Apr 272007
Published in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo 25/04/2007

I used to dread the approach of night.

Not because of fear of the dark, hidden demons or any imagined evil. No, my apprehension stemmed from something altogether more innocent: the children’s bedtime stories….

Every night I’d sit next to the twins’ beds in silent hope, and every night out would come the same old picture books. My heart would sink. I’d read stories about witches and broomsticks, singing sheep, koalas, dinosaurs. It was tantamount to torture. Granted, first time around one or two of the books were diverting enough to pique my interest – but believe me, by the time you read them for the fifteenth time even the best of them starts to sap your enthusiasm.

Not so for the girls of course. They’d sit in eager anticipation of these tired old tales: books they know word for word, page by page – all the suspense, in a word, suspended. I can “read” half of them with my eyes closed.

I know repetition and familiarity are comforting for children, but come on, give me a break.
I’ve been trying for ages to get the girls into meatier books – books without pictures, books with more of a plot and characters a little more developed than Dilly the Dancing Duck – books they call “chapter books”.

OK, I admit, choosing Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings trilogy to begin the transition was perhaps an error of judgement on my part. My logic was sound enough though: small fellows with hairy feet and jovial personalities head off on a big adventure; the age old struggle between good and evil; how an individual of stout heart, no matter how insignificant he or she may feel, can ultimately triumph. I figured it would go down a storm, but one look at the weighty tome with its tiny print had them diving for the picture books again.

After a week or so I rolled out “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, the first instalment in J. K. Rowling’s globe-conquering series. If anything could convert them, I thought, Rowling’s wizardry was sure to do the trick.
We reached chapter two, I felt the excitement building. Then: “This is boring, I want a different story.”

It was back to the drawing board.

Salvation came in the form of an Easter egg. My mum was visiting before Easter, and took all three girls to the shop to pick out their own chocolate  eggs. The little one, predictably, made a bee-line for the one with the pretty pink packaging; one of the twins picked an egg you could decorate yourself, complete with coloured icing and edible stickers; her sister chose the egg that ended my story-time misery.

There was nothing special about the egg itself – but what was bundled with it was a revelation. It was a paperback novel called “Varjak Paw”, written by S. F. Said, and it had won the Smarties Prize Gold Award for children’s literature.

As soon as I started reading it I was hooked, and so were the twins. We read two, sometimes three chapters every night, with me as eager as the girls to find out what happened to Varjak, a kitten forced to go “Outside” for the first time.

The book tracks Varjak’s adventures as he meets the challenges of a street cat. Learning “The Way” – a martial art for cats – in his dreams, from his long lost ancestor Jalal the Paw, Varjak survives, and eventually thrives. But he has to go back – he has to save his family from the sinister Gentleman and his two black cats, and to do that he needs to find a monster that he’s only ever heard about in his grandfather’s tales. Varjak has to talk to a Dog.

It was, quite simply, enchanting.

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