I was an only child for almost twelve years. I then had a sister, which made all the difference. I tended to be thoughtful, quiet and introspective which wasn’t always healthy for me. Fortunately I was social enough to try make friends. If living, breathing friends weren’t available however, I usually returned to those in my novels.
I have included a selection of the texts that had most influence on me as a young girl. There are more. I have only chosen the special ones! In most cases I have included an image from the original cover. I am a ridiculous hoarder when it comes to books and rarely move any on. I truly believe it has a lot to do with my twelve year ‘only child’ status. Giving away these books would feel like splitting a part of myself in two. I was traumatised by Toy Story 3 as you can imagine!!
- What Katy Did by Susan M. Coolidge
This story was sold to me from the characters’ descriptions. Adorable names that hadn’t featured in my young world were introduced to me such as Clover, Cece and Dorry. I loved this sprawling, mischievous family led by the well meaning but thoroughly troublesome older child, Katy. This was a story about transience. A motherless family and their small day to day incidents. Their semi -orphaned state was always present in the novel, yet never the dominating event. They imagined, explored and created and I envied every moment. Katy’s transience from tomboy to lady is all encompassing. The following ‘What Katy did at school’ and ‘What Katy did next’ became as important to my life as that first beautiful book in the trilogy. I will never forget Katy!
I often work with children utilising library work to promote literacy among boys. It is proven that children will become more interested in literature when reading is modelled by an adult. What a pleasurable fact! What a fabulous reason to do something fun and not ‘work’. A few months ago in one such session, I selected my old friend, ‘What Katy Did’ to peruse. Imagine my joy to read about the Carr family once more over 25 years later. I had feared time would change them. Not Katy Carr! It was as gorgeous an experience now as then.
2. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I have noticed that much of my childhood classic reading involved children either orphaned, semi-orphaned or in family difficulty. Mary Craven was another of those children. Her life was terrifying to me, particularly those early years. Parents that were neglectful and cruel in their lack of love for Mary made me feel totally uncaring for their deaths when they occur. Mary had money and privilege but it meant nothing. She was spoilt and unpleasant, shouting and tantruming through life. I have always shivered through the scene where Mary is found by soldiers, totally alone, in an Indian compound where everyone had died of a fatal, rampant disease. My image was of a body strewn, foul, odorous and overbearingly hot hell on earth, a dystopian nightmare. The reader is thankful that Mary is so self-centered that she is barely dented by this traumatic situation, not crying but shouting in commendation of the selfishness of others, blissfully unaware of her own failings!
The children make the story. Spoiled and unpleasantly rich protagonists and of course their opposite, kindly, empathetic, caring poorer ones ( I count the working Martha as a child). Mary, like Katy Carr, undergoes transformation. She learns how to be kind, thoughtful and observant to the needs of others. Mary is brought away from India to live with a wealthy, reclusive, grieving, sickly Uncle suffering the loss of a beloved wife. Wealthier adults seem in constant peril in this novel! Nature and Yorkshire seem to have a healing power for Mary. The down to earth Dickon contrasts a ‘frail’, egocentric, afraid, crippled Colin (Mary’s cousin) who is abhorrent of fresh air, thinking it a killer. The book teaches strong lessons about the qualities of outdoor life and the benefits on health, physical and mental for children. Parents are not the heroes here and many adults must also see their errors. Mary and Colin are monsters created by their parents/ guardian, rich in money but entrapped from childhood wonder.
The garden is a magical place for them, a real Narnia. Mary grows like a flower, even becoming prettier physically as she morphs into a nicer human. Colin has a physical and emotional growth as life with children in the outdoors, away from the smothering effects of the adult carers, allows him to walk again. He becomes a happier child and a nicer one, just as Mary did. The book has one of those endings where everything becomes as glorious as possible, making the deaths, the disease, the neglect and pain almost disappear. This is a book where magic can exist in the ordinary world, dystopia is upturned into utopia.
3. ‘The Malory Towers’ series by Enid Blyton
I know many young girls read these books and dreamed of this life at a boarding school. I knew if I went to a boarding school in my country it would never compare to this world of goodness and kindness where bullies were stood up to and fights mended with a good sporting attitude.
Darrell Rivers was fascinating to me. Firstly, there were no families called Rivers in my life and the name Darrell was as exotic as any I could imagine. I loved that she had confidence, made friends easily, was sporty, smart and could act. However it was her flaws that made her more real than creation and Blyton did an excellent job here. I loved the Famous Five, yet they were quite Stepfordesque in their clean cut perfection (maybe not George so much) but Darrell wasn’t perfect. Each novel would show her overcoming her temper in a dramatic incident where comeback always seemed difficult, yet she would manage it and no grudges were held. Malory Towers was an excellent world to dip my toes into in a literary sense, yet I knew boarding school and I would not have been friends! The jokes and japes were all good fun, but really the apple pie bed seemed excessively laborious to create with very little reward comedy wise!
4. ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott
It is possible that this book has had the longest lasting impression in my life. From naming my little sister Amy to visiting the house used as Laurie’s house in the filming of the 1994 Winona Ryder version of the movie in Victoria, British Colombia, I adore this story.
I can hardly tell why! The family were so good and moralistic, which appealed to a younger me, but is that exciting? I loved the sisterly imagination at work, the writings and drama, their ‘Pickwick Papers’ games and the cool rich friend next door. I imagined them all to be naturally beautiful and kind. Their flaws added to their beauty, even if I thought it was a bit rich to make Meg feel guilty over a dress, some champagne and flirting at a party.
Jo’s temper was one I understood. Beth’s tragedy is tear inducing at the mere thought. I took years to forgive Amy for marrying Laurie and thought men must be very fickle. This book taught new lessons about sharing and fortunes but really my love for it was down to how I empathise with Jo. My sister told me once she always imagined me as this character when we were growing up and this was a high compliment! I reread this novel repeatedly at all stages of my life and still learned new things, discovering more about transcendental attitudes, Walt Whitman and what Jo’s philosophy was. ‘Good Wives’ and ‘Jo’s Boys’ became much read and loved novels on my shelf too, but it is the first classic that I smile upon every time I see the cover.
5. ‘Zany Tales’ by Patrick Ingoldsby
One Christmas in Ireland, this book was showcased on the Irish stalwart that is ‘The Late Late Toy Show’. I am thinking 1987. This TV show airs live on a Friday night in early December and takes over a weekly talkshow replacing it with children reviewing the year’s toys and books available helping you think up what you might like Santa to bring. I know thousands of homes received a ‘Zany Tales’ that Christmas and rightly so. What a fantastic little book.
Pat had presented several kid’s TV shows. Pat’s Pals and Pat’s Chat. They were loved. We were limited channel wise, calling our stations Bog One and Bog Two, so every child with a TV tuned in. Pat was a gentle, kindly man with long grey hair in a ponytail, a black ( felt I think) hat, waistcoat, bandana and I think badges. Badged waistcoats were very eighties! His physical image has a long lasting mark on my memory even if the shows are little more in my head than pastel colours and children in culottes and oversized t-shirts. One thing I clearly remember is that my Dublin cousin got to be a guest on the show once and I was green with envy. It made me feel very much lower in class, (living outside the Pale as we say) one of the country folk who never stood a chance of that sort of dream. What made it worse is that she was sick that day and didn’t even enjoy it. I can remember watching all the children crowd around Pat and my cousin slinking around the back avoiding the main events. It seemed cruelly unfair!
So Pat wrote this incredibly funny book and I have a copy still on my shelf. I believe most of the country had one. Physically, the book was a bit like Pat himself, quirky and colourful, a bit out of kilter with the other books on the shelf. It was an unusual size and wouldn’t stack neatly. A non conformist! Again, what I imagine Pat to be. Not to forget the illustrations! I often copied these in notebooks to colour.
Humorous and gifted, I learned that Pat sold his own books on the streets of Dublin often with witty signs over his head. A quick Google search proved this.
Sarcasm and irony were part of my life from an early age.
One day I was in Grafton Street. Hurtling down a busy side street, I realised that I was passing a grey haired man, selling books. Ponytail: check. Black hat: check. The crowd dragged me on. I had just missed my opportunity to talk with Pat Ingoldsby.
6.’Billy Bunter’ series by Frank Richards
These books are my Dad’s childhood world. His collection was lost when he married and moved and we have worked hard replacing them since. The gathering of these books and the Grey friars Annuals are a bonding experience we have had and I still look for them first when I am in an old or specialist book store. A treasure hunt ensued!
This collection started later in my life. I was about eleven years old when my Dad talked about them and I spotted one on holidays. The rest of the trip was spent touring the towns on the island digging out these treasures and weren’t we particularly lucky at a store in Peel run by an old lady straight from one of the pages in the novels she sold. We returned to this shop again on other trips and memories were made. Naturally technology and the Internet took the delight out of the lucky bag style search eventually but the bonds were formed between father and daughter, which I now appreciate.
Postal orders were a central image in the series as Bunter is constantly waiting for an elusive gift from home which he would proceed to spend on buns and cakes. I loved that Dad sent postal orders to these books from shops in the UK when Amazon was only being born in a rural hospital without epidural. Bunter himself was incredibly unlikeable yet the hero at all times. Golden boys and bullies, half -holidays and football games made up only the backdrop of this book’s life just as it did for Bunter. His search for food was as relentless as a jungle cat’s might be and I loved him. He told magnificent lies, ate in marvellous gluttony and was an outstanding coward. All things bad! I don’t know how these books appealed to an Irish tweenager in the early nineties and I definitely didn’t have friends with the same tastes to discuss them with but they were my favourites at this time. I still pick them up and laugh!
7. ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and six more’ by Roald Dahl
It is impossible to choose a Dahl number one favourite. All I will say is ‘Matilda’ was the first book I truly loved. ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ is the full reason I am always a little overweight. I read ‘Boy’ in salacious delight, terrified of canes, envious of chocolate tasting and in awe of the revenge mouse in a sweet jar trick. It is ‘Henry Sugar’ however where I first engaged with and felt the power of the short story. They were very adult in many ways and maybe they disturbed me at times. Yet I read and re-read and re-read them so many times the book has almost come apart.
Henry Sugar was a wonderful character. His dedication to the task! I remember the Indian guru training him in detail and his learning the most marvellous trick of seeing through the impossible. Naturally he uses it in an immoral fashion and wins a fortune at the casino. What does he do? Fling it to the winds as you see from the cover, the most amazing image. Such a detailed story, Dahl’s passion on every page.
I loved the story of a farmer finding an invaluable treasure in his fields. I still feel the terror and trauma of reading about the destroying of a swan and how it shockingly predicted for us the horror a young man must go through as a result of bullying. Dahl used real newspaper clippings and stories as inspirations that only added to the drama. ‘Based on real events’ always has a wonderful draw as a statement. Dahl is an influence of the young lives of many children from many generations. I salute him.
8. ‘Wildflower Girl’ by Marita Conlon-Mckenna
A fictional account of children of the famine was documented so beautifully and chillingly in ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’ that it was inevitable I would read more of this lady’s work. I was in primary school when I received this novel for my birthday and it was the popular book of choice at the time. It was also promoted by adults, teachers and parents meaning you were a good child for reading it, unlike if you were caught with your Sweet Valley High books or God forbid, a Virginia Andrews. Don’t worry…I read all these too! These children must make their way, David Copperfield style, through a famine distressed country, encountering terrors and in fear for their own health. As they survive, I was fascinated to read about her years later as she emigrates to America. Fragile and young, her story is terrifying and inspiring. I loved the sleeve on the book as it seemed so important and grown up to have a hardback and dust jacket ! In fact the image was inspiration for my school exam project for art.
The stories were tough but manageable for a young reader. One scene stays with me where the main character,Peggy, loses a tooth and manages to repair it by steeping it in milk. Always seemed a bit dubious to me! A story of a thirteen year old who survived the famine now making her way alone in a foreign city was entrancing to my simple but charmed young existence.
All of these novels influenced me whether they took my sleep, made me jealous, laugh or cry. I don’t know if reading about troubled lives made me feel anxiety. In fact I think I felt the opposite, comforted and safe in my home where the horrors couldn’t get me. The girls and boys in these books were quite different from the ones around me and I definitely had moments of living in a fantasy land and maybe not in the real world. Hurrying along my friends saying, ‘buck up’ like Darrell Rivers met with snorts of derision. What was I talking about? I wouldn’t have it any other way though! I am not like my peers. I never was. I reached for a different side of the moon free growing up and as Frost says, ‘that has made all the difference’.
There are many more wonderful childhood books I would love to tribute. I will leave those for another day! Maybe some readers might share theirs? Thank you!