Tell us about your experience of libraries
The first library I remember was just a cupboard in a school classroom; I think I must have been seven years old. The books in there were all dusty and old, but I do remember finding one or two adventure stories that thrilled me.
When I was 11, we moved to a village in Wales where an elderly lady befriended me and allowed me to borrow books from her (to me enormous) collection. She had a rather grand house at the top of a sloping lawn, and the book room looked down across the lawn towards the sea. I think she had grown-up children she didn’t see very often. There was a real mixture of books on her shelves, including some old, very cheaply printed stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs about Tarzan. I thought they were thrilling. The old lady (I wish I remembered her name) let me take two books at a time and come back as often as I liked. The book I remember best from her library was an edition of the Collected Short Stories of H.G. Wells, which I found utterly absorbing and mysteriously poetic. A story called The Door in the Wall haunted me then, and still does.
When I was about 16, the pupils in my class at school were allowed to choose a book each for the school library from the library van that came round once a term. This was a very rural area, and the visit of the library van was a big event for those of us who loved books. I was just getting interested in poetry, especially modern poetry, and I chose a book called The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen. I didn’t know what to expect, but I think it changed my life. Included in the anthology, in full, was Allen Ginsberg’s great poem ‘Howl’: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked … Could anything be more thrilling to a 16-year-old than language like that? I read on, my eyes widening: were people allowed to write like this? Clearly they were. And the library service of the County of Merioneth, and the school library of Ysgol Ardudwy, allowed me to read it. I say that book changed my life because it confirmed my own desire to write and showed me a vast new universe of possible things to say. I have a copy of that anthology on my own bookshelves now.
A few years later, I was a student at Oxford, where I was allowed to use the great Bodleian Library, one of the great libraries of the world and where every user had to swear a solemn oath not to bring fire into the building. It took me a long time to work out how to use that library – it was so large, so daunting, so complicated, and so grand. The buildings were majestic examples of great architectural splendour. I felt very small and very ignorant. In fact, it wasn’t until many years after I had graduated from the university that I dared to use it properly. But when I wanted to know what it was like (for example) to fly in a balloon in the Arctic skies, there were the books to tell me; and that enormous collection played a big part in the research I did for the first part of my trilogy, His Dark Materials. I could not have written it without the Bodleian Library.
Children’s right to culture
Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. If you don’t give a child food, the damage quickly becomes visible. If you don’t let a child have fresh air and play, the damage is also visible, but not so quickly. If you don’t give a child love, the damage might not be seen for some years, but it’s permanent.
But if you don’t give a child art and stories and poems and music, the damage is not so easy to see. It’s there, though. Their bodies are healthy enough; they can run and jump and swim and eat hungrily and make lots of noise, as children have always done, but something is missing.
It’s true that some people grow up never encountering art of any kind, and are perfectly happy and live good and valuable lives, and in whose homes there are no books, and they don’t care much for pictures, and they can’t see the point of music. Well, that’s fine. I know people like that. They are good neighbours and useful citizens.
But other people, at some stage in their childhood or their youth, or maybe even their old age, come across something of a kind they’ve never dreamed of before. It is as alien to them as the dark side of the moon. But one day they hear a voice on the radio reading a poem, or they pass by a house with an open window where someone is playing the piano, or they see a poster of a particular painting on someone’s wall, and it strikes them a blow so hard and yet so gentle that they feel dizzy. Nothing prepared them for this. They suddenly realise that they’re filled with a hunger, though they had no idea of that just a minute ago; a hunger for something so sweet and so delicious that it almost breaks their heart. They almost cry, they feel sad and happy and alone and welcomed by this utterly new and strange experience, and they’re desperate to listen closer to the radio, they linger outside the window, they can’t take their eyes off the poster. They wanted this, they needed this as a starving person needs food, and they never knew. They had no idea.
That is what it’s like for a child who does need music or pictures or poetry to come across it by chance. If it weren’t for that chance, they might never have met it, and might have passed their whole lives in a state of cultural starvation without knowing it.
The effects of cultural starvation are not dramatic and swift. They’re not so easily visible.
And, as I say, some people, good people, kind friends and helpful citizens, just never experience it; they’re perfectly fulfilled without it. If all the books and all the music and all the paintings in the world were to disappear overnight, they wouldn’t feel any the worse; they wouldn’t even notice.
But that hunger exists in many children, and often it is never satisfied because it has never been awakened. Many children in every part of the world are starved for something that feeds and nourishes their soul in a way that nothing else ever could or ever would.
We say, correctly, that every child has a right to food and shelter, to education, to medical treatment, and so on. We must understand that every child has a right to the experience of culture. We must fully understand that without stories and poems and pictures and music, children will starve.
What has the award meant for you?
Firstly, it was a sense of validation: the knowledge that my work had been found valuable by an international audience. Secondly, of course, there was the enormously generous financial award. That made a great difference to my ability to set up a charitable foundation with the intention of supporting various good causes, including the interests of children. Thirdly, there is the memory I shall always have of the most happy few days in Stockholm, the welcome my wife and I were given, the presence of Crown Princess Victoria as a symbol of the fact that this wonderful prize is given in the name of the whole Swedish nation – an act of generosity to the world of children’s books matched by no other nation in the world. I shall always be grateful to Sweden for this most enlightened and benevolent prize, and for the celebration of the great Astrid Lindgren.
What are you working on now?
I’m part-way through a new version in English of some of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. There have been many English translations of this great work, of course, but some of them are scholarly and over-literal, some expurgated or bowdlerised in the supposed interests of young readers, some fine but now old-fashioned and too formal in tone. I wanted to hear these wonderful stories in my own voice. I’m doing 50 stories and they will be published in 2012, the 200th anniversary of the first edition.