annoyance of my parents, of course). He'd never have read those books at home.
    Though the librarians in Kendal just said to me: 'We're giving you four tickets, then you won't come back so often.' I felt reproved - now, of course, I realise that they were being jocular...

  5. Wonderful post. I grew up in a neighborhood with a library that was a fifteen minute walk away from my house. I still live in that neighborhood now, and as a child, I spent hours and hours at that library. I've spent hours there as an adult, as well, but not only as a customer. I'm a substitute librarian, and I had the pleasure of working at my childhood library for about five months before I was moved to a different library branch. In August, I'm going to Ohio to get my master's in library science, with my focus being in youth services. I love hearing how much people still value libraries. Libraries offer many great services other than just books, and it's a shame that so many of them are suffering from budget cuts and closures.

  6. Lovely post. So much I identify with here :0) I went to school in Skipton and loved the school library where I discovered many treasures. My local library however was in Settle. it was staffed by one lady who seemed to me the epitome of accomplished adulthood. She too gently suggested many books I enjoyed. I particularly remember "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon" which I kept out for almost a year lol.

  7. Lovely to hear about other people's library experiences, and even to meet someone who knows the same ones! Thankyou all for the comments!

  8. What a wonderful post! I love this series of posts reminiscing about libraries! My story was much the same - my dad couldn't keep up with the amount of books I'd read a week so we'd always end up at the library and because we moved so often, it felt like the only constant in my young life!


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