I’ve been thinking a lot recently about childhood reading and how much it still influences me as an adult. Like many people, I don’t remember learning to read, but just remember reading. I don’t remember being read to, or having bed-time stories, but I have strong memories of the books I read as a child. Learning to read is hugely empowering and one of the reasons why it was a crime to teach American slaves to read. Frederick Douglass, an African-American social reformer who escaped from slavery in Maryland, sums it up perfectly: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, echoed this by saying, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.” So it’s doubly annoying not to be able to remember when this key process took place!
I vaguely remember Ladybird books in my early childhood, but comics were far more important. Twinkle, Diane, Princess Tina, Beano, Dandy, Treasure: I devoured them all. I think it was a combination of a story in a comic and The Children of the New Forest which led me to write my first “novel”. It was around thirty pages long and was the story of two sisters, Roma and Maritza (I think the story in the comic was about gypsies) who lived in the woods self-sufficiently due to some crisis which I have no recollection of whatsoever. I loved books which explored how to live off the land and survive. Like so many children I longed to live far away from home and school and have adventures. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Arthur, was never far from my side. It’s the story of Sam Gribley, a teenager who runs away from his parents’ crowded New York apartment to make a new life in the Catskills on land formerly belonging to his grandparents. He tames a falcon, Frightful. He fishes. He sews his own clothes from deerskin. He makes friends with animals and humans but is always wholly self-sufficient. I was entranced. Sam lived in a hollow tree just like Susan, Peter and Angela in Enid Blyton’s Hollow Tree House. One of my regular haunts as a child was Richmond Park and I remember constantly checking trees for any tell-tale signs of habitable hollows. My alternative plan was to run away with the gypsies, after all, another of my prize possessions was Secrets of the Gypsies so I knew a few useful words in Romany and everything there was to know about baking a hedgehog over an open fire.
I fully appreciate now that these books gave me a love of nature which has come to the fore more and more since I relocated to Norfolk in my twenties. Another great staple of my childhood was Something To Do, a sickly germolene pink Puffin book which had things to do every month, both indoors and out. Each month started with a poem. March exhorted children to make a matchbox church, keep a nature diary, learn to skip, do bark rubbings and make a herb tub. There was also a pet of the month featuring such stalwarts of childhood as hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, budgerigars etc. How I loved that book! My shoebox dolls’ houses were full of wobbly bits of furniture made from conkers, pins and wound wool. As an older reader, still living in a town and with very little access to the countryside, I immersed myself in Alison Uttley’s Country Child, the semi-autobiographical account of a child growing up in the country before the First World War. I had the Royal parks and the River Thames, but it wasn’t the same somehow.
On rainy days I would pore over my father’s huge (to me) clothbound book of birds and copy the colour plates with my soft pencils. My favourite was the jay. It seemed so exotic. I’d never seen a jay before. Today Surrey is over-run with parakeets, bright green, the sky full of their now familiar screech. They would have had no place in my dad’s book, a reminder of how things are constantly changing.
At my junior school I ran a Pony Club. It was an efficiently run organisation for three or four girls who were as horse-obsessed as I was. The fact that none of us owned horses or knew how to ride did not bother us in the slightest. We had Ruby Ferguson and her Jill series to teach us all we needed to know. I was always destined to teach I guess, and would regularly test the club members on their knowledge of tack and the special words for the colours of horses: dun, chestnut, bay, roan… We could identify horse breeds as speedily as we could dogs (another Club, needless to say).
The Jill series was a constant source of joy. Jill was poor, like me! But there the similarities ended as Jill grew from pony novice to rosette winning expert. There are one or two rules to follow if you’re considering writing a successful children’s book. The parents/adults must be largely absent (Jill’s mother was a writer and always off in her own head rather than keeping an eye on her daughter), hence the proliferation of orphaned children, evacuees and boarding school pupils in children’s literature; and secondly the child protagonist should be slightly older than the intended reader of the books, something for them to aspire to. Jill was twelve and I was ten, so we were made to be friends.
A book I cherish as an adult is Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer which explores the food in children’s literature and supplies recipes so you can replicate the seed cake described in Swallows and Amazons and the Gloriously Sticky Marmalade Roll Mrs Beaver makes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (another huge favourite! In my head I was Lucy for a large part of my childhood.) “An Adventure was one thing,” says Enid Blyton, but an adventure without anything to eat was quite another thing. That wouldn’t do at all!”
So many other books were my bedside companions. Being sent to my room if I had been disobedient in any way was a joy. I raced through all the Edith Nesbits, loved Noel Langley’s In the Land of Green Ginger, it’s illustrated by Edward Ardizzone who was a constant in my childhood and whose drawings I still love to this day. I loved ballet and particularly enjoyed Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. The book is about three adopted sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil. Each of the girls is discovered as a baby by Matthew Brown, an elderly, absentminded palaentologist and professor, during his world travels, and sent home to his great-niece, Sylvia and her childhood nanny, Nana. I loved how each of the girls had such distinctive characters and talents. Most of all, I loved the girls’ names. How could my parents have named me Susan? The frustration with my boring name increased when I went to secondary school and discovered there were four other Susans in my class.
My desert island book, the one that has endured and moved with me from house to house from my late teens and early twenties to today, the one which is so battered and worn that a friend bought me a Folio edition which I adore but it’s not quite the same as my browning, mildewed copy, is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. I’m not sure why I love this book so much. The story is full of morality but also adventure and excitement. The descriptions are delicious and I always wanted a bedroom like Maria, the heroine, as she goes to live with her uncle in his amazing house in the most picturesque village with the nicest governess a girl could want.
‘No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room. It was at the top of the tower and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. It had three windows, two narrow lancet windows and one large one with a window-seat in the thickness of the wall…There was no carpet upon the silvery-oak floor, but a little white sheepskin lay beside the bed so that Maria’s bare toes should meet something warm and soft when they went floorwards of a morning. The bed was a little four-poster, hung with pale-blue silk curtains embroidered with silver stars, of the same material as the window curtains, and spread with a patchwork quilt made of exquisite squares of velvet and silk of all colours of the rainbow, gay and lovely…the fireplace was the tiniest she had ever seen, deeply recessed in the wall. It was big enough for the fire of pine-cones and applewood that burned in it, filling the room with fragrance…Over the fireplace was a shelf, and on it stood a blue wooden box filled with dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on them, in case she should feel hungry between meals….It was all perfect. It was the room Maria would have designed for herself if she had had the knowledge and skill… ‘ from The Little White Horse – Elizabeth Goudge
Best of all, though, I discovered that Elizabeth Goudge not only wrote children’s books, all of which I raced through, but books for adults too and my smooth and painless transition to a different world of books was complete!
I often wonder if I would be a different me if I’d read different books as a child. To explore these ideas further I’m running a zoom workshop called A Book at Bedtime. There are details on the courses section of my website if this might be of interest.