100 Essential Books – Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)

 

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Thank you, Lucy Mangan. This book has brought me so much pleasure. I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops. I found myself yearning for a “snow day” so I could just stay at home and fully immerse myself in the author’s childhood.

Lucy Mangan truly deserves the title “Bookworm”. Reading, as a child, at every opportunity, eschewing social situations and getting through vast numbers of books makes her a true authority on children’s literature from a child’s perspective. I didn’t think I read as much when I was young as I do now but I realised I must have done as a sizeable number of books Lucy devoured I had also read. She is a few years younger than me but the world of juvenile publishing did not move as fast as it does today and many of the books in our libraries and schools in the 70’s had been published a generation before. I didn’t come from a home with a lot of books and whereas Lucy’s Dad provided her with a regular supply from when she was quite young, my Dad tended to do the same for me with comics. I have two older sisters so much of their abandoned reading material became mine, because as Lucy rightly points out as a child the bookworm will read whatever is available, so my knowledge of books involving characters such as “My Naughty Little Sister“, or set in girls boarding schools or about girls with ponies (the last being my sister Val’s staple reading diet) is probably greater than most of the men who will read this book.

Lucy is lucky enough to still possess her childhood books. She obviously didn’t have a mother so keen to donate “treasures” to jumble sales to either be sold for a few paltry pennies or occasionally bought back by myself.

Her memoir reinforces the importance of libraries. I can still remember the very first library book I borrowed, (it was a picture book version of “Peter And The Wolf” with a yellow cover. I took it out many times) so that experience obviously firmly imprinted itself in my West London mind as much as it did for Lucy on the South of the River in Catford.

Some of the titles alone brought back great memories – “Family From One End Street”, “Tom’s Midnight Garden”, “The Saturdays” “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “The Secret Garden”, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “Lion Witch & The Wardrobe”, The “William” novels were all great favourites with both Lucy and myself. (No mention of a couple of others I was obsessed by “Emil & The Detectives” and “Dr Doolittle”, maybe they were moving out of public favour by Lucy’s time).  She shares her strength of feelings against certain things, she had a limited tolerance of talking animals and fantasy (which saw off both “Babar The Elephant” and Tolkien) and does so in a way which is both stimulating and very funny.

Through the books she read we learn much about her family life which brings in a whole new level of richness into the work. I’m also totally with her on the subject of re-reading, which in my teaching days was often a bugbear for some parents who wanted their children to forge ever onwards to “harder” books. She puts this over masterfully;

“The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It’s like being able to ask a teacher or parent to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven’t understood with the absolute security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.”

As well as examining the past she looks to the future and to her own young son, not yet so fussed about reading and announces: “It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person.” I love that!

Expect perceptive insights on all the major players and books from the period – from the still very popular Enid Blyton (“She was national comfort reading at a time when mental and emotional resources were too depleted to deal with anything more complex”), the religious elements (which also completely passed me by as a child) of CS Lewis (“no child ever has or will be converted to Christianity by reading about Cair Paravel, Aslan, naiads, dryads, hamadryads, fauns and all the rest. If they notice it at all, they are far more likely to be narked than anything else. And they probably won’t notice it at all.”), the development of the first person narrative dating from E Nesbit’s “Story Of The Treasure Seekers” to her 80’s obsession with “Sweet Valley High” (that whole publishing phenomenon passed me by as I was no longer a child by then).  Her thoughts on the joys of reading pile up one after another in this book. I cannot imagine enjoying a book about children’s literature more. It is an essential read for all of us who like to look back and who like to feel we are still young at heart!

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Bookworm was published as a hardback by Square Peg in March 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

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Charmed Life- Diana Wynne Jones (1977) A Kid Lit Review

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I’ve come to the conclusion with children’s literature that the books you read at just the right time in your development as a reader are the ones that really stay with you.  I recently saw an article in the Telegraph ( I think) on children’s fiction where the writer (not sure who… sorry) had picked out 10 Books every child should read.  I had heard of Diana Wynne Jones but not of this book which was claimed to be a novel suffused with magic and superior to Harry Potter.  My interest was piqued, especially as this is a book which dates from the mid 70’s and so I sought out a copy.  (My library service had it available as an E-book).  I think the author of the article (which could have been Lucy Mangan who has just produced a book on children’s fiction which Netgalley have just approved me for review, so if it is I’ll let you know) must have read this book at an impressionable age as given the build-up this was all a little disappointing for me.

 This is the first of seven volumes in the Chrestomanci series.  In this book Chrestomanci is an enigmatic Willie Wonka type character, who may be an enchanter of great power and who certainly has the habit of turning up as soon as his name is said.  He takes on the upbringing of two charges, Gwendolen and Cat, after their parents are killed and the children go to live at Chrestomanci Castle with his own two offspring.  Gwendolen has precocious powers of witchcraft and thinks very highly of herself; her younger brother Cat struggles with self-doubt and is the endearing central character.  It is a tale of magic and parallel worlds as the children come to terms with their new lives in the Castle.

 Books for children of this vintage and older do not seem as plot-driven as modern fiction and once the children are in ensconced in their new home the pace gets a little slow and there are quite a few scenes which ramble a little and are not especially eventful, particularly meal times between the four children, who do not see eye to eye.  It is, however, quite entertaining throughout and may appeal to those who have got through the first couple of Harry Potter novels and are not yet ready for the demands the later instalments of the series place on the reader, but I do feel that many Potter fans will find Jones’ style dated.

 Diana Wynne Jones was a prolific writer who died in 2011.  She is most revered for her Chrestomanci novels (I still don’t know why I have not heard of these before) and “Howl’s Moving Castle”.  “Charmed Life” was the winner of the 1978 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  She is held in great esteem by many fantasy writers for both her children’s and adult novels.  She did suggest that the 4th book of the series, the Carnegie Medal commended “The Lives Of Christopher Chant” (1988) be read as the follow-up to this.  I would be interested to see where she goes with the characters she introduces in this series opener.  This book alone does not attain the status of children’s classic as far as I am concerned, but as a whole the series may still have potential.

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Charmed Life was originally published by Macmillan in 1977.  I read the Harper Collins edition which was republished in 2007.

Victorian Fairy Tales – Edited by Michael Newton (OUP 2016)

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Oxford World’s Classic have produced a new collection of less familiar tales from British authors writing in the Victorian period.  Lest we think fairy tale writing may be deemed an inferior genre there are some literary heavyweights on display here- John Ruskin, WM Thackeray, Ford Maddox Ford and Oscar Wilde who join the more child-centered writers such as E. Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Lang and a number of authors whose works I had not encountered before.

Following a thought-provoking, academic introduction by Michael Newton we are offered a prologue, a story each by the champions of the genre, the Brothers Grimm’s “Rumpel-Stilt-Skin” (first British publication in 1823) and Hans Christian Andersen’s “Princess And The Pea” (1846).  These well-known tales are offered as a starting point as they largely rekindled the British love for the traditional fairy story and these translations quickly permeated into the everyday life of the Victorians.  Following this short prologue we get fourteen tales of differing length (and if I’m being honest of varying appeal to this reader).

First up is a tantalising, although not fully familiar choice.  “The Story Of The Three Bears” in its first written British publication (it being a story with a strong oral tradition) by poet Robert Southey.  His prose tale establishes the builds and rhythms which we are familiar with but is fascinating in its deviation by having an old woman break into the bears’ house.  It’s a story with no real beginning nor end.  It is not clear why she does what she does and her fate is somewhat ambiguous, but because she is not that appealing a character the story does not come alive.  What it needs is a young girl to do the porridge eating………………….Cue, firstly, Silver-Hair (attributed to Joseph Cundall in an 1849 collection- 12 years after Southey) and it wasn’t until after the Victorian Era (around 1904) that young Goldilocks made her first entrance into the cottage in the woods.

So far, so familiar.  There are a  couple of stories I can remember as stand-alone children’s classics from the local public library shelves of my childhood.  Thackeray’s “The Rose and The Ring”, Ruskin’s “King Of The Golden River” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant”.  Of the rest, I was drawn in by Laurence Housman’s tale of outsiders, “The Story Of The Herons” which deals with the Andersen-ish notion of desiring a human soul and then when that has been achieved desiring to return to the non-human form.  Newton in his introduction suggests Housman’s tale is “a coded account of homosexual love” yet it works well as an imaginative, poignant tale.  E. Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame are represented by stories which fit in nicely with the quality of their more famous work.  Rudyard Kipling’s “Dymchurch Flit” doesn’t – it making no impression upon me whatsoever.  I liked the tone of master fairytale collector and anthologiser Andrew Lang’s “Prince Rigio” which is enough to suggest I should investigate further the Delphi Classic collection of his Colour Fairy Tale books I have languishing on my Kindle.

There are less fairies and more politics in this book than you would imagine.  In fact, actual fairies are few and far between.  There’s a strong emphasis on what might be deemed political satire and there’s a number of appendices which explore what is meant by a fairy tale from some of the authors included in the collection. (These are a little dry). Michael Newton in his introduction probably sums this up best;

“…all the stories in this book, both provide places for thinking and reflection, and simultaneously play upon our feelings and exercise our capacity for compassion.  Reading them is a serious delight.  They introduce us to an already familiar strangeness, and through the resources of art grant a space to make believe.”

It is this “familiar strangeness” which most appeals to me.  This book is intended for an adult audience (with fairly good eyesight, I found the print size and font an occasional struggle) wanting to rediscover some of this “space to make believe” and perhaps sharing them with a younger generation.

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Victorian Fairy Tales is published by Oxford University Press in June 2016

Krindlekrax- Philip Ridley (Red Fox 1991)- A Kid-Lit Review

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Earlier this week I was reminiscing on this blog with Cleopatra Loves Books  (see the 22 Letters post for the discussion) about the end of the afternoon story time at Primary School and how much these books meant to us.

When this book was published I was working as a Primary School teacher and there was nothing better for forging a relationship with the class and for turning them onto books than the carefully selected novel read in instalments. Nowadays, with the over-crowded curriculum I understand that this practice is much less common, which is tragic. My all-time favourite book for reading to the children was “Krindlekrax”.

We are taken to Lizard Street, a location which seems very real and yet dream-like. Ridley uses repetition so effectively to build up an almost hypnotic effect. This creates, as in many of the best children’s books, a kind of skewed reality. The superb cast of characters all have some identifying quirk and/or a catchphrase (“Oh Polly-Wolly-Doodle-All- The-Day”!) or sound effect which are used and built upon sublimely in the telling of this story.

It is the tale of Ruskin Splinter, the boy who wants to be the hero in the school play and tame the dragon and who is denied the chance because of his unheroic appearance in favour of Elvis Cave, who menaces the whole of Lizard Street with his football (Da-Boing!), breaking windows even at night whilst sleepwalking. Ruskin’s only friend is Corky, the school caretaker, an adorable character who regularly gets my eyes misting up. Ten years before there had been an incident on Lizard Street which had turned Corky’s hair white and given him a limp, caused cracks in the pavement and the bricks to go dark.

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Like the best traditional tales the plot is simple and yet runs very deep and you find yourself responding in the same subconscious, intuitive level as to the best and earliest stories. There’s issues on self-esteem and self-image, bullying, coping with death, separating fantasy from reality, being judged by appearances and the realisation that time existed and things happened before you were born; all dilemmas likely to be faced by the child reader and reaching some resolution here.

The use of sound is exceptional. The creaking pub sign “Eek!”, the drain cover “Ka-Clunk!”, the football “Da-Boing!” gets children anticipating and joining in. I had second language children with very little English who loved this book and begged to take it home. These sounds, together with the characters identifying phrases and gestures helps the story to build up and children experience the same chills as in those classic games “What’s The Time Mister Wolf?” and “In A Dark, Dark House.” Ridley doesn’t cop out with the climax, it’s every bit as scarey as the build up suggests.

Twenty-four years after its publication this book still reads extremely well. It is a relief to find a book directed at this age group that doesn’t rely on underpants, snot or pooh for its humour. I never read aloud a book (with the exception of Michael Rosen’s poetry) that was such a huge hit. Year 3 classes adored it and when on one occasion I taught a Year 5 class who I’d also had as Year 3, they were clear they wanted to be re-read this and enjoyed it as much (if not more) the second time. I hope these children are reading this to their children now.

“Krindlekrax” won The Smarties Prize in 1991 and WH Smith Mind-Boggling Book Award. The author has written a number of other children’s books which didn’t quite have the same magic for me (although I am very fond of “Kaspar In The Glitter”). Philip Ridley is one of those multi-talented in many fields individuals. He has written adult novels and plays, plays for children, poetry, screenplays, directed films and is a photographer, artist, songwriter, musician and has written an opera. He is an exceptional, under-rated British talent, and this book, which was for a number of children I taught “the book” that springboarded them into reading and could very well be his finest work.

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Krindlekrax was published in 1991 by Red Fox

The 22 Letters – Clive King (Puffin 1966) – A Kid-Lit Review

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Question – Have you ever had a book that you have held on to for years and years, which has been taken with you from new home to new home and yet remains fairly neglected and seldom taken off the shelves?

Meet my copy of “The 22 Letters”.

I read this book when I was about 10 years old and must have really enjoyed it because it remained on my bookshelves, staying at my parents house when I was at college but then coming with me and staying on my shelves for a considerable number of years (ok it’s 40+). The vast majority of my collection of Puffin books ended up in various charity shops, jumble sales or were given away but for some reason this stayed and I just never got round to reading it again.

Clive King is most famous for his “Stig Of The Dump” and this book for a time was a fixture in Primary schools where I taught for many years and it is still a well-loved children’s book and one I knew well. But it wasn’t my copy of “Stig” that hung around, it was this. Recently, curiosity got the better of me, why couldn’t I throw this book away? Why had it survived every book cull? It certainly wasn’t for the murky cover illustration.  I had to re-read it to see why it was that I had this intuitive need not to part with it. My memories I had of it were that it was quite a demanding book for me as a young reader. I read it quite slowly, it seemed to be my “reading book” for quite some time. At that age I was keen on adventure and authors such as Willard Price, Malcolm Saville peppered my reading alongside my much loved children’s classics, a number of which have already featured in this blog, so I reckoned that it must have been a book that I was particularly thrilled by.

Children’s adventure books tend not to have dated very well. There’s Enid Blyton of course, but they seemed dated when I read them and their continuing popularity is curious, but do children still read Willard Price whose books entitled “Safari Adventure”, and “Amazon Adventure” are likely to read very differently now with our very different world view? I was a little concerned what I would find in the pages of King’s 1966 book. I checked Amazon – was it still, like Stig, even in print, or had it been quietly withdrawn as tastes changed? Well, it’s no longer in print but copies are around of a similar vintage to my own.

First surprise was the dense and highly descriptive text, which just doesn’t appear in books for children of this age today. It wasn’t going to be the thrill-a-minute I had anticipated. Three brothers leave their home in Gebel (modern Lebanon) around 1500BC for different reasons. One of the brothers, a soldier, discovers horses can be ridden, one, a sailor, discovers navigation by stars and the third, a young scribe, is ultimately responsible for the early alphabet (not a plot spoiler because the clue is in the title). This is one talented family!

Pace-wise, for much of the book it is surprisingly leaden with separate chapters devoted to each of the brothers (and to their sister, who, – remember it is written in 1966- stays at home). It is very much helped in the last third by a dramatic earthquake and volcanic eruption which seems to be, for the characters involved, the end of the world. The pace is certainly upped here and the persevering reader is rewarded. Although I do not remember this section it must have been this which made that subconscious impression which kept the book on my shelves for my 20s, 30s ,40s and (yes, I know…….) beyond. But sadly no more………………..

As I was reading it the book began to fall apart. After decades of being ignored the experience of being re-read proved to be too much for the book. The cover fell off, the glue parted company with the spine (Puffin! Are your paperback books not designed to last 40 years! Shame on you!) and by the time I finished with it the only place for it was, sadly, the bin. I did feel that the book let me down, both physically and emotionally but I will forgive Mr King and may very well seek out “Stig Of The Dump” for a re-read. I’m sure that many of you reading this will have had experiences of books that do not fulfil the reverence we gave them when young. Let me know these experiences, only don’t tell me that Leon Garfield was not what he was cracked up to be as that might be one too many childhood dream shattered!

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“The 22 Letters” was published by Puffin in 1966. Interested readers can currently pick up a second-hand copy from Amazon (but look out for the glue on the spine) from 65p.

100 Essential Books – Winnie The Pooh – A A Milne (1926)

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Some days just feel like Pooh days, and more often than not they are pooh days in every sense as they are the times I feel like escaping from the realities of the world we’re living in and retreat to the Hundred Acres Wood for a bit of sanity, Winnie The Pooh style.

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I’m not sure AA Milne knew exactly what he was unleashing when he decided to put together the bedtime stories he’d been telling his son using his toys as characters and that almost 90 years later this publication would still remain one of the greatest children’s books ever.  In fact, the philosophies of Pooh and his friends expounded in this book and its follow-up “The House At Pooh Corner” (1928) (which introduced the irrepressible Tigger) makes it an essential also on every adult bookshelf.

I certainly read and had read to me this book as a child but I was a greater fan then of the Disneyfication of Pooh and it wasn’t really until I hit my late teenage years that Milne’s original creation became dominant.  Whilst at college I had quite a little collection of EH Shepard’s illustrations on mugs, towels, postcards etc and was well versed in the wisdom of this extraordinary little bear and his pals.  In 2003 the BBC Big Reads survey (still the definitive list of what is good for us combined with what we enjoy in our books) placed this at number 7, so it is a book held dearly in a lot of hearts.

On every read I become totally captivated and surprised by how much stays with me.  I also feel this way about Milne’s children’s poetry collection “When We Were Very Young” (1924).  Luckily, it was not just Christopher Robin Milne who benefited from these wonderful stories and characters as generations will have come to love Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo.  As each character is introduced in the book a warm feeling envelopes the reader and it was a sheer delight once again to experience Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit’s doorway, Eeyore losing his tail and celebrating his birthday miserably and Piglet getting flooded in.  Magical stuff!

I’ll leave you with two examples of the logic of Pooh in case you’ve not read this for a while;

It’s like this,” he (Pooh) said. “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let the bees know you’re coming.  Now if you have a green balloon, they might think you were only part of the tree, and not notice you, and if you have a blue balloon, they might think you were only a part of the sky, and not notice you, and the question is : Which is most likely?”

“Wouldn’t they notice you underneath the balloon?” you asked.

“They might or they might not,” said Winnie-the-Pooh. “You can never tell with bees.”  He thought for a moment and said: “I shall try to look like a small black cloud.  That will deceive them.”

“Then you better have the blue balloon,” you said and so it was decided.

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And there’s Piglet surrounded by water and putting into early practice one of the tenets of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy of modelling your actions on someone who would be successful at a problem;

“There’s Pooh, “ he thought to himself.  “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm.  He does silly things and they turn out right.  There’s Owl.  Owl hasn’t exactly got Brain, but he Knows Things.  He would know the Right Thing to Do when surrounded by Water.  There’s Rabbit.  He hasn’t Learnt in Books, but he can always Think of a Clever Plan.  There’s Kanga.  She isn’t Clever, Kanga isn’t, but she would be so anxious about Roo that she would do a Good Thing to Do without thinking about it.  And then there’s Eeyore.  And Eeyore is so miserable anyhow that we wouldn’t mind about this.  But I wonder what Christopher Robin would do?”piglet

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Winnie The Pooh was published in 1926.  Egmont produce a classic edition with the unforgettable illustrations by E H Shepard.

 

 

The Just So Stories – Rudyard Kipling (1902) – A Kid Lit Review

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When I was about eight or nine years old I entered a competition from the back of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. It took a while to get the requisite number of box tops and my entry was sent off just before the closing date. I won the competition and was thrilled when a few weeks later the prize arrived. It was called a Show And Tell – which would be an early version of a multi-media device. It was basically a tv type screen with a record player on top and a slot. It came with a selection of stories – you put on the record, read along with the book and slid a set of slides into a slot which appeared on the screen as you listened along. It was sort of, I suppose, like a big View Master with a record player. I absolutely loved it. (I’ve looked for an image for it online but cannot find one, so probably it wasn’t around for long). One of the sets of stories were “The Just So Stories” and I became very familiar with these because of this. I have read other versions of these stories over the years, simplified children’s versions or in picture books but I don’t think I have ever read Kipling’s actual words. When I thought about it I don’t think I have ever read any Rudyard Kipling at all, despite his prolific output and me having quite a few of his books hanging around on my bookshelves for years. This was the first one to make it from the To Be Read pile.

As well as being the most familiar of the stories to me “The Elephant’s Child” and “The Rhino’s Skin” are the most successful. These stories seem to be imbued with an authentically primitive feel and read like the earliest stories passed down from generation to generation. Some, however, seem to be too contrived for our modern tastes (“How The Alphabet”) or just dull (“The Crab That Played With The Sea” springs most to mind). Kipling proves to be something of an all-round entertainer incorporating annotated illustrations (I love the one of the cat walking through the trees which was also the cover image of the copy I read) and supplementing the stories with poetry and songs (these have not dated well). Kipling comes across as having a good sense of mischief and my first experience certainly hasn’t put me off reading more by him.

I have noticed that Jessica over at The Bookworm Chronicles has recently reviewed “The Jungle Book” – I have never actually read this (despite having grown up with the Disney film). She was surprised (as I was although once I read her words I remembered) that this is also a set of stories and not an actual novel. Maybe I should start with that before moving onto a Kipling novel. I do know I have a copy of “Stalky And Co” somewhere on my shelves.

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The Just So Stories were originally published in 1902. I read the Penguin edition.