The Book That Made Me: Gill Lewis

Published on: 18 March 2020

Gill Lewis fell in love with a Reader's Digest guide to the natural world when she was young - and it's still having an impact on her today. She tells us why in the latest edition of The Book That Made Me...

Gill Lewis and the Reader's Digest book she loved as a child

What was the book that made me? It's a question I haven't really contemplated before. Until now.

And it's a big ask. Books have the power to change the way we think and live. They have the power to change our lives. But what was that one book for me?

I grew up in a houseful of books, but I was a reluctant and struggling reader and so the pool of titles to choose from isn't that big.

Do I choose Danny and the Dinosaur, a book I requested from the library a thousand million times? I don't actually recall the story, but I do remember using the illustrations to create my own stories about a dinosaur living in my bedroom.

Or should I choose Tintin in Tibet? I loved The Adventures of Tintin. The stories were fast-paced and accessible, and I didn't have to to struggle through heavy text.

But then, perhaps I should choose The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. This was the first book that spoke to me. Sir Peter Scott's illustration of the protagonist, Fritha, drew me in - I wanted to be her. I wanted to be the one holding the snow goose. I wanted to know Fritha's story. The Snow Goose is a strong contender, but while it may have made me a reader, it didn't make me as a person.

Perhaps another way to pose the question is to ask: what book couldn't you have lived without?
Then the answer became easy.

As a child I was fascinated with animals. I followed anything that crawled or ran or swam or flew. I could lie for hours on my belly watching ants go about their daily business in their intricate and complex mini-cities. I'd climb the trees to be level with the birds. I was fascinated to discover fossilised shells in my garden, and to know that our vegetable patch had once been a seabed teeming with life. I wanted to know more.

I grew up in the early 70s, when our TV was still in black and white and children's programmes aired for only a few hours each day. I wanted access to a wider world beyond my own garden and experiences. I wanted a book to tell me all about life on earth.

On my sixth birthday, my wish came true and my parents gave me a copy of the Reader's Digest Living World of Animals.

Originally published in 1970, it is a 500-page, clothbound doorstep of a book. When I opened it, I opened a doorway into the wider natural world, and to places I could only access through its pages.

The book took me from the Arctic to the Amazon to the very deepest parts of the ocean. It wasn't just about animals, but also about habitats and ecosystems, plant life, geography and climate.

I became an explorer within those pages, and with each one came a new discovery.

I found bizarre creatures like the colugo in Borneo, a mammal - sometimes called a flying lemur - that could glide between the trees. I discovered vibrant birds such as the resplendent quetzal in Costa Rica.

There were little nuggets of information, and infographics about how a mangrove swamp works, how antlions hunt and elephant dentition. There were other sections too, on dinosaurs, evolution and animal behaviour. Perhaps my favourite part came at the very end, where there was a pictorial guide to the classification of animals. I loved seeing how the animal kingdom fitted together, and the relationship between all animal life on earth.

The book made me aware of the world beyond my garden, but it also made me realise how incredible the wildlife around me was too. It made me see my own small patch of land as a part of the whole and made me love and want to protect it.

As I got older I kept dipping into the book, discovering and understanding more things. I came to realise that as humans, we are inextricably linked to the natural world. I also remember feeling grief at the thought of losing the irreplaceable.

I went on to become a vet and loved learning about the comparative anatomy and physiology of species. I travelled and saw for myself some of the animals and places within the book's pages. I have watched culogos gliding between trees in the Bornean rainforest, and the resplendent quetzal bird being resplendent in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. I have met people who protect these wild places and feel privileged to have listened to their stories.

The book inspired the way I have lived my life and influenced my writing, making me want to use my voice to join others to fight for our precious planet.

And now as I hold the book of my childhood in my adult hands, I see it as an old friend that still teaches me so much. It is 50 years since it was published, and I reflect on what has changed. Back then, anthropogenic climate change was only just being recognised. We have since lost habitats and species at a frightening speed. Here in the UK, there has been a reduction in more than 41% of wildlife, with some species such as the turtle dove showing a 98% decline.

In a diminishing natural world, we need to enable young people to have access to wild space so they will develop a love for it and want to protect it. We need the science to understand the world around us and also art in all its forms to help make that emotional connection to ensure we want to protect it.

We are entering a fight to save the natural world, to save the astonishing wealth and variety of life on earth, and it will ultimately be a fight for our own survival too.

Gill Lewis's latest book, Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster, is out now.

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