I was recently sent a link to an online article in one of the leading UK newspapers, about a survey in which readers were asked to rate the top 50 children’s books. Rather to everyone’s surprise, only one of the Harry Potter books (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) made it to the top fifty. Further study revealed, however, that the survey was carried out amongst adults. Had the books been rated by their intended audience, i.e. children, it is probable that the results would have been very different.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s blog – what to read now that the Harry Potter saga has rolled to a close. Well, a few months ago, I came across a book called Inkheart by German writer Cornelia Funke. Like the Harry Potter books, what engaged my enthralled attention right from the start was the skilful blending of the magical and non-magical worlds (you’ll notice I avoided the use of the term "real world"), in such a way that the magical world seems to be a natural parallel of the non-magical world. I understand that the movie version of Inkheart is due to hit the screens some time this month so I won’t reveal too much of the story except to say that it concerns a father and daughter who share the gift – or the curse, if you like – of being able to read characters out of books and into our world. The only trouble is, whenever a character is brought out of the pages of a story in this way, someone from our world has to replace them in the book. That is how Meggie’s mother disappeared, nine years before the story begins, when her father, Mo, made the mistake of his life and read aloud from Inkheart, bringing the evil Capricorn into his own living-room and sending his wife into the Inkworld.
How does all this relate to the children’s book survey I mentioned earlier? Well, in the book, Meggie’s father has a theory about books, which I share.
"If you take a book with you on a journey…an odd thing happens. The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it…yes, books are like flypaper – memories cling to the printed page better than anything else."
With that thought in mind, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the books I read as a child and see which of them I would include in a list of the best children’s books. They are not ranked in any particular order, nor are they necessarily a list of my own favourite children’s books, but they are books that linger in the memory even now, years after I first read them.
The first just happens to be the same book that topped the aforementioned list of "best" children’s books, because of the influence it had on my childhood – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I can’t remember how old I was when I first read it, but I do remember that for several years thereafter, I was in the habit of making periodic attempts to penetrate the back of my own wardrobe, in the hope of reaching that magical land of Narnia. Was I aware of the underlying Christian motif of the book? Yes, I was. Was I, a good little Jewish girl, bothered by it? Not in the least. I read, and loved, all the Narnia books and I think I can safely say, even today, that they are among my favourites.
As a child, I read voraciously. Often, I would read by torchlight under the blankets, long after I was supposed to be asleep. I was lucky to have a good public library not ten minutes walk from my home, although it was not until I was about thirteen that I was allowed out alone so that in my early years as a member of the library, I was always accompanied there by one of my parents. Sometimes, they even helped me choose a book. That was how I was introduced to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. My mother picked this one out for me and I am bound to admit that I didn’t like it at first and refused to read it. Days only after it was returned to the library, they began serialising it on BBC Radio. What I remember most about the radio series is the haunting title music. I bitterly regretted my hasty decision and insisted my mother take me back to the library to get it out again. Unfortunately, it had been taken out by somebody else and the fact that it was being broadcast on the BBC had led to it being so much in demand that there was now a waiting list. It was several weeks before I could get my hands on it – a hardback copy with black and white illustrations. I loved it so much that I had to have my own copy. I received one – with the original coloured illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. I still have that copy. It is beside me as I write these lines, minus its coloured dustjacket, bound in blue-green linen, a scratch along its spine made many years later by my first cat, the unforgettable Minxie (who, it cannot be denied, left her mark on many books which had survived the years unscathed until the arrival of the Queen of Cats). If I had to choose a favourite children’s book, The Wind in the Willows would certainly be a strong contender.
At the age of seven or so, I dreamed, as do many little girls, of becoming a ballerina. Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes belongs to that period. This is the story of three little girls, unrelated, but all adopted by eccentric Great-Uncle Matthew (Gum, for short), and all attending the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. Pauline, the eldest sister, is the actress of the family, Petrova, the second child, is good at mathematics and Posy, the youngest, lives only to dance. I never actually attended ballet classes, but occasionally, my parents would take me to matinees at the Royal Festival Hall and even to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. By the time I was nine or ten, I had realised that I would never be a ballerina and in any case, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books, of which my father had quite a large collection, had turned my thoughts in quite another direction – to become a barrister. Ballet Shoes, however, remained a firm favourite.
My reading also extended to comics. June & Schoolfriend and Judy were my favourites. In an effort to wean me from them, my parents made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. In return for not wasting my pocket-money on comics, they would buy me a book each month – to be chosen by me! Naturally, I accepted. My "Book of the Month" collection included Enid Blyton’s St. Clare’s series, which my father considered to be rubbish – although another boarding-school series, the Jennings books, by Anthony Buckeridge, delighted my mother (and myself). It also included such gems as The Warden’s Niece, by Gillian Avery, a delightful tale of Maria, a young girl whose ambition (as mine once was) is to be a professor of Greek and who runs away from her Victorian boarding school to live with her great uncle at the Oxford college of which he is Warden. There, she takes lessons together with the three sons of one of her uncle’s colleagues and the four children – and their highly eccentric tutor – share all kinds of adventures.
Another windfall from this "deal" was The Young Detectives by R.J. McGregor, in which five children, holidaying in Devon, find a secret passage leading to a smugglers’ cave. There is also a mysterious intruder, not to mention unexplained footprints and a wreck off-shore with more to it than meets the eye.
Yet another "Book of the Month" was Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White, a delightful book about another Maria, a ten- year-old orphan who lives in a huge, but dilapidated mansion, at the mercy of her unscrupulous guardian, the vicar, and her cruel governess. But one day, on an island in a lake somewhere on the vast, run-down estate, Maria discovers a colony of Lilliputians and when the vicar and the governess plot to steal Maria’s inheritance, it is her tiny friends who come to her rescue.
Then again, there was Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong, the autobiographical account of a Chinese-American girl growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the nineteen-thirties, and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.
But not all of the books that came my way as a child were the result of bribery. The All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, about a Jewish family consisting of five daughters, living on New York’s Lower East Side, in the early years of the 20th century, was a birthday present (though I can’t remember which birthday). Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, about the charmingly eccentric Mortmain family, as narrated by the younger daughter, Cassandra, was another birthday present. Captain F. Marryat’s Children of the New Forest, with its Cavaliers and Roundheads, was a school prize for English which I won when I was ten and I discovered Tolkien’s inimitable Bilbo Baggins on holiday in a country house in Essex a year later. That was the first time we had ever gone on holiday anywhere but the seaside. We were staying in a large house, in its own grounds, in a village called Stock. It had a terrace, on which we had delightful, al fresco meals. It had a lovely garden, beyond whose fence were four acres of overgrown grass which also belonged to the house, but where I scarcely dared venture, for fear of the many bumble bees and other insects which swarmed there. For the first time in my life, I had a room of my own and didn’t have to share with my sister. And in that room, there were books. Lots of books. Books I had never read before or even heard of. One of them was The Hobbit. Another was Fanny Hill, which I read because it was said to be scandalous, but which I am by no means recommending here as a children’s book!
Among my favourites at that time were the books of E. Nesbit – The Treasure Seekers, which gave me the idea of digging for gold coins in the garden (if we had only had one!), the Psammead trilogy (Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet) and The Enchanted Castle (at which I arrived via a BBC television serial). But best of all, and beloved to this very day, was The Railway Children. This last still ranks high on my list of best children’s books and is, in fact – like The Wind in the Willows – on my list of favourite books of all time. Oh, yes, and the film version with Jenny Agutter wasn’t bad either!
Then there was Miss Mary Contrary – Mary Lennox, the unloveable heroine of The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I have always loved gardens and the idea of having a secret, walled garden, hidden from everyone else, continues to enchant me. When I think about this book, I remember a fenced-off garden in the Inner Circle of Regent’s Park, not the famous Rose Garden, but some other place. I have the clearest memory of picnicking there with my parents, of playing there with my brother and sister. And yet, when I visited London again after many years of living in Jerusalem, I could no longer find it. Was it real, or did I dream it? Was it simply the distilled ideal of all my younger self believed a secret garden should be?
There were many, many other books – too many to list here. Not all of them were, strictly speaking, children’s books. In fact, I shall draw a veil over my reading of Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I was about ten or twelve. Did I understand it? Well, actually, yes, I did. However, it gave me a distaste for D.H. Lawrence which has lasted to this day, because I think I recognised, even then, that its author’s main purpose was to shock the reader. To shock, simply for the sake of shocking.
As I write this, my eye wanders over my bookshelves, where not a few of the books I read all those years ago still reside, many of them battered and worn, for although I take good care of books, time – and the claws of cats – are inexorable. I will mention just one more book, one of several that I inherited from my mother. Cocky and Co. by popular wartime children’s author Violet M. Methley is about a couple of fourteen-year-old Australian orphans, sailing back "home" to live with relatives in England. Cocky of the title, is the boy’s white cockatoo and the book is full of their adventures, as their ship makes ports of call in various Pacific islands, South America and Africa, before finally colliding with another ship and sinking, a few miles off Southampton! The story doesn’t end there, but I won’t spoil things by telling you any more. Go and read it yourself – if it’s still in print. I mention this particular book, because when I opened it just now, I found a label inside which informs me that the book was presented to my mother as a prize at the Religion and Hebrew Classes of the Central Synagogue, Great Portland Street, London – the same Religion and Hebrew Classes where, many years later, I myself was a pupil. I won’t say how long ago.
The wheel has come full circle…