I’ve long thought that the books we read as children provide us with the most intense reading experiences: shaping the landscapes of our imaginations, inspiring the games we play and influencing the way we view the world. What’s more, favourite stories can become almost autobiographical as we merge our ‘self’ with the characters we are reading about.
On that point, a small part of me will always be Anne of Green Gables – not only because we shared the same hair colour, but because I wanted to be her: she was brave and strong and funny, and in possession of the most brilliant imagination. Another part of me belongs to Becky, the scullery maid in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess. ‘Becky’ was one of my favourite games to play as a child. I’d spend hours sweeping our garage dressed in drooping skirts, or hunched up in the cupboard at the top of the stairs waiting for matron (aka my sister) to come and bark at me, and bring me a bowl of ‘gruel’.
Growing up in the 1970’s, with parents who were both librarians, I read anything and everything. I adored books that featured plucky orphans and wicked matrons, windswept moors, and forbidding mansions. I loved books set in cities, promising excitement and adventure. I favoured stories with twists, turns and unexpected revelations; and heroines with verve – Dido Twite, Mary Lennox, Pippi Longstocking.
Now I’m grown up and an author myself, my goal is to imbue the stories I write with the spirit of the books I loved as a child. Without reading, there is no writing. Here are some of my childhood favourites.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I love this classic (which has echoes of Jane Eyre, another favourite) about the unhappy orphan Mary Lennox, packed off to the mysterious Misselthwaite Manor when her (unloving) parents both die. The gothic-y setting directly inspired my book The Secret Starling. Just like Jane and Mary, it is down to the abandoned Clara to make her own way in the world.
Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfeild
I adore every single one of Noel Streatfeilds book, but Thursday’s Child is probably my favourite. How can you not feel an affinity for Margaret Thursday whose stoic mantra is: ‘I’m not properly an orphan. I was found on Thursday on the church steps, with three of everything, all of the very best quality.’ Life takes a turn for the worse for Margaret when she is sent to St Luke’s Orphanage and the horrible Matron declares she must ‘be humbled’. Luckily, Margaret’s spirit will never be crushed.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Joan Aiken was a brilliant storyteller and excelled at writing the most fearsome villains. In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase there are three: Miss Slighcarp, Mr Grimshaw and Mrs Brisket – all determined to make Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia’s lives as miserable as possible. Luckily Bonnie is endowed with enormous resilience and she will not be cowed.
Smith by Leon Garfield
There are echoes of Oliver Twist in this story about Smith, a ragamuffin pickpocket, who, when he steals a mysterious ‘dockiment’ from an elderly man, gets caught up in a murderous plot that puts both his, and his sisters’ lives in terrible danger. Garfield was a master storyteller and his books may - as was the case with me - prove to be the perfect stepping stone to Dickens.
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner
This is the book that inspired me to start writing. I was obsessed by Kastner’s villain, Herr Grundeis who steals Emil’s money on the train to Berlin and then disappears into the city, leaving Emil with no choice but to pursue him. Age ten, I wrote countless stories about my own ‘man in the black bowler hat.’ Interesting fact: Emil and the Detectives was published in 1929 and is thought to be the first children’s book to positively portray the city as a place of excitement and adventure.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Growing up in the suburbs of North London, I longed to be Claudia: funny, smart and sophisticated, who decides to run away, not to the boring old countryside, but to the razzle dazzle of New York City. She and her brother Jamie camp out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pound the city streets, use the typewriter outside the Olivetti store on Fifth Avenue, eat lunch at the Automat, and visit New York Public Library to solve a mystery surrounding one of the museums exhibits. There is something special about New York that has inspired many children’s writers to capture its spirit. I love them all, but because of Claudia, this is my favourite.