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Susan’s Bookshelves: My Name is Book by John Agard

I wrote about John Agard’s new volume of poetry a few weeks ago and wouldn’t normally return to the same author so soon. But there was A Conversation.

My third granddaughter – aka GD3 – has just started secondary school. Obviously, because that’s the sort of tedious, tiresome grandmother I am, I asked her what she’s reading in English. And I was a bit taken aback, given my 36 years at the secondary chalk face, when she mentioned a book I’d never heard of. Because it is clearly different from anything she’s read before she was a bit guarded about how much she’s enjoying it. I, on the other hand, was immediately filled with curiosity and ordered it on my phone even while GD3 and I were still talking. And I think that pleased her because it showed that I’m not just time-filling with Granny-ish questions.  I really am interested.

Published in 2014, My Name is Book is subtitled “An Autobiography as told to John Agard” and it does exactly what it says on the tin. Book recounts his/hers/its history from the days when stories were all oral before ways of recording words, thoughts, ideas and narratives evolved – perhaps among Sumerians or Egyptians – all the way down to screens and scrolling.

Agard has a delightfully insouciant knack (he’s a poet after all) of weaving together colourful stories and information. It had, for example, never occurred to me that scrolling is hardly new to readers – the Ancients read from scrolls and it’s what I do today on the Kindle App on my iPad. I didn’t know, either, that vellum was originally calfskin – note the etymological link with veal and, ultimately the Latin word vitula. I also discovered that the Greek word for papyrus was byblos – thus bibliophile etc. Gosh, I was in my element enjoying all this.

Often in books written for young readers (and this clearly was, because it’s published by Walker Books) the illustrations seem like a spurious add-on and contribute little or nothing. That is, emphatically, not the case with Neil Packer’s work here. His  drawings, patterns, designs and diagrams are an essential part of My Name is Book from his silhouettes of various book-making plants down the millennia to his frames for quotes and evocative representation of a young lad in the first world war with a rifle in one hand and a book in the other.

It’s a fine choice for a year 7 class reader because it’s both entertaining and accessible, written in short chapters, sections, and standalone boxes. My favourite example of the latter is “If anyone steal this book, let him die the death. Let him be fried in the pan. Let the falling sickness and fever seize him.Let him be broken on the wheel and hanged. Amen” which is an inscription in a twelfth century Bible.

I used to love teaching Year 7 because they’re so fresh and keen. I’d have found something exciting and intriguing to discuss on every page of this book as I hope GD3’s teacher is – and joyfully leading her students into a lifelong love affair with books and writing.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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