The Book That Made Me: Emily Gravett

Published on: 10 May 2020

Emily Gravett explains why books were so magical to her when she was young - and why Clive King's Stig of the Dump left a particularly big impression on her...

Photographs of Emily Gravett as a child and the front cover of Stig of the Dump

In all honesty, I don't think I can say that there is one book that made me. My life is an amalgam of the experiences I've had, the people I've known, and the places I've been, but books have had the (very important) role of allowing me to experience the things that have not been possible in my own life.

They have shown me a bigger place than I can inhabit. They have given me ideas I wouldn't have thought of, and allowed me to be a boy, a man, a mouse, a dragon. Things I could never have become on my own.

I wasn't an early reader. I can vividly remember feeling inadequate because my older sister learnt earlier and more fluently. She was better at all sorts of things (as older sisters tend to be) and made sure that I knew it (again, as sisters tend to do).

It didn't help that my first couple of years at primary school were interrupted with stays in hospital because of a recurring childhood illness, meaning I missed some of the basic lessons. While I was in hospital I went to a sort-of-school, in an on-site classroom tucked at the end of the 'balcony' ward (the most desirable ward because of its large windows that overlooked the playground).

I can remember looking forward to being carried into the lessons, which revolved around books and drawing. I have no memories of doing any kind of maths there. Perhaps I did, but I STILL don't know my times tables, so I'm guessing that maybe I didn't. But what I did do is read.

The hospital's reading scheme differed from my primary school's (Roger and his rather boring Red Hat, for which my only real enthusiasm was the achievement of working my way up through the levels). The hospital reading scheme was a set of books that I have never seen since, and still can't remember the name of, but I LOVED them. They were about a cave boy. I can remember lying in bed on the much-prized balcony ward, worrying in case I was discharged from hospital before I'd finished reading them.

Growing up around books

I grew up in a house heaving with books and art. My dad worked as a technician at the art polytechnic, where Raymond Briggs and John Vernon Lord taught illustration, so my earliest books were wonderful.

The illustrations in John Vernon Lord's The Giant Jam Sandwich were as familiar to me as my own street (in fact, one of the houses drawn in the book was only two streets away). The rhyming text was an early lesson for me in the importance of pacing and rhythm. There are three little figures that are chased throughout the book by some wasps. They aren't written about, and form no part of the plot, but I loved following their little silent story. They taught me that illustrations have their own part to play in a picture book and are not there just to decorate the text.

Another book I prized as a child was Raymond Briggs' Fungus the Bogeyman. It was a masterpiece of domestic detail. It turned everyday objects and scenarios on their heads. Who wouldn't want to know that Bogeymen eat 'Flaked Corns' rather than 'Corn Flakes' for their breakfast? It left me with an abiding impression that even when a book is about a monster or set in a strange fantasy world, it is the everyday details and domesticity of the characters' lives which help the reader to connect to them.

Discovering Stig of the Dump

As I got older this love of domestic detail endured, which brings me on to Clive King's Stig of the Dump. I don't know many children that haven't read this book. It's considered a classic, and I think for very good reason.

Stig of the Dump is a story about a young boy who, while he's staying with his Grandma, falls into the local dump (an old chalk pit) and discovers a cave man called Stig. I think the early cave boy reading primers from my hospital stay, coupled with the fact that we lived very close to a Neolithic site, meant that I was fascinated with this era of history. It had the same pull for me as tales of deep dark woods and witches.

My childhood edition was illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, who is still my favourite illustrator. His illustrations in Stig of the Dump are perfectly pitched for that particular book's age group, which I personally think has slightly different requirements from picture book illustrations. In picture books, text may be omitted when the illustration is doing the work, and vice versa. There is a lot of space for the child's imagination to fill in the blanks. In older fiction, there is less space in the text for the child to use their imagination, so I love that Ardizzone's illustrations hint rather than tell, and evoke atmosphere rather than depict. They still leave room for the child's experience and imagination.

I grew up on chalk downland which I imagine is very similar to the setting of the book, so when Clive King describes the smell of the earth as Barney falls into the dump I am transported straight back to my childhood, mining for chalk on the nearby hill, and always hoping to find a flint arrowhead (I never did).

I was a practical child. I was always building dens and carts, or pulling apart old radios and clocks, so Stig's re-purposing of thrown away objects really captured my imagination.

I recreated his jam jar windows in a den at the bottom of my basement steps and fantasised about building a stack pipe out of old tin cans. Re-reading Stig of the Dump as an adult, it struck me how well it fits with the current movement for recycling and re-use. This morning, I have been looking through the proofs of my latest picture book Too Much Stuff, which is about overconsumption and the repurposing of unwanted objects. It was a timely link to find in such an old favourite.

There is also a scene in the book in which Stig helps a fox evade a foxhunt because it is not 'food', and I wonder if it was that moment which sowed the seed that resulted in my becoming a vegetarian at 10, and spending some time as a hunt saboteur as a teen.

In fact, I lived a very 'Stig-like' existence between the ages of 17 to 25. At first, I lived in a Bender - a shelter of twisted hazel poles covered by a tarpaulin - and then in an old bus. I've certainly dealt with more than one stack pipe, and on occasion there have even been a tin can or two involved in a repair!

I'm not sure if there is a direct link between my reading of Stig of the Dump as a child and my years spent living on the road, but I would really love to think there was.

Our review of Stig of the Dump

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