Frances Hardinge is a British children’s writer. Her debut book, Fly By Night, is a School Library Journal best book, while her novel The Lie Tree won the 2015 Costa Book Award, the first children’s book to do so since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. As part of this year’s 100 Women Challenge season, she has written a new story.
Once there was a girl who was loved by books, because she was clever, patient and full of dreams.
Unfortunately, she had no idea how they felt. She had originally been taught to read by her grandfather, who was neither clever nor patient. He banged his stick against the table whenever she got something wrong, which startled her into making more mistakes. Even after he gave up on her, reading flustered her, as though she could still hear her grandfather’s stick bang-bang-banging.
I am no good at reading, she told herself, as she saw her cousin flicking through his schoolbook. And then, I don’t like reading.
Sometimes the girl dreamt of the books on her grandfather’s shelves. They bounced after her, and she fled, as if they were dogs snapping at her heels.
They hate me, she thought. They know I’m stupid.
“Come back!” called the dream-books. “We love you! Read us!” But she couldn’t understand them.
What is 100 Women?
BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. In 2017, we’re challenging them to tackle four of the biggest problems facing women today – the glass ceiling, female illiteracy, harassment in public spaces and sexism in sport.
As the girl grew older, she became more convinced that she was stupid. Her grandfather’s books could not bear it.
“Let me talk to her!” said a poetry book. “I have words that dance in the mind like moonlight on water!”
The next day, the poetry book fell off its shelf, landing at the girl’s feet. On its cover was a beautiful white tower tinged pink by sunset.
Filled with curiosity, the girl opened the book, and saw only a few words on each page. Surely this could not be too hard? But there were unfamiliar words, and it was hard to tell where sentences began and ended. She got confused, then upset. She put the beautiful book back on its shelf, and fled in tears.
“I made her cry,” said the poetry book sadly, and wept a single inky tear.
Next day, the girl’s cousin jeered at her whenever she misremembered a bit of news.
“See? You’re wrong!” He pointed to a newspaper article, knowing that the cramped mass of long, printed words would confuse her. “You don’t know anything, do you?”
She felt ashamed at first, but later angry.
Do I want to live like this forever, she thought, with people laughing at me, and telling me what to think?
No. I don’t.
That evening she returned to her grandfather’s bookshelves, and pulled out a little book with a storm-tossed boat on the cover. She opened it shyly, suspecting it might be for younger children.
It was a tale of shipwreck and danger. As the stranded heroes struggled through thick jungle, the girl struggled through the word-jungle. But this time she was caught up in the story. She forgot her grandfather’s glare and her cousin’s jeers. When she finished her mind was filled with pictures, for her imagination was vast and powerful.
That night she dreamt again of her grandfather’s books, but this time she could understand them.
“She read me!” the storybook chirruped proudly.
The other books applauded the girl by pattering their pages, then jostled round her.
“Read me next!” they all called.
“Don’t fluster her, children!” said a big, battered book in a gruff, kindly voice. “She isn’t ready for you all yet.”
“I’m sorry I’m stupid,” whispered the girl.
“Nonsense!” said the old book sharply. “You’re clever. Better still, you’re stubborn. It’ll take practice, but some day you’ll drink our words like water. And we’ll tell you secrets that we never told your grandfather or cousin.”
From that time, the girl knew that books were waiting to tell her secrets. In the meanwhile she kept them safe and well-dusted. She was clever, patient and full of dreams, and such people are usually kind.