thinking out loud

Bookends: The Books That Made Me

When I was very young I used to look forward to my weekly trips to the library. We didn’t have many – or any – children’s books at home, but on weekends my father would take me to the National Library’s children’s section. It was these trips that introduced me to Mary Norton’s Borrowers books, the loveliest illustrated book by Anne Lake called The Cat’s-Eye Lighters which is now out of print, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Noel Streatfeild’s Shoe books, and other delights by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, and P.L. Travers. While its collection was very old and did not include the wonders of Diana Wynne Jones, Madeleine L’Engle, and the like, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it was where I learned to love children’s literature. Even now, as an adult, I would sooner re-read Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea than the latest Jodi Picoult, although I’m certain that the latter isn’t without its charms. In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly says, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your life does.” Perhaps this is why no matter how many books I fall in love with later in life, none of them would ever affect me as these childhood favourites.

My favourite children’s writer – actually, perhaps my favourite writer for any genre or age group – is Diana Wynne Jones. I have never read a book by her I didn’t like, and most of them I love, and have since re-read a dozen or more times. I think that different personalities would prefer different books by her, of course, but for the complete beginner to her books I would recommend either Howl’s Moving Castle or Charmed Life. Both of these are Diana Wynne Jones at her best, humorous and nuanced, with characters you can’t help but fall for. My absolute favourite by her is Fire and Hemlock, which perhaps leans further into the Young Adult spectrum rather than Children’s. It’s a re-telling of two old ballads, Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, both about young men spirited away by the fairy queen, and who could only be saved by a woman who loves them. While both ballads and subsequent retellings all have the heroine saving their lover by holding on to them no matter what happens, I find Fire and Hemlock refreshing because Polly was only able to save Tom by letting go.

And then there’s Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer’sThe Phantom Tollbooth, which was gifted to me (with a pile of other books, two of which are in this list, and the rest in other favourite lists) when my brother came back from studying overseas. Back then books like these were hard to find; now I think many of those who love children’s books will have read Juster and Feiffer’s classic. I enjoyed the playfulness of the novel, and the way it effortlessly made me want to know more about the world around me. Another book from the stack I received from my brother is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle’s book, too, is a beloved classic, although the protagonist falls into that “love her or hate her” category. Meg Murry was an annoying, introverted, too-smart-for-her-own-good girl who would get good grades if she would just “apply herself”, and I adored her from the first time I met her. Having said that, once I’ve sought out the rest of the adventures of the Murry family, it is her brother Charles Wallace’s story, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that quickly became my favourite.

The next of my list of favourites also came down to me from my brother, although it hadn’t been from that first stack of books. Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea came to me a little later, and it took several re-reads, with several years in between, for me to truly appreciate it. The story of a boy named Ged who travelled far to join a school of wizards have been dramatized in a television mini-series, but this book, and the novels that follow it, are far superior to the TV adaptations.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is also a book that had been adapted in many forms, including a lesser-known Disney animation. I read this for the first time during the school holidays when I was eleven, and even now I remember how easily the turn of the page took away all the restlessness, boredom and humidity of the holiday season (I had been shipped to my grandparents’, where the weather was so humid I couldn’t even contemplate going outdoors.)

While most of my favourites tend to be more speculative in nature, there are at least two that often gets re-printed in pink, girlish covers. They are, of course, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Don’t let the covers or titles fool you, however – whether it’s Sara Crewe in the former or the Fossil sisters in the latter, in these books I had found girls I could look up to, who taught me about perseverance and making the best out of hard times.

Some – perhaps most – of the best children’s fiction were written about, or during, the war. This is certainly reflected in A Little Princess and Ballet Shoes both, as well as fantasy classics such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. It is also the case with E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, where four children (and their baby brother) whose father had gone to fight in the First World War discover a grumpy sand-fairy who grants each of them a wish that would last until sunset. Of course, these wishes always come with undesirable, but sometimes humorous, consequences.

Always thirsting for more female protagonists in fiction, it’s probably not surprising that Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy places in my favourites. I liked that Harriet was curious and intelligent, of course – and I liked that it didn’t necessarily make her wise, and that she got into trouble and had to learn to get out of it. Mostly I liked it because it’s exactly what I wanted out of a children’s book – it’s entertaining and it’s funny and it made me think. It’s the kind of book that makes me love reading. Which brings me to another well-loved female protagonist, Matilda.

Many bibliomaniacs would have Roald Dahl’s Matilda as one of their favourites. I, too, related to and enjoyed reading about Matilda’s hunger for words and learning, although my very favourite Dahl would be James and the Giant Peach. Unlike Matilda, James and the Giant Peach  wasn’t a book that I’ve read a thousand times over. But it’s a book that I think back on a lot, and one that I would remember vividly. Perhaps it’s the absence of the adult in the story – James had his friends, but did not trade in his abusive aunts for another authority figure to listen to. Perhaps it’s the adventure element in the story, or the idea of living in a giant peach. Perhaps – no, definitely – a part of it comes from the idea of a family that one makes, rather than the one that one is born into.

I had started out trying to come up with a “top ten” list of my favourite childhood titles, but as I think of more and more titles that deserve to be in that top ten, I realise that all of them had played an important part of making the person I am today. Childhood books are very personal to those who’ve loved them; what I feel about The Wind in the Willows, for example, had as much to do with the when and whys of my first encounter with it as it has to do with the book itself. Everyone will approach different books in different ways, and the best books, to me, are the ones that will help you grow, no matter what. Below is a small list of books I loved as much as the ones I’ve talked about, as well as books that I may have not read in my childhood but wish I had.
Other Childhood Favourites
101 Dalmations, Dodie Smith
The Dark Is Rising, Susan Cooper
The Borrowers, Mary Norton
The Indian in the Cupboard, Lynne Reid Banks
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien

Books I Wish I Read When I Was Younger
Coraline, Neil Gaiman
Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente
The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo
The Thief, Megan Whalen Turner

* cross-posted from The Gentle Madhouse, originally for Kinokuniya BookWeb

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