A book inside me

Inverted Commas 7: Call to Adventure

I opened a book and in I strode
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.

Julia Donaldson’s 2004 poem ‘I Opened a Book’ — now a common meme on a social media site near you — is one that must appeal to bibliophiles everywhere. True booklovers well know that particular magic that comes from not only having hold of a book but of turning the door-like front cover and immersing oneself in the words (and maybe also the images) on each page.

Addressed to children of all ages the poem goes on to describe wearing the cloak, slipping on the ring, swallowing the magic potion — all familiar first steps following that initial call to adventure from the universal monomyth:

I’ve fought with a dragon, dined with a king
And dived in a bottomless ocean.

But the journey is not a solitary one. There are companions on the quest, characters whose lives are touched by tragedy and by comedy, personages who may finally, we hope, have their happy-ever-after. Friends.

And at the end

I finished my book and out I came.
The cloak can no longer hide me.
My chair and my house are just the same,
But I have a book inside me.

Julia Donaldson is now best known for her picture books with Axel Scheffler, especially The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. But when I first knew her, around thirty or so years ago, she’d composed many superb songs with guitarist husband Malcolm for children’s shows on British television (programmes such as Play Away). I even played keyboard for a demo tape she and Malcolm did, designed to showcase new pieces she’d come up with, and arranged for instrumental ensemble the songs she’d written for a community play in Bristol.

Julia desperately wanted to get her Grade VIII in piano and so I gave her some lessons; for various unrelated reasons those had to come to an end but years later, after she’d begun a successful career as an author, she was happy to report that she’d eventually managed to pass the exam with distinction. (I gather she continues to perform her material as a musical duo with Malcolm.)

I mention these personal connections simply because that musical dimension comes through very strongly in all her mini epics for children, their poetry enhanced by being chantable while also sounding unforced.

And the stories Julia tells for children have the same everlasting quality as the lament sung by Wordsworth’s Highland lass, in the poem about the reaper I had to learn from memory at school many years ago:

The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.

But I come back to the piece that stands at the start of this post. Nobody who loves reading will be unfamiliar with the feelings Donaldson evokes here about how losing oneself in a book soon becomes finding that it’s lodged within you.


The poem ‘I Opened a Book’ is from Crazy Mayonnaisy Mum, first published in 2004 by Macmillan Children’s Books

21 thoughts on “A book inside me

  1. We had all Julia Donaldson’s books when my daughter was a toddler. I particularly liked A Squash and a Squeeze, but I can still recite most of The Gruffalo off by heart. Wonderful! “A mouse took a stroll through a deep dark wood….”

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    1. I know a lot of the charm comes from Axel Scheffler’s illustrations but the musicality of the words is what springs most to my mind—and clearly yours too if you can remember The Gruffalo in toto! I enjoy the tv animations, though the impact of the words is rather minimised in my opinion.

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  2. earthbalm

    Great post again Chris and very interesting to hear about the Lovegrove / Donaldson musical connection. 60s and 70s children’s TV programmes were a source of wonderful music. I won’t name any particular examples as that would exclude others. But… Bagpuss was wonderful.

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    1. Bagpuss was our daughters’ favourite when they were growing up. I shall always associate Play Away with the late Brian Cant but we had the LP of some of songs, which is where I learnt of the Donaldson connection with the programme.

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      1. earthbalm

        Brian Cant was marvellous. Toni Arthur released some albums with her husband. Camberwick Green, Chigley and Trumpton all featured some great folk_styled music. Happy days – a great time to grow up!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: A book inside me — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. There have been some quite sweet (though not too saccharine) animations of three or four of her picture books on British television in recent years, though I don’t know if they’re generally available elsewhere in the world.

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  4. Great post! Gruffalo had been a common guest in our house for a while – wonderful illustrations, and I agree, the short poems have a musical quality to them which makes the perfect for reading aloud! 🙂

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  5. That’s a lovely poem to share, Chris. That musicality and sentiment–as you say, all book lovers can identify. I too loved reading the Gruffalo to my son, that story of the clever mouse and the fantastical monster. Thanks for sharing the poem and your own reminiscences of Julia Donaldson too

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  6. Oh my goodness – you taught piano to Julia Donaldson!!!! She has brought so much joy to the children in our school (and the staff if I’m being honest!) Room on the Broom is still my favourite children’s book. I’m not normally a poetry person but this poem of hers is perfect. It explains exactly how I feel about books. Thank-you so much for this post!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Jo—and of course the whole poem’s available from the link I included. I have to say those songs on the demo tape were brilliant—witty and tuneful—but sadly my cassette tape was chewed up by a machine and I no longer have a recording. 🙁

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          1. It was a standard skill when I was growing up, to remove ruined bits of tape and then splice the ends together with carefully sized bits of sellotape so you didn’t lose the whole cassette. But when a CD is scatched up, there’s nothing you can do.

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