The Books that shape you
I find it interesting that the things we like as children seem to really stick with us, and yet at times, in our grown up worlds, we can feel like we’ve lost touch with who we are, of the essence of who we were when we were young. I only have to look back to those times, turn the pages of the books that mattered, remember what I loved then and reflect on why, for this small exploration to remind me, not only why I love books, but what makes me tick, as a person and as a writer.
As a really young child, the book that intrigued and fascinated me more than any other, was Cicely M Barker’s, ‘The Book of the Flower Fairies’. I wasn’t an especially girly kind of girl, but I adored the pictures, the bright colours, the flowers and plants, and I seemed to have an instinctive love for the rhythms in poetry. My mum had a very old copy of the book, one of the originals, which I am pleased to say I now have. What made this book even more magical was the fact that it was coming apart a bit, that my mum had traced the fairy shapes so that the other sides of the pages, which would have been blank, showed a fairy pencil outline. I was so fascinated by this and whole conversations would spring up about how she did this, adding to the magic.
As a child of around seven or eight, my favourite book was ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. We didn’t have ‘the whole’ Narnia series… we didn’t even know ‘the whole’ Narnia series existed, and it really didn’t matter. Unlike nowadays, where we automatically expect there to be more, one book was enough. This book was certainly enough for me! I wasn’t a big reader myself as a child – I struggled with it to be honest. So, my mum would sit on the edge of my bed in my tiny box room, and read this book to me, and when she got to the end, I would ask her to start all over again. My favourite moment was (and still is) when Lucy first walks through the back of the wardrobe into the snowy land. When I watched the film, a few years ago, I confess to tear drenched cheeks at this point! This escape into a magical world definitely influenced my writing of ‘Buttercup Magic’… just the thought that we can move between worlds has a magic all of its own for me.
I was also crazy about the Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo. I have always loved comics – in fact, I wanted to be a comic artist for a long time. My dad, who for years was a Jaguar specialist, had his own garage and had some interesting customers, including members of Showaddywaddy and Englebert Humperdink! One of his customers was the translator of the Asterix books, which meant that me and my bro got given two of the books, one of which was signed. I still have them, and have added to this small collection since. As a child, I adored the pictures and the humour. I’d spend hours drawing Obelix and Dogmatix, caught up in their crazy slapdash world.
Another of my faves was my Dad’s Monty Python book… it was rude, it was irreverant, it was random… right up my street! Not exactly standard child fare, but then I wasn’t especially drawn to books for children. Luckily, I had very open minded parents, who let me read whatever was around. Dad’s Monty Python book made me cackle. The way they put together such contrasting ideas appealed to me on another level. It’s still something I love, find funny, and like to explore in my own writing.
Last, but by no means least, in my teens, I honed in on my mum’s collection of Sylvia Plath poems, ‘Aerial’. When I read Sylvia’s poems something inside fitted together. I didn’t understand them all, but I felt them. I was so intrigued that I bought all her poetry collections. I then read a biography on her, ‘Bitter Fame’ by Anne Stevenson. This book had an even more profound effect on me – I felt like there was someone else like me out there, someone who felt some of the things I did and who chose to express those through the written word. This inspired me to write more seriuosly, which, at the time, meant writing reams of poetry and actually sending them out to people! One of these was published, another three led to me being a runner-up in a poetry competition – Dylan Thomas’s daughter was one of the judges – I was in awe! I’ve visited Sylvia’s grave at Heptonstall twice, a very moving experience given the influence her writing has had on me, and hope to visit again soon… it’s all very pertinent to what I am writing at the moment.
I think certain books reach out to us as ones that mirror elements of who we are, and then, furthermore, help to shape us and help us to understand what makes us tick. These books certainly did that for me.
Which books have influenced you most in your life and writing, and seem to echo a part of who you are?
Great books — the Narnia books were definitely among mine as well, but I think I read every book under the sun, anything and everything I could get my hands on! My favorite books almost always involved people searching for things or places or people or home or people fighting for what’s right — consistent themes in my reading, writing, and life! Reading was my absolute favorite pasttime, and I guess some things never change! Nice post!
Thanks Julia! The idea of people searching for something is quite a magical one isn’t it? I can think of so many books I loved where this was the theme too. What would we do without them eh?
I always feel a bit out of the loop when people talk about their childhood reading – I didn’t read for pleasure until I was about 22, and got a job in a library – it was a revelation. The first thing I did was read all the books in the kinder boxes, then all the children’s section – it was as if I had to start at the beginning before moving on to the grown-up stuff!
That’s really interesting, Jenny. I wonder if the absense of reading as a child was what drove you to want to write for children. Glad you’ve made up for it since though!
In your reading time-line I see the writings that both influenced, but also probably opened up the trail for the direction your own later writing. I think I share that experience but with a quite different array of influences.
My childhood reading was a bit impoverished (like Jenny’s). I don’t remember being read to as a child and I don’t remember seeing my parents reading. So reading for me was part of the necessary rigours of education. When I did get into reading (a little) for pleasure it was Enid Blyton’s ‘Secret Seven’ and ‘…of Adventure’ series’ – not great literature but it opened my eyes to see how you could be taken somewhere else by staring into the black and white pages of a book, like some kind of pre-Magic Eye, Magic-Eye picture. From there it was HG Wells, a little John Wyndham and then stop. At school I was introduced to the Dr Seuss books and I loved the easy tumbling of the rhymes that led further and further into a crazy alternate world. I think this was my first experience of, maybe not poetry but, rhyming. The fascination with things that work on different levels seems to be woven into my DNA and a rhyming poem works on two levels – it says something or tells a story and it rhymes – that’s two levels. Then at secondary school I was forced to study Tennyson’s ‘Tithonus’ and was completely caught out and then enchanted by the metaphor of the description of a beautiful woman that was also a description of the dawn. Here in metaphor was another element to craft. Take all this into song and the music is another level, with Peter Gabriel and Alice Copper being big lyrical influences. As a late teenager I added the Bible’s wisdom and imagery alongside the parables of Jesus and the colours of my palette were complete. Many songs, scripts and videos later the latest work from that same pallette has been by book ‘The Animal Parables’.
I got into the Narnia Chronicles and The Hobbit later much later on by reading them as as bedtime stories to my own children. I was glad to get a second chance with those. Having children can sometimes give you that kind of opportunity, can’t it?
Lovely to hear all your influences Martin. I too loved The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. Yes, literature does work on so many levels doesn’t it, and I think you’re right, the influences do show in our own writing years later – quite remarkable really!
I was a very lucky child in that I was encouraged to read, a lot! I often had two or even three books on the go at once, not quite sure how effective that was in the long run though! Like Martin I was a huge Secret Seven and Famous Five reader, I loved Enid Blyton although in the early 1980s she was probably already considered old fashioned. One of her book which I love, and still have a copy of, is ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’. There was the magic which I later found in The Narnia Chronicles and the shared adventures of siblings; my siblings are all much older than I so I never had this experience personally.
I loved Roald Dahl and read all of his books, with the possible excepition of ‘The Witches’, not sure why that was. I really enjoyed his two volumes of autobiography too.
For my eighth birthday I was given a special edition 50th anniversary copy of The Hobbit by an aunt and uncle. It has beautiful and colourful illustrations and is much treasured. I was a bit young to read it myself so my mother read it to me. We would sit in bed on a Saturday morning and she would read me a chapter or two, it was wonderful!
Hi Lexx! Those books are all ones I love too! Your illustrated Hobbit sounds amazing! One of my favourite books too, although I didn’t read it until I was an adult. I can imagine how treasured it is. Am a big Roald Dahl fan too – any excuse to read his books to the kids! Thanks ever so for commenting Lexx 🙂
When I read ‘the Hobbit’ to my kids I automatically did a hissy voice for Gollum. Although long before the film, it just felt unavoidable. I distinctly remember the look of wonder their faces that such a vivid character could somehow magic out of the pages of a book.
We all have dyslexia to varying degrees, so I don’t know if things like this are enough to counter the resistance to reading and so break the cycle…
I devoured my Mum’s old copy of ‘The Flower Fairies’ too, it was one of those rainy day books that I would take off her bookshelf and spend hours pouring over. I wanted to be the Blackthorn Fairy… I went on to draw my own fairies and make up poems to go with them, I was that inspired…I only wish I’d kept the stapled together, felt-tip drawing, book! I have Flower Fairy prints up on my hall wall complete with accompanying verse.
And ‘The Hobbit’ was my most favourite book! I discovered Tolkien after Enid Blyton…I was a Famous Five addict!
If my parents wanted to find me, it would be tucked up in the corner with a book!
Blimey Lisa! We have loads of similar booky coincidences! My fave was The Greater Knapweed Fairy – I still love the colours purple and green together! I painted The Daisy Fairy for my daughter when she was born. Hours of pleasure from this book, then and now too! So many lovely memories eh?
Ha ha, yes, lovely coincidence, Mum still has her copy and I bought an updated omnibus version of all the Flower Fairy books for my own bookshelf just after I got married! The prints I made for my hallway were fairies from the book which I deemed similar to my own children…my son at seven looked identical to the ‘Sweet Chestnut Fairy’, exactly the same mischievous expression! I loved the purple ones too, I looked like the Lavender Fairy and I loved the heliotrope one too!
A couple of Christmases ago the children bought me a huge Flower Fairy book by the makers of Dragonolgy (scrapbook style) books, which they’ve enjoyed looking through, but it isn’t a patch on the simple, no frills book I loved as a kid!
Oh what a fab idea picking ones that look like you and the kids – I love that! Yes, I bought dort her own copy, but my mum’s falling apart one is just unbeatable! I only have one picture – that’s the Poppy Fairy – it’s the one plate that’s missing from my mum’s old book, so when I saw it, felt I just had to buy it!
I was an Enid Blyton girl and ached to live in a world of toast with lashings of butter and adventures with friends I never had. We didn’t have much money and mum was germphobic so I wasn’t allowed to get library books. I saved my pocket money – 1 shilling a week – and bought as many as I could. I’ll always be grateful to Ms. Blyton, but I couldn’t read them now. The sheer middle-class complacency of them makes me too angry.
I also adored Anne of Green Gables and strongly identified with Anne Shirley, an outsider with good intentions.
I love the sheer choice kids have today and am more than a little envious that I didn’t have the Gruffalo for myself.
Lovely post, Abi. Thank you.
Ah, thanks Nettie. I know what you mean about Famous Five – have been reading them to dort and seeing them in a different light as an adult! Yes, I was an Anne of Green Gables girl and, like you, really identified with her. You’ve reminded me too of another book I loved – Heidi – up in those mountains with her herd… so idyllic and so far removed from my world.
Ooh Heidi! The thing I remember most about that book is the part where her grandfather described how Switzerland is broken up into cantons using an apple. No idea why it stuck, but there you go!
YES! How bizarre! I still have my Heidi book up in the attic – must get it down for dort to read!
Lovely post, Abi. I’ve shared a few books with you already, but when I read what you wrote about Monty Python, I wanted to add my fascination with the Mike Hammer series. My father, who was in the Constabulary Force, had them lying around the house. Not suitable fare for a child, but then, like you, I wasn’t entirely drawn to books for children. I think the Mike Hammer series was the catalyst for my love for crime/detective fiction.
Oh that’s brilliant! I haven’t read those. I really do think there’s something to be said for children reading outside the genre intended for them. Something seeps in. I hope my kids will rifle my bookcases at some point and make discoveries like this. Thanks for the comment Nadine.
LOL so many of your favourites were mine! Especially Monty Python. When I was in my teens I used to make my friends come to Monty Python sleep overs for my birthday, with Monty Python birthday cake!
I’d just add in ‘The Little White Horse’, ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ and anything with a horse in it!
HA HA! Love it George! I am now yearning for Monty Python parties… can grown ups have them? ;o)
Oh I think we should!
Lovely post Abi, nice to reminisce about childhood and our influences. My Dad was the reader at bed time; Jennings Goes To School – Anthony Buckeridge (one from his childhood I expect), Captain Pugwash, Monster on the Bus – Ellen Blance, and probably my favourite; A.A Milne’s; When We Were Very Young. “They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace. Christopher Robin went down with Alice…”. That popped in to my head only today, and, Emileen…..has not been seen since she slipped between the two tall trees at the end of the green… As an adult my reading choice has swung from popular sciences to poetry and lit, over last couple of years. I like Wendy Cope’s light verse and sense of humour. I saw her read at Foyles, last year, and she signed my book; she was a bit grumpy 😦
What lovely stories Sam! Ha ha… a grumpy Wendy Cope eh? And you have brought that ‘Changing Guard’ song right back to me – I used to LOVE that and would sing it all the time – had completely forgotten about it. It is lovely to reminisce about books isn’t it? I think because they are so tied in to our childhood and memories of our parents. I would hate to have not had that as part of my life. Mr Pink-Whistle… the mind boggles!!! 😀
ooh! I forgot, Mr Pink-Whistle Interferes! Probably not suitable nowadays.
Ahh! I LOVED Asterix. My dad had all the books on a bookshelf next to my favourite armchair, where I used to curl up and read them time and time again. I really, really wanted to find out the recipe for the magic potion!
I was a BIG reader as a kid, so devoured all the usual suspects – Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Tintin. We had the Flower Fairy books too, and Brambly Hedge – they were wonderful! Ooh, what else… Point Horror, Sweet Valley High… then, as I got older, all the ‘grown up’ books off my parents’ big bookshelf on the landing – Jack Higgins, Michael Crichton, Ann McCaffrey and so on. After which I moved on to Stephen King!
Basically, I did and still would read the back of a cereal packet if there was nothing else to read, so um, maybe I’d better stop this list now before I totally clutter up your blog with a crazy-long comment! :o)
Oh fab! Didn’t realise you were an Asterix fan too. It’s been so lovely hearing about other people’s faves too, and so many similar ones. I am the same as you Em – even at parties I have been known to sit reading some rubbish or other somewhere – it’s a compulsion… there must be tablets for it! 😀
Ha ha! If there is, I don’t want any. 😀
I loved my Flower Fairies books. Mostly because of the pictures at the time. After that I moved on to The Famous Five, Secret Seven and Nancy Drew. I wonder why I write crime 🙂
Hi Rebecca! Yes, the pictures are gorgeous aren’t they? Loved The Famous Five too – never read Nancy Drew though… and yes, it does explain a lot doesn’t it? Hope your writing’s going well 🙂
That’s a beautiful copy of Ariel. 🙂 I remember reading all the books in the Judy Bolton series when I was younger. I actually haven’t read a single book from the Narnia chronicles–mainly because they weren’t available to me when I was younger. Maybe I ought to start now and extend my childhood a bit more. Lovely post. 🙂
Hi Kristel! Thank you! I don’t remember the Judy Bolton series, but I think that’ll be our age differences probably. The Narnia books are great, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the best, I think, and can be read as a stand alone book. Thanks again for commenting and glad you enjoyed the post.