Colin Thompson is one of my heroes. He was one of the reasons why I fell in love with picture books and young adult fiction. This book How to Live Forever has been a personal favorite of mine from way back, and it’s such a pleasure to feature this for our current bimonthly theme on Books about Books and the River of Words.
A Missing Book and A Boy named Peter. The setting of the narrative is in a ‘magnificent library’ where every book that has ever been written are collected and gathered together – and come to life in the evenings.
When the library is closed and the night watchman has fallen asleep in his big armchair, the shelves come to life. Doors and windows appear on the backs of the books, lights come on, and the sound of voices drifts out between the pages. Full-grown trees spring up and chimneys begin to smoke. Staircases and ladders join the shelves into great cities, and in the distance small dogs bark.
This actually transforms Jorge Luis Borges’s famous quotation “I have always imagined Paradise to be some kind of library” - into a real and breathing universe. Surprisingly, there are no ‘readers’ introduced in this book. Our protagonist is also a character from a book entitled Quinces: a young boy named Peter, who knew about the only missing book in the library entitled How to Live Forever.
Peter was the only person who knew about the missing book. One night his cat Brian chased a mouse into the filing cabinet, and when Peter squeezed in after him he found the card. When he went to get the book there was only a dark dust-filled gap. Peter decided that no matter what he had to do, he would find the lost book.
“If I can find it,” he said to Brian, “we will never grow old.”
Of Immortality and Old Age. And so Peter’s quest begins as he goes in search of the missing book – absorbed with the promise of eternal youth. He looks around the bookshelves and sees wrinkled-faced adults struggling to retain their youth through exercise or eating healthy food. Peter has a smug and knowing smile as he looks at all these rapidly-aging people – as he knows something they don’t know: the secret to living forever, if only he could find the missing book.
Peter’s single-minded pursuit of this book and his midnight travels through secret cellars and forgotten cities brought him finally to the presence of four ancient Chinese men with “white hair and deeply lined faces.”
Peter followed the old men into a large faded book. It was filled with the scent of spices and ancient memories. Beautiful carpets covered the floors and red lacquered shelves crammed with a thousand treasures filled the walls.
“You’ve come for this, haven’t you?” said the third man, holding out a small book.
Peter took it and read the faded words: How to Live Forever, or Immortality for Beginners.
The question here is not whether Peter will find the book – but whether he would read it. And that, my dear friends, I shall leave for you to discover. The quest for immortality has existed since life was breathed into the first human being. The crux is what to do with the knowledge that may be out there, and what it might ultimately mean to one’s understanding of life in its essence. Colin Thompson’s artistry is simply breath-taking, the narrative soft and lyrical, the quiet weaving of the tale which leads Peter to the Ancient Child is plain brilliant.
If you had this book before you, dear friends, would you read it? Would you want to live forever?
About the Author/Illustrator (copied from the jacketflap of the book).
Colin Thompson was born in London in 1942 but did not start writing and illustrating until 1992. Since then he has had more than 45 books published. He has received several awards, including an Aurealis Award for the novel How to Live Forever and the Australian CBC Picture Book of the Year in 2006 for TheShort and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley. He has been shortlisted for many other awards, including the Astrid Lindgren Award – the most prestigious children’s literature prize in the world.
A class of boys in Sydney, Australia, loved looking for Atlantis so much that they invited Colin, who lived in the north of England, to visit their school. He went there for one week in 1995 and has lived there ever since. He is now married to the teacher who wrote and invited him to the school.
Colin and his wife live in Bellingen, Australia, in a valley called The Promised Land.
How to Live Forever by Colin Thompson. First published by Julia MacRae in 1995. This edition published by State Street Press, 2008. Bought my own copy. Book photos taken by me.