I recently read this gem of a book: Bookworm by Lucy Mangan. I loved it, not just because it's so well written, but because it brought back so many wonderful book memories. (We're more or less the same age – I’m more, she’s less.)
Like most Brits of my generation (I was born in 1973), my earliest book memories are of Ladybird books. They were so beautifully illustrated that I took in every detail of those pictures. I was even inspired by a Ladybird picture book to speak my first word: bubbles.
My mum would read to me every day and, of course, every night. Nursery rhymes (Dean’s Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Janet and Grahame Johnstone), and more Ladybird books, naturally; The Enormous Turnip, The Little Red Hen, The Magic Porridge Pot, The Gingerbread Man, and Chicken Licken were all favourites. Then, a little later, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White and Rose Red, and The Elves and the Shoemaker. Also, lots of Beatrix Potter.
Most of my early books had first been my brother's, and his favourites became my favourites too. In particular, Little Crazy Car by Hilda Boswell and The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.
One book that was mine – a 1976 Christmas gift from my godfather who had recently emigrated to Canada – was How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And my first dictionary, The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary, was bought for me by my brother from a jumble sale, apparently. Another picture dictionary was passed on to me from my cousin. I loved those dictionaries – an early sign that I was destined to work with words?
Although it was usually my mum who would read to me, until I was old enough to read myself, my dad would also do the honours occasionally. Most memorable was the night he read Pinny Takes a Bath by Racey Helps. Only, he thought it was called ‘Pinny Takes a Bath and Racey Helps’! That makes it sound as if he wasn't much of a reader, but he always had at least one book on the go. Our house was full of books; he was always having to put up new bookshelves. Both my parents knew the importance of books. I never needed to read under the covers with a torch (although, if I'd had a torch, I might have done it anyway just because it sounded like an exciting thing to do). Telling me to stop reading, even to go to sleep, just isn't something they would have done. Ever. So, once I was able to read independently, I would read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I read a lot of Enid Blyton books that way, including The Faraway Tree, The Secret Seven and The Famous Five series.
A selection of my favourites, recently rediscovered in my old bedroom cupboard
There followed a bit of a Dark Age of reading; I struggle to remember with any detail most of the books I read between the ages of about 8 and 10, probably because the books I went on to read were not reread as much as the earlier ones. I continued to enjoy mysteries and discovered the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators (I particularly liked The Mystery of Monster Mountain). I know I also read books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Bogwoppit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (like Lucy Mangan, I had the editions illustrated by Faith Jacques).
The most wonderful moment I had while reading Bookworm was when I came across the first reference to Private – Keep Out! by Gwen Grant, a book I had completely forgotten about but absolutely loved at the time. I don’t remember finding it quite as funny as Lucy Mangan did, although with chapter titles such as ‘Did God make Gloria Hottentot as well?’ it was most definitely very amusing. My most memorable laugh-out-loud reading moments came from Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine with the description of George’s grandma as having a ‘puckered up mouth like a dog’s bottom’ and – even more hilarious (there were tears) – the scene from Whistle Down the Wind, by Mary Hayley Bell, in which the children are talking about giving Jesus some comics to read and then, when he’s finished, letting Bette Davis have them to spend a penny on. (Spoiler: there’s a man hiding in their barn and they think he’s Jesus, and they have a dog called Bette Davis.)
Books I tried and failed to read include Stig of the Dump, Carrie’s War and The Hobbit (I actually wrote about my failure to read The Hobbit in my very first blog post). I finally read Stig of the Dump last year (to my son) and last week I read Carrie’s War (the 1975 edition I failed to read as a child). I read The Hobbit last year too (also the same old edition) and I did enjoy it, so I had a go at The Lord of the Rings, but I only got about 100 pages in. I’ve just never been able to get into fantasy fiction, unless it was a fantasy world accessible from the real world; I’m sure I would have loved Harry Potter at that age. Even Alice in Wonderland was just too much for me and I could never get further than the ‘drink me, eat me’ scene.
Like most girls, I went through a phase when I was mad on horses, so I bought lots of pony books – mostly from second-hand book stalls at horsey events – by writers such as the Pullein-Thompson sisters and Judith Berrisford.
When I grew out of those, the transition to adult books began and this mostly consisted of Judy Blume’s books. Oh my God, they were brilliant. One of my favourites was Deenie, about a teenager who is diagnosed with scoliosis and has to wear a body brace. So, one day, when I received a letter from the school asking my mother and me to attend an appointment at the school nurse’s office and we weren’t told what it was about, but I was then asked to bend over and try to touch my toes, I knew exactly what they were checking for, and my heart was in my mouth. Apparently, as a young child, I’d been considered to be at risk of developing scoliosis, but, fortunately, I was fine.
I also enjoyed Forever, in which the main character actually has sex with her boyfriend. I lent my copy to a friend, and her mum confiscated it and I never got it back! I was so angry about that. I suppose she thought she was doing me a favour because if she kept it, my mum would never know I had it and I wouldn’t get into trouble. But my mum wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. I want my book back, Mrs Evans!
In my mid-teens, I moved on to adult fiction. I read my dad’s David Lodge and Tom Sharpe books. At Cwmbran Library I discovered Rosemary Timperley’s books, which I loved, but are all now sadly out of print – perhaps they weren’t as good as I thought they were at the time. After reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm at school, I went on to read Down and Out in Paris and London and Nineteen Eighty-Four. An all-time favourite of mine, which I also first read at school, was of course Pride and Prejudice. The copy I had at home was actually a 1920s edition that had been my grandmother’s school copy. The student who had written her name above my grandmother’s was called Mollie, and I used to like to think it was Mollie Sugden (they were at the same school), but it wasn’t. I also read my mum’s copy of Jane Eyre. I was probably quite a bit older than my mum was when she read it and so it didn’t scare me half to death as it did her. I also loved Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
When I was 16 or 17, Patricia Cornwell published the first in her Kay Scarpetta series, and so I eagerly awaited those each year until I tired of them in the late 90s.
Clearly, I’ve always loved books, but I wasn't a true bookworm in the sense Lucy Mangan describes. Although books were a big part of my life, I also had plenty of friends and plenty of other interests, as does my son. So, I had faith that he would love books too because I'd been reading to him from the word go and he'd always enjoyed being read to. And, sure enough, at six and a half, he has recently started reading independently and actually said, ‘I never knew how brilliant reading to yourself could be!’ Since Easter he has read several Scooby Doo mysteries, Lauren Child’s Hubert Horatio books, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark (thanks to Lucy Mangan – that was one I missed out on as a child but read about in Bookworm), plus a couple of my old favourites: Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and My Naughty Little Sister.
We were chatting recently about the summer holidays coming up. I’m an introvert and he’s very active, always wanting to be going somewhere, so I usually struggle to keep him entertained. He’ll be going to a play scheme in the mornings, and I said, ‘We’ll just have to find something to do in the afternoons then.’
And he said, ‘Read?’
I’m so happy.
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