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The Joy Of Shelves

A lifetime of books

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I am luckily, finally, able to write in a room of my own. We’ve had a cabin built at the end of our garden: a space for me to think and write. It has a sofa to sit on. It has a desk that looks out onto a border of flowers.

The other thing it has is shelves. Shelves for books.

I’ve dreamt about these shelves for years.

I left my job in publishing in 2009 and worked at home. I worked largely at the kitchen table, clearing all my stuff away at every mealtime. I have three children, I write children’s books and I’m an inveterate book-buyer.

There were books everywhere.

For a long while, my children were happy to have picture books and middle-grade fiction (books for 5–10 year olds) in their bedrooms (and in the kitchen, and in the bathroom, and in the sitting room on the back of the sofa). But then they grew into teenagers, and quite reasonably wanted their shelves for teenage novels and guitars. I, on the other hand, could not bear to part with the books for younger children.

So the poor books got stuffed into boxes, corners and cupboards. Some sat under beds. Some were exiled to the shed, which then got knocked down. Some were even (I’m sorry) put into double layers on the few available bookshelves and couldn’t be seen. My husband, who is a librarian, despaired. The books were separated from each other. They put up with a lot.

So eventually we built the cabin, ordered shelves from IKEA, put them together, and carted box after box of books up the garden path.

Then the fun began.

Yes, it was satisfying to have got all the books out of the house, but I found the act of sorting through them and putting them on certain shelves was reflective and revealing.

There are people in the shelves.

Look — there’s my mum, reading The Pelican Chorus to me as I fall asleep when I’m tiny. I don’t know what the book looks like. I hear the rhythm of the verse, softly bouncing into my core. I know the rhythm before I know the book.

There’s little me, sitting up: turning the pages of a book called The Adventures of Charlotte the Marmot. I know the pictures so well, I can taste the food the characters eat; feel the fabric of their clothes.

There I am, a geeky, gawky teenager: obsessively reading whilst walking down the street. I’m reading so late into the night that it feels deliciously right and wrong. I read novels like Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones over and over again, until they simply become soft, tattered bundles of paper.

Over here’s my dad. He’s got a shelf which encompasses everything from The Christmas Story to Dracula’s Late Night TV Show. Dad was the Publisher for the (once legendary, now sadly depleted) Trade Children’s Book list at Oxford University Press. He’s coming home waving books in the air. He’s asking my brother and me to help him reword books, sitting together at the dining room table. He’s in that shelf, but he’s everywhere else, too.

There’s my godmother, Geraldine McCaughrean, who wrote that shelf of spellbinding, gut-tingling novels. She’s scribbling in her notebook in front of me. She’s taking me to the theatre. She’s giving me books to read and notebooks to write in.

And now, look, there are my children — babies gazing at squat, ragged-edged board books; toddlers reading beloved, sellotaped picture books and demanding ‘Again!’ There’s my husband and I reading favourite picture books and novels out loud over and over, voicing characters that become part of our lives. We gasp and howl as we turn the pages and slam the covers shut with a flourish.

And finally, there’s grown-up me. The books I’ve written and edited. Picture books, illustrated by amazing artists. Educational books: the spines colour coded; the different sizes fitting together. There are, wonderfully, translations of my books.

There are also notebooks, proofs and handwritten manuscripts. There are books on impro and creativity; there are fairy tales and panto scripts. There are books about writing children’s books. Books to stimulate and inspire; to inform and advise; to find and to fix.
There’s a spotlit place for new books by other authors. Books to remind me that other people are writing books too, and I’d better get on with writing mine.

All of these have been liberally scattered over the house for the past twenty years. Looking around, I realise how lucky I am to have been able to keep these books. Not only to have the space, but the excuse. And I see now, that in the act of sorting them out, I’ve been untangling memories. I understand why I was dreaming of these shelves for all those years.

Being a writer can be tough. Not only the act of writing – continually hurling yourself at a blank page – but making a living as a writer. Sometimes it can feel like you’re pretending to be a writer, especially if you haven’t had a new book published for a while.

Collecting together all of these books, memories and people gives me a licence and identity. It’s like discovering a breadcrumb trail to myself over the years — I am a writer: this is what I do. It gives me permission to trust in the process, to keep on going, to hurl myself at that blank page.

It also shows other people who I am. The week after I’d filled up all the shelves, I did a series of virtual school visits for World Book Day: reading books over Zoom or Google Meet to classes of children. Visiting schools and talking to children has always been one of my favourite parts of my job. I’ve missed it so much during lockdown. Virtual visits are great, but they’re not quite the same.

But my new library introduced magic to these online visits. When children asked me about my favourite book, I could reach behind me and grab it. When they told me what their favourite was, I could often bring that out too, and wave it in the air (a bit like my dad). I literally had inspiration at my fingertips and it was fabulous.

So now I can sit at my desk, looking out onto the garden, and the shelves sit at my side and at my back. My mind feels clearer; writing seems (a bit) easier. Maybe that’s not just because I have the books at my back, but because I have the people there, too.

My dad casting a keen eye over manuscripts, suggesting canny rewordings and cuts. The rhythm of my mum’s beautiful voice as she reads out loud. Geraldine reminding me to scribble down every scrap of inspiration. My husband and children enthusiastically cheering me on. Little me, drinking in every word and image.

The people and the shelves also remind me that part of my job as a writer is to read. I’ve always known this; I’ve always done it. But in the last few years (apart from precious reads to my youngest child), I’ve tended to do it nodding off at the end of the day, or fitted in here and there. And of course, I haven’t been able to find many of the books, as they’ve been squashed under beds or in the shed.

Now I not only have a space to write, but a space to read. I’ve finally discovered the true joy of shelves.

Teresa Heapy worked as a Commissioning Editor in publishing before realising she really wanted to write books. She’s an award-winning children’s author, with picture books including The Wonder Tree, The Marvellous Moon Map, Loved to Bits and Very Little Rapunzel.

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