Thursday 22 August 2019

My Narnia in a cupboard of books

Discovering a treasure trove of adventure stories as a child awakened a lifelong love of reading that brought both pleasure and knowledge, which today's youngsters can also find for themselves, writes Tom McCaughren

Novel approach: Former RTE security correspondent Tom McCaughren with some of the extensive collection of children’s books he has had published since becoming an author. Photo: David Conachy
Novel approach: Former RTE security correspondent Tom McCaughren with some of the extensive collection of children’s books he has had published since becoming an author. Photo: David Conachy

Tom McCaughren

It is in a wardrobe that the children of the Narnia story find their wonderland, but it was in a cupboard that I found mine. Rooting around in it, I discovered a number of books. Perhaps they belonged to my older brother, I don't know, but they soon became mine. They included Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, The Children of the New Forest and The Wind in the Willows - a treasure trove indeed that awakened in my young mind a love of reading.

This Christmas, I hope young people will put aside their iPhones and iPads, open a book and find the same kind of magic that I found.

During the last 30 years, I have visited about 250 schools and spoken to upwards of 25,000 pupils. I always tried to impress upon young people how important reading would be to them, not only as a source of pleasure but knowledge as they journeyed through life.

I visited the schools to talk about my own books and writing in general and some pupils would ask me when I decided I wanted to be an author? I would smile and say I still had an old copy book I used in school. It contains an essay only half a page long and is signed 'Tom McCaughren Author'. Very ambitious, but I look back on it as an indication that I always wanted to write.

Another question often asked was where I got my ideas for books. In Co Antrim where I lived, we often had snow and I always had great fun trying to identify the tracks of various animals and birds. But when a fox raided our hen house, trying to track it became a much more serious matter. I spent many a day with my father and others trying to track that particular fox, but we never did find it. As a result, I imagined that somewhere out there was a very special fox, one that crept up to our hen house in the middle of the night but left no tracks, even in the snow. Perhaps it was a white fox. Certainly it was more cunning than all the others. The idea stayed in my mind and so evolved a pivotal character in my books - Old Sage Brush, the wise old fox.

My first fox book, Run with the Wind, opens with a young fox looking at a very cosy Christmas scene. A fire is burning in the grate and a man and woman and several children are sitting around a table eating. Brightly coloured lights are flashing on and off. They signal a time of peace and goodwill to man but not to the fox.

As the story develops, we learn that in his quest for fur, man has hunted the fox almost to extinction. The few that remain realise he has become more cunning than they are. They turn to Old Sage Brush for help, and my young listeners were always fascinated with the ingenious tricks he uses to show his friends how to regain their cunning. Their first lesson comes in the chapter about the little brown hen. How, they wonder, can they get hens out of a hatchery without even going near it? It seems an impossible task. However, using his cunning - and delft eggs - the old fox shows them how to do it.

Few, if any, of the pupils had ever seen a delft egg, but when I was a boy the lookalike eggs were used to encourage hens to lay or, perhaps, lay in nest boxes instead of down in the meadow. My father also used a smaller delft egg to encourage his pigeons to lay. By using delft eggs in another way, Old Sage Brush challenges his friends to do something they hadn't been doing for a long time - think.

Apart from teaching me about the tracks of various animals, my father also directed my eyes upward when strange flickering lights came into the sky beyond the roof of one of our sheds. And so I learned about the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. He also pointed out the Plough and the North Star and told me about the phases of the Moon. And so it's to the night sky that the foxes look for guidance.

It was only in later years I discovered that the characters in The Wind in the Willows change size to suit the situation they are in. At the time, I didn't even notice it. When talking to pupils, I discovered there was nothing in my books that their imagination could not embrace. For example, in Run with the Wind, I liken the star formation we call the Plough to a fox, with the last three stars forming a magnificent tail. The Running Fox in the Sky, I called it, and not once has a young reader queried the comparison.

Later on, it's the Moon that comes to the rescue of the foxes when they are challenged by Lepus, the leader of the mountain hares. If one of them can jump higher than he can, he will let them pass. Otherwise they will die. Even though it's a matter of life and death, it's the three-legged Hop-along who is nominated by Old Sage Brush to take up the challenge. And so he does, in magnificent fashion, jumping so high he takes a bite out of the Moon. It's by using a partial eclipse, of course, that Hop-along manages to fool the hares, and after a reading from this chapter, I would have a discussion with the pupils about such eclipses. In this way, they were learning along the way, too.

The pupils, of course, had tricks of their own and, on occasion, tried to catch me out. I remember one of them asking what was Hop-along's name before he lost his leg. For a moment, I was stumped before giving the only answer I could think of. "I don't know," I confessed. "I didn't know him then." Fortunately, this satisfied the young questioner, and I was off the hook.

The minds of young people continue to amaze me. My own children were the first readers of my early fox books, and more recently my grandchildren inspired me to write a new fox. My granddaughter Annabelle one day looked up at a clear blue sky and exclaimed: "Look, Mammy. Something has scratched the sky." Being only four, she, like the foxes, knew nothing of vapour trails from planes, and it was such a lovely phrase that I decided to use it in Run for the Hills, even though it's for a much older age group.

In this story, some of the foxes have escaped from a fur farm before they could be killed and skinned. However, they find themselves in a different world and without the help of Old Sage Brush and his friends, they would die a different death.

Because she is white, one of these foxes is called Snowflake, but it is not until they have taken refuge in the Mound of the Badgers that she sees snow for the first time. She finds it so soft, so different from the hard wire she has walked on in her previous life and she loves it. She is also fascinated with her paw prints, blissfully unaware that the trapper can read them.

In Run for the Hills, there is a discussion about whether badgers are white with black stripes or black with white stripes. Snowflake points out that the paws of the wild foxes are black while hers are white. "It doesn't matter if the paws are black or white," says Old Sage Brush, "as long as they can catch a mouse." It seems a simple observation, but, as with all his sayings, it has a deeper meaning than might first appear.

Almost every week, I am lucky enough to get emails from people telling me how much they enjoyed my fox books, including Run Swift Run Free, Run to the Ark and Run for Cover. For many of them, the fox books have become interwoven with their memories of childhood.

At this time of the year, it is important to remember that a gift of a carefully chosen book can have a far more lasting effect than the latest overpriced gadget.

I remember getting a letter from a nun, who was also a teacher, telling me that my fox books were theirs to wander in and wonder in.

So perhaps this Christmas, some young people will be encouraged to set aside their devices and, like the nun and her pupils, take up a book that will open their imaginations to all sorts of wonderful things.

* Unfortunately, I have had to discontinue my participation in the Writers in Schools Scheme administered by Poetry Ireland. However, the deeper meanings of both Run with the Wind and Run for the Hills can be explored in the classroom by using a Guide for Teachers provided for each by O'Brien Press

Tom McCaughren's latest book, Run for the Hills, is published by O'Brien Press, priced at €8.99

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