I don’t remember ever recognising myself in a book as a child. I suspect that’s a symptom of my privilege. I was white, middle-class and able-bodied; I suppose I saw myself so much that I was blind to it. I don’t remember that moment of feeling ‘seen’ by a book until I read The Catcher in the Rye which is ironic really, as it’s about a boy living a couple of decades before I was in another country. If you’d asked me, I think I’d have told you that I wasn’t interested in reading about children like myself anyway. Who would want to do that when you could have magical adventures or get yourself into and out of danger or travel to other lands? I was looking for windows out of my world.
Which brings me to The Saucepan Journey by Edith Unnerstad.
I was a prolific reader as a child. My mother took us to the library each week and each week I took out four books and I’m fairly sure at the end of the week I returned them to the library having read them. The various libraries we went to in my childhood were always well stocked, so I never had to reread anything if I didn’t choose to, though often I did choose to. Because all these books were available to me for free, I tried every sort of book that was going. This is the joy of libraries. It doesn’t matter if you get a dud and you can take a punt on something that may just turn out to be your favourite book ever.
Anyway, because my mother was a great believer in libraries, we did not actually own very many books. Those I did own were much loved and much read and even then I felt they were very important. So when an old university friend of my mother's came to visit when I was about seven or eight and handing me and my brother a pile of six or seven paperback each I was staggered. She worked on a magazine that reviewed children’s books, I discovered later, so I suppose she always had plenty of children’s books to give away. Anyway, I could not have been more amazed or delighted if you told me I’d won the lottery. All I wanted to do was go to my room and start reading. (Unfortunately the friend had brought her three children with her and they were staying, so reading had to wait.)
One of the books she bought me was The Saucepan Journey by Edith Unnerstad (who for many years I thought of as Edith Understand). It’s the story of a family who is so large there isn’t room for them in their Stockholm flat so their inventor father designs them a caravan and they tour Sweden selling the amazing saucepans he’s invented. It’s a funny adventure with well-drawn characters (who appear in later adventures, though as they didn’t have any of Edith Unnerstad’s books in the library, I didn’t discover these until I was an adult trawler of secondhand bookshops) but more than this, for me, the appeal was the setting.
|The family squashed into their flat before they set out on the journey - our narrator sleeps on the ironing board across three chairs. Illustrations by Iben Clante.
In my wide reading, I must have read books in translation before, but I don’t ever remember being so fascinated by the different foods, the customs, the names, the scenery. I wonder if perhaps I noticed all this more since I owned the book and read it over and over. In my fast library reads, I may have devoured plot and been largely oblivious of setting. Certainly it was not until after The Saucepan Journey that I fell for the worlds of Erich Kästner’s Lottie and Lisa and Emil and the Detectives and the America of the Melendy family books by Elizabeth Enright.
Windows on the world.