Oh how I wish dressing up for World Book Day had been a ‘thing’ when I was still at primary school. I would have wanted to be a Moomin or Little My with her triangular dress, furious eyebrows and little topknot. The best book related thing that’s happened to me so far this year was last weekend when my stepdaughters arrived for a few days and both of them had one of the books we’d bought them for their birthdays and spent part of their weekend reading. It made me tear up a little to see them popping their books on top of my tbr pile in the living room. There are things about the books we read as children that stay with us and I read furiously. I went to the library every Saturday and I’d always read everything by the next week. I’ve written before about how I was reading Classics by the age of ten when I’d read everything in the reading scheme. Jane Eyre was my first and I believe it gave me a love of all things Gothic and now a love of writers like Stacey Halls, Laura Purcell and Sarah Waters. However I started thinking about those first books we read as children, even as far back as when our parents read them to us. These are also our formative books and I started to think about how they’ve shaped my reading choices, and whether they’d shaped my character or life. So here are some well and lesser known books that I think shaped me a little.
The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr
This beautiful book was bought for me when I was very small, because I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. I know I’d started going for tea myself with my mum and dad. I must have been younger than four years old because my brother wasn’t born yet. On Sundays my parents would take me on an outing to the museum, Normanby Country Park to see the peacocks and the pet cemetery (which I weirdly loved) or we would go to the cinema followed by tea at a Greek restaurant next door. I remember feeling grown up and very posh indeed. Somehow that book has a similar feeling associated with it and I have always loved going for afternoon tea ever since. I loved the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party but this was even more exciting. A very posh seeming tiger wants some tea, so much so that he guzzled it straight from the teapot. Sophie and her mum are very polite but he is a naughty tiger and eats everything they have. I do have a lifelong love of things that are naughty and mischievous and I think this lovely book helped that blossom, as well as my next choice.
No Kiss For Mother by Tomi Ungerer.
When I mention this brilliant book to people there are a surprising amount who’ve never heard of it. It’s a shame because it really is an odd little gem and I think it fuelled my dark sense of humour, but also my fondness for grumpy, abrupt people. There is nothing that teenage cat Piper Paw hates more than having to kiss his long suffering mother. In fact this is a teenager’s manual – he hates being seen with or fussed by his parents, hates getting up in the morning, loathes fish and wants to be out with his naughty cat friends. The problem is that Piper has probably the most long suffering and doting mother in literature. The author has his cat’s teenage antics spot on and the family dynamics are brilliant. I loved the very dark illustrations, such as Piper’s alarm clock with all it’s insides hanging out after he attacked it with a tin opener. There are also inexplicable ones, such as Mrs Paw taking the scales off a fish with a comb! Me and my brother would laugh so hard at this naughty cat’s antics and we longed to name a cat Piper Paw. I remember when this was out of print, my mum went to great lengths to find a copy for her grandchildren and now the great grandchildren, ensuring mischief for the next few generations.
The Moomins Series by Tove Janssen
For a grown woman it’s quite ridiculous how much I love Moomins. This obsession is evident in my house where there is Moomin art, mugs, shadow frames, T-shirts, jewellery and soft toys. Rather like some people believe the Winnie the Pooh characters represent certain personality archetypes, I believe that most people can be summed up by likening them to a Moomin character. The most obvious one in my family is my brother, who is loving and loyal, but needs a lot of his own space and needs nothing more than a leisurely smoke in the open air with one or two fishing rods in the river. He is, quite obviously, a Snufkin (who I carry on my key ring as a reminder). I am soft, romantic, slightly round and worry a little about my weight like the Snork Maiden, but wish I was more feisty, bitey and intelligent like Little My. My late husband was rather studious and enjoyed calm and quiet like a Hemulen ( although I am at pains to point out he didn’t wear a dress). As a child my imagination was fired by all these wonderful creative creatures and this amazing house that looked like Rapunzel’s tower but painted blue. I loved that Moomintroll had these wonderfully loving parents who never ran out of food and would take in a stranger at a moment’s notice. There’s never any judgement so whether you wear a dress, like your own space or bite a little bit, you were welcome. Like all the best children’s books there has to be a little darkness in the background and there are disasters along the way – I’ve never forgotten the creepy hobgoblin, or the weird little hattifatteners who look like glow sticks and sting like nettles. I love the humour of these little hippo-like creatures and since I’m a Northener, one of my favourites is our toothbrush mug which depicts Moominpappa rowing a boat and saying ‘it’s a little warmer, do you think we’re nearing the South’ and Moominmamma replying ‘I’m afraid so dear.’
The Bagthorpe Saga by Helen Cresswell.
I wanted to live in the home of this rather rambunctious and eccentric middle-class family, possibly because they were quite different from us. The Bagthorpes are rather arty, with both parents being writers – although dad, Henry Bagthorpe, would disagree with that classification. His wife is an Agony Aunt in a national newspaper, whereas he is a ‘real’ writer. It seems that real writing is torturous and involves long hours locked in his office, but can anyone remember the last time one of his scripts was commissioned. His wife suspects it’s a way of avoiding the family and writing complaint letters to commissioning editors. The four children are encouraged to try new projects and hobbies (‘strings to their bows’). All apart from Jack, who doesn’t have one except for spending time with his dog Zero. William has drums and is a radio ham – involving long conversations about conspiracy theories with Anonymous from Grimsby. Tess plays music and is currently translating her own edition of Voltaire’s works. Even the baby of the family Rosie has some musical ability. The agents of most of the chaos are the Unholy Alliance formed by Grandma – who lives with them along with a malevolent ginger cat – and toddler Daisy, the Bagthorpe’s cousin. Aunt Celia is either naturally has her head in the clouds or is on prescribed medication and thinks Daisy is a creative who should be allowed free rein. Uncle Parker is a little more savvy about his daughter’s exploits, but doesn’t believe in punishing his daughter. He drives a red sports car and likes to needle his brother-in-law, on one memorable occasion writing a script in his ‘spare time’. Every book ends with a complete disaster of the flood and fire variety, and various rooms are in different stages of repair throughout the series. They are comical books and wry satirical look at a liberal, middle class family.
The What Katy Did Series by Susan Coolidge
Both this choice and my other American girl’s book, Pollyanna are really 19th Century moral plays, designed to instruct young girls on good behaviour, but also to guide them into making the transition into (an acceptable version of) womanhood. As a grown-up I looked at them again in light of my own disability and saw an even more sinister agenda lurking between the pages. On the face of it, What Katy Did was an enjoyable story of a young girl in a big family coping after the death of their mother. Katy Carr is the eldest sibling and is at heart a bit of a tomboy, still climbing up on the roof and running round the yard like her younger siblings. Their father is a doctor and he decides it would be better for his children to have a woman in the house, especially as he works long hours. So he brings his sister Aunt Izzie to live with them and restore order. Izzie is quite severe, very religious and disgusted at the way the children behave especially the oldest girls, Katy and her sister Clover. Yet Aunt Izzie’s methods don’t always get the desired effect. The person most likely to calm and restore order is Cousin Helen, who is a wheelchair user and uses her disability for good. When Aunt Izzie bans Katy from the swing in the yard without explanation, Katy defies her, but the swing breaks and Katy is seriously injured with some sort of spinal injury. Katy returns home from hospital in a wheelchair and now has to learn how to be a respectable young woman – quiet, gentle and obedient. It’s a harsh lesson and one that resonated in my own life when I had a spinal injury aged 11. I did buy some of life lessons in the this book, probably because we were church goers too, but I can see how damaging the premise is and it isn’t just used in this book.
Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
There are a lot of similarities between Pollyanna and the Katie novels and not just the covers. Pollyanna is also being looked after by an aunt, after her missionary parents die leaving her an orphan. Aunt Polly is rather austere and certainly expects her new charge to be seen and not heard, but thankfully one of the staff called Nancy takes the orphan under her wing. Pollyanna is a character designed to teach children Christian values. She has a game she tries to teach everyone in their small town – no matter what happens, you have to find something to be glad about. When explaining to Nancy she talks about getting her Christmas presents from missionary barrels and how one year there was nothing inside, but a pair of crutches. Nancy can’t imagine what she found to be glad about, but Pollyanna got there in the end – she was glad she didn’t need them. However, this feels like a bad omen when Pollyanna has her own accident, like Katy she has a fall and injures her back. The local doctor organises for her to have an operation in the city, but can’t guarantee she’ll walk again. But before they leave, Pollyanna is visited by everyone in the city that she’s touched in some way, mainly by being her chatty, sunny, self. Both of these books are charming on the surface, but have a much darker and disturbing message beneath. It teaches young women that they should start to grow up, become young ladies and become quieter, ladylike, less free. I imagine the popularity of them has waned since I was an adolescent, at least I hope so, because I felt like quite a failure when I wasn’t as good or tame as these young ladies after my accident.
The Mary Plain Series by Gwynedd Rae
It was a Blue Peter ‘Bring and Buy’ sale that brought this book series into my life and I fell in love at once with this gorgeous little bear. So much so that I had to have my own cuddly toy bear who I named Mary Plain (and still have somewhere with my Snoopy and my ET). Written in the 1930’s in the U.K, the series features Mary, a very real juvenile bear, who lives with her family at the zoo in Bern, Switzerland. We meet her family, including a beautifully named Aunt Friske, but the book mainly concerns Mary’s adventures with her human ‘godfather’. Called The Owl Man by Mary, because he wears glasses, he seems able to converse with her, and takes her out on a special ‘svisit’ – the result of teaching Mary that if you’re talking about more than one visit you add an ‘s’. Mary doesn’t wear clothes, but occasionally likes a hat, and in the illustrations has an endearing little pot belly. She’s not always confident of how she looks and although she enjoys rubbing her belly, she does wonder if it’s a little big. Mary is well behaved, for a bear, and never intends to get into scrapes, but they do tend to happen anyway. I used to love reading about her picnics, going for tea, meeting important people and mostly just enjoying sitting in The Owl Man’s car with the top down and the wind in her ears. I still think these books are delightful and they must have been great reading for children back in the 1930’s.