As people we are all inevitably shaped by the media and culture we consume. This is especially true of our formative years, especially childhood. I think that’s why any books, films or TV shows that we enjoyed as children hold a strange and special place in our hearts, even as we get older and even if we might notice ‘problematic’ things about them.
This post is inspired by the wonderful Cinzia whose videos I adore and who does a sort of annual favourites video which she titles, for example, Books That Made Me 2015. These aren’t just books that are her favourites of the year; they are the books that contributed a more lasting impact on her life in that given year and whose effect will last many years into the future. This got me thinking about my own favourites, the books that “made me”, and I felt like a wander down nostalgia lane in the form of revisiting some of the books I read as a child that I think contributed into making me the reader, and the person, I am today. I thought it might be an interesting feature post to share with you lovely folks, and perhaps we could start a little discussion about what childhood favourite books made you into the reader you are today?
Even more timely, earlier today I came across Comma Press’ blog from their staff talking about their favourite childhood books in honour of World Book Day today. Today seems like the perfect day to publish my own blog post dedicated to the books that came to me as a child reader and still influence the reader I am to this very day. This is going to be a long one, kids, so buckle up…
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
We should get this out of the way nice and early – of course I adored the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling. I think it’s a generational thing that it seems near impossible to have grown up in the 90s/00s and not at least have read the books or seen the films. I have very fond memories of being taken on a primary school trip to the cinema to see the first and second films with my school friends. I have fond memories of being given the box-set of the first four books and diving into the world of Harry Potter and his pals at Hogwarts. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was probably the first long book that I read – to be fair, I still think it’s bloody long! The fact that magic existed in the very world I lived in (but was secret) was obviously extremely appealing to young me… and adult me, to be honest. (Yes, I’m still waiting for my letter… it just got lost in the post, right?) In the years since I have read and re-read this series (I’m in the middle of a re-read via the audiobooks right now!) and there’s not a re-read that goes by where I don’t notice things I didn’t see when I was younger. As the books matured, so did I, and I felt like I grew up alongside Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and their stories undoubtedly deeply affected my personality and priorities into adulthood. I deeply identified with Hermione (I know, I know, predictable, right?) and seeing someone who was so studious placed front-and-centre of a book was just something I needed as a child (and teenager) who was bullied for being so “swotty” in school. Her and Roald Dahl’s Matilda helped me to realise that it was more than okay to be a reader, that there was nothing “wrong” with me for wanting to bury my nose in a book, that I had value despite (read: because of) these tendencies.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
I was nowhere near as precocious or as voracious a reader as Matilda is – but she showed me that it was okay to be a reader, that it was wonderful to be a reader, that I could develop a telekinetic gift in order to tip a newt onto a teacher I hated… ok, no, that last one unfortunately didn’t come to fruition, but you can’t have everything in life. The thing about Roald Dahl books is that they are shot with undercurrents of just dark and cruel situations that, as a child, you rarely pick up, until you revisit the story as an adult and are shocked by what you used to read. Matilda is a little like that, which is why I will always enjoy the book (and other Roald Dahl ones, particularly Danny the Champion of the World and Fantastic Mr Fox). And, obviously, I could not mention Matilda without mentioning the film. That film is my childhood, it remains one of my favourite films to this day, and there is not a day that goes by that if you said to me ‘hey Emma, do you fancy watching Matilda?’ I would say no.
The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy
Mildred Hubble, lots of trouble! The Worst Witch again, like Harry Potter, suggested the magic existed and I could go to a school to learn all about it – what an appealing concept to an otherwise pretty average child with an average life in a nondescript part of England. I dressed up as the titular character, Mildred Hubble, on plenty of occasions (it helps that all I needed was an old-fashioned girl’s school uniform i.e. pinafore, coloured house sash, long socks etc. and a broom, obv) and I probably still have the outfit somewhere in my parent’s house. Unsurprisingly again, stories about young witches and wizards at a boarding school make for strangely compelling reading… are you sensing something of a trend here in my reading tastes?
Stravaganza trilogy/series by Mary Hoffman
The Stravaganza series is a concept that will forever linger in the back of my head on a regular basis. It’s where my desire to visit Italy stemmed from (one day, I will get there!), and I think it’s possibly also where my penchant towards a Renaissance setting started. So, indirectly, City of Masks lead to me studying early modern literature – that’s quite a claim, I know! As a child I just thought the concept of these books was really neat – young people who had some kind of disruption or unfortunate circumstances in their lives would find talismans which would allow them to time travel in their sleep to an alternate-history version of Renaissance Italy, creating entire lives in this alternate “Talia” whilst trying to balance that and their “real” lives when they were awake. The concept captured my imagination completely and I have such a vividly realised mental picture of this entire world that I would probably die of excitement if it was ever realised on screen in a TV production or film. I know that’s unlikely but, hey, a girl can dream and if not that then a girl can fancast Jeremy Irons and Eddie Redmayne to her heart’s content!
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
I have very distinct memories of going to an after-school club at primary school for Year 6 students with aptitude for maths (no, I don’t know where that talent went). This was not at my own primary school but elsewhere, but the school in question was near a library so, knowing my mother would collect me from the school once I was done being a maths prodigy (I kid), I asked her to pop by the library on her way to get me and pick up whichever A Series of Unfortunate Events book I was onto. We then usually went to my aunt’s house on the way home and within the time it took for the walk to my aunt’s house and a quick cup of tea, I would have finished reading the book and was in need of another! The fact that I have such distinct memories of these books means they would hold a place in my heart regardless of the contents… but it’s lucky that I also (still) find the woes of the Baudelaire orphans fascinating. I missed so much on my first reading of these books and I’m still picking up on different bits and pieces now I read them back as an adult. A Series of Unfortunate Events also affected the way I write – I realised my own writing style when trying my hand at fiction takes an authorial voice similar to that of “Lemony Snicket” – I use sentence constructions similar to “[X] a word which here means [Y]”. So, even without me realising, the series has irrevocably impacted on me!
The Old Kingdom trilogy/series by Garth Nix
Further cementing my love of young-adult fantasy before I even realised young-adult fantasy was A Thing, Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen by Garth Nix captured my imagination in a big way. At its most basic form they tell the tale of the Abhorsen, a remarkable figure able to banish the dead beyond the Ninth Gate of Death (I always pictured it as a River Styx kind of scenario) and make sure they stay dead, as they ought to. The Abhorsen fights against Necromancers and wades into death in order to protect the Old Kingdom from the evil and destructive powers of Free Magic forces. I mean, come on, why wouldn’t I like this premise? Sabriel is still a favourite for me and I can’t deny that the character of Touchstone probably influenced my own personal preferences in men (for better or for worse). I recently re-read the trilogy and adored it still, appreciating Garth Nix’s skill as a storyteller and world-builder a lot more as an adult than I ever could have as a child/teenager. This is the kind of fantasy I aspire to write.
The Sally Lockhart Quartet by Philip Pullman
I read Northern Lights, I liked Northern Lights, but The Ruby in the Smoke was really where it was at for me – The Ruby in the Smoke was probably one of my first fictional forays into Victorian London, a setting which I still look for in books, whether that’s straight-up historical fiction or steampunk or gaslamp fantasy The time period has always fascinated me, and at primary school we seemed to constantly learn about the Victorians and the Industrial Revolution during history lessons, something which I loved hearing about. Ruby in the Smoke added something interesting to that – here was a story with a strong female character, and I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of the “strong female heroines” that are now stalwarts of young-adult fiction, but rather Sally Lockhart represented an intelligent young woman who became a businesswoman in her own rights, at a time in which such positions were decidedly not occupied by those of the “fairer sex”. To my childhood self, Sally represented the kind of woman I should aspire to be – clever, brave, stubborn, and not take no for an answer simply because you were a woman. Billie Piper played her to perfection in the TV adaptation (well worth a watch!) and for both I am grateful.
Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer
The titular character of Artemis Fowl is a prodigy and all-round (criminal) genius – he’s also a teenager. Now that combination, to teenagers, is obviously going to sell the story alone, but Artemis Fowl was possibly one of the first books I read where I identified so very much with the humour behind it – it was droll, it was dry, and I loved it. This is also possibly one of the first books I read where I rooted for someone who was perhaps not the picture of morality – Artemis Fowl, as a character, was a criminal (if a twelve-year old one) at the head of the famous Fowl crime dynasty, carrying on the (good) family name etc. etc. It taught me in a brilliantly light-hearted but important way that it’s not so easy to categorise “the good guys” and “the bad guys”, there are many shades of grey, and indeed you might find yourself rooting for “the bad guys” in the end. Also, Artemis Fowl has fairies who are badass and live in the centre of the earth… so… I mean, obviously this fantasy nut was sold, hook, line and sinker.
The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot
And, finally, amidst a sea of books about witches and fairies and magic we have a fairly “normal” series – well, as normal as books chronicling the life of Mia Themopolis, heir to the throne of Genovia, can be. These were some of the first epistolary books I ever read, and I still have a fondness for this diary-based confessional form of storytelling, as frowned upon as that probably is by literary critics everywhere. I just don’t care if it’s “juvenile”, I loved it. I loved learning of Mia’s many mishaps and, above all, I found that Mia was normal, despite her princess status, she sounded and acted like a normal teenager and had many of the same concerns as I did, as well as some pretty left-field ones of her own. I will also never get over Michael Moscovitz, even though I’m like 89% sure he was somewhat of a jerk (I have vague memories of falling out of love with him in one of the books). Likewise, the films (and Anne Hathaway) hold a special place in my heart, even though I consider them two separate entities entirely – I mean come on Grandmere is nice Julie Andrews in the film, a far cry from the book!
Of course there are tonnes of others authors and books I could mention – Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, Eric Hill, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Louise Rennison, Anthony Horowitz, Malorie Blackman, Lucy’s Quarrel (an amazing picture book I still treasure)… the list goes on and on. Every single one of these authors and the stories they told influenced the person I grew up to be – I can say that without any hesitation. So, from the bottom of my heart, on World Book Day (as well as every other day in my life), thank you, authors, for the stories you tell, because you made this girl into the person she is today.