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I remember as a child how much my imagination was stimulated by C. S. Lewis's 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe': the idea of walking through the back of a wardrobe into a fantasy world where you met fauns and had to fight against a wicked Queen was enough to relieve the boredom of any school holiday. As my sons were growing up, it was the novels of Road Dahl that captured their imagination. Fancy being able to point your finger at people and turn them into birds, as the furious little girl in 'The Magic Finger' does. The idea of mixing up a glorious concoction to deal with a despicable person, as in 'George's Marvellous Medicine,' seems almost within your own reach.
Lewis and Dahl are still tremendously popular today, but what of younger children whose imagination needs stimulating? 'The Ghost Library' by David Melling seems to be just the answer.
Having been impressed by Melling's 'The Kiss that Missed' and used it successfully as the basis for a drama session with a group of four-year-olds, I asked if I might be the first to borrow his picture book 'The Ghost Library' when I spotted it amongst a pile of new books at my local library. The cover, which has 'glow-in-the-dark' appeal, shows three strange creatures peering down at a book that a little girl in dressing-gown and pyjamas is trying to read. It gives the impression that there will be plenty to stimulate the imagination inside.
Bo, the little girl on the cover, is reading her favourite book about a witch with smelly feet. It's bedtime, and the lights suddenly go out. Bo feels a hand grab her book, and before she knows it she and the book are jerked into the air. She soon finds herself in the ghost library, and the three ghosts from the front cover introduce themselves to her as Magpie, Twit and Puddle Mud. The ghosts explain that they wanted Bo's book, but she came too because she was holding it so tightly. Bo angrily accuses them of stealing, but they claim that they always give books back to children after they have read them. They ask Bo to read her book to them, and when she agrees ghosts fly out from all over the library to listen.
The ghosts enjoy Bo's book so much that they ask her for another story. She says it's their turn, but they protest that they don't know any stories. Bo says she will help them to make one up; they shout out their ideas, but they want Bo to tell the story because she is so good at doing different funny voices. After all the story-telling Bo eventually returns to her bedroom to find a little surprise on her pillow.
Melling's books are always so beautifully illustrated in a way that would appeal to any young child. Each of the ghosts is quite different from the next and most look very friendly rather than scary. One page opens upwards to show a tall tower with the ghosts and Bo swirling past in the night. There is a fair amount of text on many of the pages, so this is a book for reading aloud rather than one for independent young readers. Sometimes italics are used, and sometimes individual lines of text swirl around the page, in tune with the illustrations. All of this adds to the visual appeal.
The unusual thing about this book is that when Bo is reading her book to the ghosts or telling them a story, you see merely a series of pictures without any text. This is in fact an ingenious way of stimulating a young child's imagination and encouraging them to tell the story as they see it through the pictures. When Bo is reading her own book to the ghosts, the double-page spread shows around thirty-six small pictures, mostly in light blue on a yellow background. This would necessitate some quite detailed story-telling, and might be suitable for a child of six or seven. When Bo is telling the story that she and the ghosts have made up, however, there are two douple-page spreads in comic-strip style with very colourful and bold pictures that a slightly younger child could follow and tell the story that the illustrations show.
This is a story that successfully combines fantasy with the reality of story-telling ideas. Although about ghosts, they are friendly ghosts and all ends happily, so it should not be too scary as a bedtime story. I would recommend this for children aged three up to either six or seven; with David Melling, I think it is hard to go wrong.
The Ghost Library
by David Melling
Hodder Children's Books, 2005
Paperback, 34 pages
Price £5.99 (Amazon £4.99)