October 25th, 2006 at 10:20 am (Books)
A little while ago, there was an article in The Guardian, in which Lucy Mangan gave (very funny) summaries of the children’s books that “that have meant the most to me, that have taught me vital lessons about life, love, truth and camping – books no child should be without.” As a result, Judith Ridge did the same thing in her blog, and I have also been inspired to join the fun, although it’s taken me weeks to get around to it. I’ve decided to define “books read in childhood” as books that I read for the first time while still in Primary School (i.e. before the age of 12).
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
I’m told I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was six. Naturally, I don’t remember this first reading, and I’m pretty sure I was a bit older by the time I read most of the other books in the series, but I do know that I read them again and again and again during my Primary School years. Both Lucy Mangan and Judith Ridge included this in their lists, so I don’t really have much to add about the book itself, except that I was another reader who completely and utterly missed the Christian allegory. Even when I got the connections of The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, it didn’t occur to me that there might also be a Christian side to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For me, it was just a great story about a magical world with talking animals.
For about eighteen months of my life – I think aged about seven to eight and a half – pretty much the only books I would read were Enid Blytons. Lucy Mangan said “I am listing Blyton instead of a single book because the fact is, she wrote the same one eight billion times a year: it is both pointless and practically impossible to elevate one above another”. I am doing the same thing, but for almost the completely opposite reason: although I read almost all the Blyton series (except, for some reason, Mallory Towers) and vast numbers of the stand-alones, at different times, different genres were my favourites. I probably started with the Faraway Tree books (fantasy), then had a lengthy period of devotion to the Famous Five (adventure), followed by St Clares (school stories) and finally the Five Find-Outers and Dog (classic detective). The Cherry Tree Farm/Willow Farm books fitted in somewhere as well – they taught me all I know about fauna of the English countryside. I think Blyton had a great talent for capturing the essence of a genre, and although she didn’t flesh it out a great deal (or at all), her stories provide a wonderful introduction to the concept of plot, basic characterisation, and the other fundamentals of good storytelling, and offer a starting point from which to move to more subtle, nuanced children’s books.
The other thing I remember about Blyton is that, at some point after I had completely outgrown her, I saw my first ever production of Romeo and Juliet on television. It probably wasn’t a great production, but I was terrifically moved, and the only way I could unwind enough to get to sleep that night was to pull a Blyton off the shelf and reread it.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
I’m not sure when I first read Black Beauty, but it was probably after the Blyton period. It may or may not have been my first experience of death in a book (something both Lucy Mangan and Judith talk about) but it was certainly the first instance of a book in which I skipped a certain section on every re-read. Thirty years later, I can still remember that in my edition, the chapter about Ginger started in about the middle of a right-hand page, and finished near the bottom of a left-hand page. I’m certain that at one point in my Primary School days, I unhesitatingly described Black Beauty as my favourite book.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Since my M.Litt. treatise was on the subject of Noel Streatfeild, and a substantial portion was a comparison of Ballet Shoes with Streatfeild’s first (adult) novel, The Whicharts, I feel somewhat written out on the subject. For more information on Ballet Shoes, see my Noel Streatfeild website.
Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott
Lucy Mangan and Judith each included a 19th century “classic” girls’ story in their lists – What Katy Did and Seven Little Australians respectively. For me, it was Little Women. I don’t quite know why, but I think it might be that Jo was the first real character to catch my imagination. She had some of the rebelliousness and independence of George from the Famous Five, but so much more personality and depth and capacity for growth. (As I said above, Enid Blyton had a talent for simplifying down to the fundamental essence, thus providing a stepping stone to much more sophisticated authors.) But why it was Jo rather than Katy, or Judy, or Anne (of Green Gables) or Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm) I really can’t say. I also liked Beth a lot, so maybe it was partly the strength of the Jo-Beth relationship that worked for me. I was never very interested in Meg, and I actively disliked Amy.
As far as I can remember, I was never one who wanted Jo to marry Laurie. I liked him, but I thought he was a bit too superficial and immature for her (though I did think he deserved better than Amy). In fact, I never had much of a problem with Jo marrying an older man, who provided her with stability. But I do wish he wasn’t actually described in the text as physically unattractive. I’d like to be able to think of him as like Gabriel Byrne in the 1994 film of Little Women, so that even if Amy’s husband is younger and richer, Jo’s is sexier. But unfortunately I can’t, as it is directly contradicted by the text. However, even though Professor Bhaer isn’t particularly sexy, I am still much happer to see Jo with him than with Laurie.
Elidor by Alan Garner
Actually, my favourite Alan Garner book is The Owl Service but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read that until I was in High School. Elidor, however, I definitely read earlier, and loved right from the start, though I’m sure I didn’t appreciate all the subtleties of it initially. At first, I just took it in the same spirit as Narnia – a bunch of children from the real world going into a magical one – though I did like the fact that a lot of the story was set in the real world, with the magical characters impinging. And I loved the humour of the scene where the Treasures make all the electrical appliances play up.
But the more times I read the book, the more I came to see the complexities, the lack of clear black and white, the tension of the relationships between the characters. And I also came to see that it is not, ultimately, a happy book. Yes, Elidor is saved, which I do think is important, in spite of the rather ambivalent presentation of Malebron (who is not at all the Aslan figure I thought the first time I read it). But part of the power of the book is that the situation is not clear-cut. On an initial reading, I think I equated Roland with Lucy Pevensie – the youngest member of the family and the only one who can truly see and understand the magic. I still believe Roland is closer to being “right” than Nicholas, or even David, but I have come to realise that he is idealistic and obsessive, and that Elidor is not necessarily the symbol of perfection that he believes.
And the ending of Elidor is more gripping than anything in Narnia (though, to be far to Lewis, he was writing for a rather younger audience). Findhorn’s death is tragic, and the fact that, both structurally and symbolically, this is Helen’s fault makes it even worse. And I find the closing lines of the book intensely powerful in the way they convey a sense of bleakness and emptiness:
[The children] threw their Treasures. They struck together, and the windows blazed outward, and for an instant, the glories of stone, sword, spear and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light.
The song faded.
They were alone with the windows of a slum.
I don’t think I paid much attention to this when I first read the book – I was caught up in the fact that four normal children had saved a magical world – but as I got older they became increasingly evocative. The children have gone through intense physical and emotional stresses, and have saved another world, but … now what? They are left with absolutely nothing. The book ends not on a note of celebration, but on one of emptiness. It is more than simply anticlimactic: it is actively stripped of emotion. And although I didn’t recognise this initially, I now believe it is among the most powerful endings I have read in a book.