19 September 2010

Never Too Young to Start Reading James Joyce

Books have always been part of my life. I do not know when I was given my first book, but I know they are always there. My earliest memory is of a brightly illustrated version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. There was also at some point an Atlas of the World with illustrations of animals. I remember going over it, page by page, for years. So when my first child was born, I passed this love of books on to her. And the same with her brother three years later. They were barely a few weeks old and they would get to listen to stories, and hold the books and play with them. Meg and Mog were favourites. So were the Billy Goats Gruff. As they got older I was given the chance to catch up on the classics of English language children’s literature (having missed out of them as a child since I was brought up in the French language): the original Winnie the Poo (not the sanitized Disney version), the genius of Roald Dahl, the fabulous Narnia Chronicles (I have been slowly savouring those again in the last few months) but to name of few.

So when Cathal was born, the magic was passed on by his parents, and myself, and books appeared around him within a very short time. In a way, they became quite important for him, especially when he was very sick in hospital after his open-heart surgery. I noticed that reading to him a short book, pointing out to the picture, getting him to “touch & feel” were ideally suited to him at that time: easy activities as they required little physical effort, and just enough to get his mind off the pain for a while.

I have kept one of the books his mother and uncle particularly liked. I consider it a little treasure. We read it every time Cathal comes to my home for a sleep-over (this is our thing, just the two of us, with no one else involved). It is the Cat and the Devil, originally a letter written by James Joyce himself to his grand-son Stephen in 1936 and put into book form, with wonderful illustrations, with Stephen Joyce’s blessing.

As I read it to Cathal, he listens with great attention, as if enraptured by the rhythm of the long and musical sentences, and by the sounds of the language, or languages, as French appears in the end, spoken by the Devil himself. I am not sure if he understands the story, or if he gets the wonderful humour present at every page – as any good story, humour is as much at the level of the 4 year old to whom the letter was addressed, as at the level of the adults who must have read it out loud to him. I mean the Lord Mayor of a little French town is called Alfred Byrne (true, just like a very famous Dublin Lord Mayor), and the Devil when very angry “can speak quite bad French very well… with a strong Dublin accent”. Wonderful.

And then, once I am finished reading, Cathal invariably takes the book and reads it back to me.

This has reminded me of the inspiring Karen Gaffney, a young woman who just happens to have DS. Last year, at the World Down Syndrome Congress in Dublin I heard her say that her favourite reads were Macbeth and Harry Potter. And I then thought, nothing is impossible for Cathal, all it takes is encouragement. So there it is:

Didn’t I tell you? Never too young to start reading James Joyce.

And have you noticed that at the end he says “more” as he wants another book? Just like me, can’t put them down.