Louise Pfanner was born and educated in Sydney. She has a BA in Visual Design and an MA in Children's Literature and Literacy. From the age of five, she wanted to write and illustrate picture books and she has been doing so for over 20 years now. She has written and illustrated six books, the most recent of them being Little Lucie's Diary, as well as illustrating many books by other writers. Louise has a husband, four sons and two delightful dogs. Here she writes about books she read as a child.
Louise Pfanner on books she read as a child
A few years ago I had an unusually insightful dream. I dreamed that I was standing just inside my front door, while an old friend stood outside on the doorstep. He was saying that while he did not remember the details of our friendship, he remembered the feeling, and that was far more important than the facts. I woke with a rare sense of clarity, and, unusually for dream revelations, that thought has stayed with me. Facts and details can certainly fade and get muddled, but it is much harder to revise, or forget, the way one actually felt in the past.
For me, nothing can retrieve old feelings as successfully as children's books. The books I read as a child can take me back, right back, to my earliest times. In Ethel C. Pedley's classic Dot and the Kangaroo (1938) there is a fairly gruesome picture (by Frank P. Mahony) of a kookaburra flinging a snake around, and I know that I still pass over that page with a shudder, as quickly as my great-aunt did when she read that book to me when I was two. It still fills me with the same feeling of nauseated fear of snakes that I can distinctly remember, 50 years later.
The next book that I can recall was F.R. Evison's The Magic Bicycle (1946), a book that disappeared from my life until recently when I bought it from a bookseller on the internet. There's no way I could have read all the text at the age of four, but the illustrations (and the stylish endpapers) by G.W. Goss are engraved in my memory - the bicycle fleeing with pyjama pants on the handlebars, a miniature policeman (with a strangely extending nose) in the Next Door World, and the chicken that hatches on the man's head. I loved the naughty bicycle, with its temper tantrums and the ever-changing moods of Back Wheel and Front Wheel, and I badly craved an aeronautical bicycle. I have been flying in my dreams ever since.
My next big reading experience was with another book with text I couldn't read at five, or indeed at any age. Mit Globi und Pinocchio nach Venedig was a Swiss book by Robert Lips and A. Bruggmann, Globi being the logo, I think, of a Swiss department store. It was written in German, with rhyming text on the verso page, and sequentially numbered black and white cartoon frames on the recto page. Globi has a parrot's head and tail feathers, but rather disturbingly a man's legs and body. He wears checkered chef's pants and a black beret. I doubt that the the weirdness of Globi struck me then as much as it does now, but I still found him very engrossing. The best thing about the pictures was the truly incredible detail, and in this book it was the detail of Venice. When I finally did go to Venice, 30 years after I read the book, I was of course overwhelmed by the beauty and confused by the little streets. But after a while the whole place seemed strangely familiar to me, and in fact I could predict all sorts of unlikely details. On close inspection of a sculpture outside San Marco, I reacted in the exact same way Globi did (startled) when he spots the same parrots' heads on the walking sticks of the four Tetrarchs. In fact, this strange book had installed a complete mental map of Venice without my knowing.
The first book I read independently was Rumer Godden's Mouse House (1957). I remember being very pleased with myself for reading such a long book - picture books in those days often had quite lengthy texts, but it was the illustrations by Adrienne Adams that I really loved. With a very restricted palette, the illustrator created a whole world within a real house, and a doll's house that became a mouse house. It was an elegant rose pink, with geranium flower pots on the window sills, spotted wallpaper, and delightfully spindly furniture. In real life I feel much the same way about mice as I do about snakes, but in the book realm I adore mice, and even Beatrix Potter's hard working Mrs Tittlemouse doesn't charm me as much as the dear little mice in this book. Once infested, the doll's house is relegated to the basement, where it truly becomes a mouse house; the mice sleep in the dolls' beds, and create a nest, but still, the girl mice play babies, wrapping the geraniums in pieces of duster. The endpapers are also wonderful, with a lone mouse crouching guiltily on a rather smart blue and white checkered floor.
Like most children of my generation, I went from picture books to chapter books fairly quickly, probably because the picture book boom of the 1960s came a bit too late for me. My brother and sister were the prime age, however, and how well I remember the tedium of reading Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat (1957) to them both at least 500 times. I only need to see the familiar blue of the cover, with the elongated cat and his horrible hat, to start yawning. As a young adult I became interested in illustration, and I went back to picture books, and caught up with old friends like Babar and Madeline, and made lots of new ones like Tintin and Eloise.
I never stopped reading children's books, but I do read adult books of course, and sometimes I find a true sense of childhood in them. A good writer can take you into their own childhood or someone else's; the common themes of shared experience are often there – loneliness, friendship, and the endless waiting - and have been amply explored. But if you truly want to revisit your own past, and not in the way of just looking at a photograph, if you want to remember the way it felt to be a child, then find an old book and reconnect with the feeling, not just the facts.