Can you name at least one book that you read as a child (ie 11 or under) that still exists in your memory as a perfect story? That was the challenge issued to me by my friend Phillipa Ashley (a prize-winning novelist – you’ll find her at http://phillipa-ashley.com/) way back in June 2010 when I’d only just writing on my other blog and, since I’m in reflective mood and having a lazy sort of day, I thought I’d revisit this post. My main difficulty then (and now) is that I can never whittle favourite books down to single title, and any list is always difficult to draw up because so much depends on my mood at the time of compilation, as well as the memories, locations, people, events and so on evoked by the book . Looking at the list I put together on my other blog almost two years ago, there’s not a lot I would change – unless I add even more books!
Anyway, here is my slightly amended and far from perfect record of some much-loved childhood volumes. The first book I ever had was AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young, bought for me when I was less than a year old, packed with stories, all in rhyme, and all just as perfect now as they were then. I can still recite many of them by heart, and I still make up my own tales about the King who liked a little bit of butter on his bread, or James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree’s mother, just as I did when I was young – although in some cases my perspective has shifted with the passing of the years. And, of course, there was Winnie the Pooh, and Piglet, and Owl, and Eeyore, who I still love.
Then there was Adventures of Mr Pip, about a strange goblinish little man, who loved the colour red, and was always getting into trouble. I remember one incident where he was invited to dinner with a friend, but the friend was some kind of lizard or frog or toad (or maybe a chameleon) so the dinner was flies, and he went home hungry. An Internet search revealed that this was written by Francis Barrie Flint but I could discover nothing else. The pictures stick in my mind because it was illustrated in colour, which must have been unusual at the time. Perhaps that is why I loved it so much.
Delightful illustrations by Margaret Tempest were an integral part of Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books, and of Joyce Lankester Brisley’s line drawings for her Milly Molly Mandy stories, which entranced me then and now. Even in my childhood they must have presented an old-fashioned and simplistic view of life, but that is what makes them so alluring. It’s a portrait of a nice, safe, secure world, where nothing really bad ever happens.
Already familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, at my aunt’s I read his Sylvie and Bruno tales, and when we visited my father’s parents I always sat with an old set of children’s encyclopedias (Newnes Pictorial Knowledge), which I think belonged to mt father and aunt when they were young. They had brown covers, with gold writing on the front, and seemed huge. The marvellous thing about them was that alongside the educational articles each volume had a series of stories on different themes – King Arthur, the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, Robin Hood.
Kipling remains a favourite – The Jungle Book, The Tale of Rikki-tikki-tavi, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rewards and Fairies and, best of all, the Just So Stories, especially The Elephant’s Child. Who could resist the lure of the great grey greasy Limpopopo river, all set about with fever trees, where the Elephant’s Child, filled with ’satiable curtiosity discovers what the Crocodile eats for dinner – and gains a trunk in the process. Absolute perfection! Perfection is also achieved by JRR Tolkien with The Hobbit, which would definitely be on my desert island list, should I ever be asked to produce one. I was first introduced to Bilbo Baggins at primary school, and in my mind his voice is an echo of the teacher who read to us – slightly northern and a little gruff, but kindly. If forced to choose one book, this would almost certainly be it.
There was The Swish of the Curtain, by Pamela Brown, about a group of children who set up their own theatre company; Auntie Robbo, by Ann Scott Moncreiff, about an exceedingly idiosyncratic old lady who travels the Scottish highlands with her nephew and a group of other children, and Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, which taught me more about the American Revolution than any history book.
And how could I forget Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth or James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O – this last, set in a land where the letter ‘O’ is banned, is a must for anyone who loves words.
I loved Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine books; Arthur Ransome’s Swallow and Amazons; Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer; and Huckleberry Finn, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island. However, our edition of Treasure Island had the most terrifyingly scary pictures drawn (though I only realised this much, much later) by Mervyn Peake. For some reason I found his portrayal of Blind Pew the most disturbing, and those strangely haunting, macabre illustrations are still the stuff of nightmares. I cried over Nancy’s death in Dickens’ Oliver Twist ; and Beth’s death in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – but feisty Jo March became one of my all-time heroines. There were more tears in What Katy Did, by Susan Coolidge and Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter; and even Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows had its poignant moments alongside the laughter.
The list of favourite childhood book is endless, and there are others that read when I was older, and many modern stories and picture books that I discovered when my daughters were small, but my literary tastes must have been formed at a very young age (or perhaps I am a very undaventurous reader) because I still love these these books, and they’re the still the ones I return to time and time again.