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Books in books

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

It couldn't be better, could it? A book-lover's dream - a book, with the central theme or subject of the story being books themselves? Sign me up!

It struck me as I read a children's book to my class recently, that this is actually a more frequent occurence than I had previously realised, and for the life of me, I can't think why I haven't spotted, or picked up on the fact that I am, presumably subconsciously, often drawn to this type of book.

The book I was reading was 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore' - not a new title, by any means (published 2012, and the book behind an Academy Award-winning short film - how have I missed this one?!). Reading the opening lines, I can't see any resemblance to anyone I know...can you?

Morris Lessmore loved words.

He loved stories.

He loved books.

The book itself is wonderful - the story of a man who has 'lost his way', but who, through the magic of stories and books, manages to find colour (literally, as the illustrations change from sepia and black-and-white to colour as the narrative progresses) and a life purpose in caring for and sharing stories. Thus, his life story becomes that of stories themselves, and when eventually it is time for him to move on (tissues ready folks - it's metaphorical!) his story remains written and passed on to the next reader to share and continue.

It's an absolute joy of a book, in terms of style, writing, theme and idea, celebrating the joy of sharing stories. The whole purpose of an author writing a book in the first place, surely, must be that they want to share the story, and here's a story celebrating the joy of sharing almost seems obvious as a plot, doesn't it? And that got me thinking...

Where else has this happened? Where else have I read and enjoyed a book about books or reading? Now, as a teacher, I could list tens, nay hundreds, of books that eulogise about the pedagogy and methodology of reading as a skill, but that's not what I'm talking about here (though undoubtably those are worthy texts, and have guided and inspired my practice immensely: Chambers, Lemov, Meek particularly). What I'm talking about here is the inclusion of books within the text as the main object/device in the story, or as central to the plot itself.

Later in the day, I went through the class are just some of the most notable discoveries I made and deem worthy of a mention in this 'new' category in terms of children's lit:

  • 'Wolves' by Emily Gravett - a rabbit 'burrows' a book from the library, and we read alongside him about the threat of these predators, only to realise that the book we're reading is the same book he borrowed, and that the Wolf himself is reading over our shoulder as we read over the rabbits - ingenious, and beautifully published with nibbles out of pages as the wolf gets closer and hungrier!

  • 'A Child of Books' and 'The Incredible Book-eating Boy' by Oliver Jeffers - the usual, unique style and beautiful underlying messages that this author delivers, whether it be about the world itself and more recently, the environment and politics, or as in these two, reflecting on the importance and value of words and books - in fact, as I write, I'm deciding that he's deserving of a post all his own (being a fellow 'Norn Iron' also helping his cause!)

  • 'Promenade' by Jungho Lee - I can't actually tell you what this book is about, as I could only get a foreign-language version...but I love it! Each picture in this large-format delight uses an image of a book within a double-page illustration in a uniquely clever way to hint at a character's story or as an invitation to enter/glimpse another's just magical!

  • 'Luna Loves Library Day' by Joseph Coelho - this story, of a little girl who visits a library on the day she sees her dad, explores families and relationships by including a metaphorical story about a Troll, a mermaid and their princess daughter as an actual mini-book within the book, loaned from the library of the title by the girl. A beautiful and cleverly-crafted modern-day tale by a wonderful poet.

I could go on, but I won't...the more I looked, the more I saw: 'Inkheart', 'Bambert's Book of Missing Stories', 'How to Live Forever', 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them' - the list could actually be endless, and it's intriguing how many children's authors use books as the theme within their books - once you start looking you see it everywhere!

Before writing this piece, I posted quietly on Twitter and Facebook to some reading groups to see if this was something other people had picked up on, and was inundated with responses from friends and relatives (hello New Zealand!) with suggestions of other titles to include as well once they started see, it's not just children's lit where this is a frequent fixture!

Examples on my bookshelves range from David Foenkinos' 'The Mystery of Henri Pick' (pushkin Press 2020), a satire where a rural French library holds manuscripts rejected by publishers, to Lara Prescott's 'The Secrets We Keep' (Hutchinson, 2019)- a thriller where the book 'Dr Zhivago' is the agent the CIA plan to use to win the Cold War; the range of genres and subject matter I discovered once I started looking was vast in scope.

But why? Is the use of a book within a book a way for a hungry-to-share author to get rid of two sets of ideas at a time? I doubt it...their agent would see the opportunity for a spin-off or separate novel and never allow that opportunity to fly! More, I think, it is that books are bought by readers as concrete objects - the pages and paper themselves give us pleasure, and so including the abstract of a book/story as the idea within that concrete object is a way of providing the reader with a double dose of that which they love - both the idea and the object it is contained ongoing ouruboros of a book about a book, a text about a tale... a self-fulfilling prophecy of enjoyment: I buy the book because I like stories, and the stories are about books, so I buy the books...

From country-house promises in Austen to concentration-camp threats in Zusak (admission: 'The Book Thief' made me cry); from laugh-out-loud comedy in 'Bridget Jones' Diary' to hide-behind-the-sofa horror in John Connolly's 'A Book of Bones', the use of a book within a book is everywhere you look. And as a lover of books as both objects themselves, and for the stories that they contain, I, for one, am not complaining....

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