It’s the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book Week, and the very fantastic author Tansy Rayner-Roberts has challenged people to talk of their childhood reading.
When I was in primary school I can only remember two occasions when we got to dress up as a character from our favourite book.
One year I dressed as Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (movie version) as the dress was easy to make and wear (comfortable) and it meant I could read all day with the excuse that I was in character.
The other year I dressed as Henni from ‘45 & 47 Stella Street and Everything That Happened’ by Elizabeth Honey (an Australian author) and this actually was my favourite book at the time. The novel started on the front cover at the very top left-hand corner, and she is the author who inspired me to want to be an author someday.
Elizabeth Honey and Jackie French were two authors who I could read and love without fail. Other authors had books I loved, such as ‘The Big Bazoohley’ by Peter Carey or ‘The House that Sailed Away‘ by Pat Hutchins (not Australian, picked up at a library sale) but those two authors could write about anything and everything, and I’d buy it on the spot and read as much as I could before we’d even left the shops. I’d trail mum, reading and developing a very keen peripheral vision – I never bumped into anyone or anything once, yet managed to read a great amount.
My adoration for Elizabeth Honey first started with the picture book ‘Princess Beatrice and the Rotten Robber‘, which mum gave to me for some birthday. The author visited our school and signed it for me as my class-mates generally carried on and didn’t pay attention. She had maybe three kids huddled around her as she gave us a slide presentation and it was everyone-else’s loss. She was utterly amazing – could they not see that? I still remember my rage at my favourite author being ignored – and how I had no idea how lucky I was that she had visited. She was in the Northern Territory researching for her next book that would come out many years later – ‘Remote Man‘ – and she named one of the characters ‘Kate’. I still wish and hope desperately it was for me, the one who babbled on and on as only a kid in grade five or four can about how much I utterly cherished her every word. I think I pronounced cherished as cherub every time.
Honey then went on to cleverly reference ‘Princess Beatrice and the Rotten Robber‘ in one of her other books, ‘What Do You Think, Feezal?‘ which only made me adore her even more.
Jackie French caught my attention with ‘Somewhere Around the Corner‘, which was either read to us as a class by a teacher, or our librarian Robyn recommended it to me. Often I’d walk into the library and she’d instruct me to find a certain book. I’d fetch and bring it back, and she’d loan it out to me without a word. The books I read as a child that I wouldn’t have otherwise found are all thanks to her, and I wish I could remember the title of a book where the girl had Scoliosis and had to wear a brace. It still sticks in my memory, and I wish I could read it again.
But back to French, who I was always excited about seeing on Burkes Backyard. ‘Tajore Arkle‘ was the first book that inspired me to try and write something similar – where things weren’t as they are in our world. I remember the sudden realisation that people in books could eat whatever food they wanted – the sky didn’t have to be blue! My mind was blown.
Each year when the Children’s Book Council list of winners came out, mum would track them down at a library or buy them straight off, if she was sure it was something I would like. I think ‘Swashbuckler‘ by James Moloney was one, which led me to read ‘Book of Lies‘, which I never read the sequel to and wish I could have.
Like any other kid I read Roald Dahl, but didn’t really like The Giant Peach or BFG or whatever it was – I adored ‘The Witches’, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ and ‘Esio Trot’ especially. I wanted to enjoy ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’ as I always liked reading lists – so when he’s finding ingredients I was always happy – but I didn’t like how the Grandma was the bad character within. It felt unfair – even though I haven’t really got along with the only grandma I knew – Dad’s mum died when I was very young. I saw a play version of it once on holiday in Melbourne and it frightened the wits out of me in a way where I enjoyed it immensely.
There was also Enid Blyton, of course. I enjoyed ‘Secret Seven’ a lot more than I ever enjoyed ‘Famous Five’, for some reason I could just never get into them. Noddy always utterly creeped me out, probably because of the horrible animation that was on TV.
Oh, and then there’s Duncan Ball’s Selby series, and Emily Eyefinger!
When I was really young, I adored ‘Just So Stories’ by Rudyard Kiping, most of Beatrix Potter’s work, and I really, really loved Br’er Rabbit – Uncle Amos stories. All of these had such a lovely voice to them, written to a kind of beat that is best read aloud, but done so well you still get so much happiness from reading them to yourself.
I never liked Pooh Bear (I think the name embarrassed me, and none of the characters managed to catch my interest – they were all so annoying!) but I did really, really love A. A. Milne’s poetry, of which I had books and books.
When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six,
I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.
A. A. Milne – Now We Are Six – 1927
What else did I read… ‘The Fiend‘ stories by Sheila Lavelle were horrifying and awkward – I’ve always had trouble dealing with awkward or embarrassing humour – and of course we read ‘The Giver‘ by Lois Lowry – another book that inspires many who want to be authors someday. ‘The Bear Nobody Wanted’ by Janet Ahlberg was a bit of a shock – told from the POV of a bear, and set in London at the time of the war. It was probably the first sad and hard book I read, and I still have a copy somewhere here today.
Eoin Colfer – someone I read when I was more of a teen than a child – was always very good, but his latest books have been a bit disappointing. However, having the main character being a very intelligent child was such a refreshing read – and I think the first anti-hero I’d ever come across before. He was the main character and ‘hero’, yet he was into stealing and espionage! His other books such was ‘The Wish List‘ were also very different to anything else that was out at the time, so that was good.
Special mention for Gillian Rubinstein’s ‘Galax-Arena‘, which I actually had to read for class in my first year of high school – and I’m still really, really frustrated that she never finished the series. ‘Terra-Farma‘ came out years later, with the promise of ‘Univercircus’… which never appeared and I’ve never seen anything that specifically said why. Not that she has to, it just would have been nice, I suppose. She’s now writing under the name Liane Hearn.
There was this one other book especially that I’ve been trying to remember for a while now – I thought it must have been on the shortlist or won at some stage but I’ve gone through previous winners and shortlisted and nothing jumps out at me, and yes Australian author. It was where the family were obsessed with entering competitions – the kids found it a bit embarrassing after a while. I don’t think either of the parents worked, they simply won competitions and swapped the prizes for other things that may be needed. For weeks they would eat nothing but noodles so they could collect heaps of coupons/barcodes – then the next month it may be nothing but yogurt and so on… and then finally, through a lot of hard work (even collecting rubbish so they can get the coupons that way) they win a house! In this fantastic new suburb! …Then everyone there is rude and posh.
I just really wish I could remember which book that was…
‘Paradise Palace’ by Wendy Orr! Who it seems went on to write ‘Nim’s Island’.
But really, my main love when I was even younger than my main bout of Elizabeth Honey and Jackie French, was the British ‘Milly Molly Mandy‘ series of short stories. Quaint is how it could be summed up in one word – just a little girl who has a little friend called Susan, and a little friend called Peter, and she lives with her parents and aunt and uncle, grandparents and a little dog called Toby in a little white washed house with a thatched roof. And all that happens is that she finds a hedgehog, or they make jam, or her teacher stays with them for the night, or they go to the beach. It was such a lovely, reassuring story that was well written and provided a window into every-day British life (from a while ago now) that probably started my life-long obsession with England – It’s still my favourite place to visit (though Tokyo is a close second) and I childishly swore I’d someday marry a British guy, and now I’m going to.
Honestly, if I could write anything, it would probably be to write my own version – somewhat updated? Set elsewhere? Continued on from? – of Milly Molly Mandy. I was read to each night by my father (when he wasn’t away on business anyway) and I could quote each and every damn story word for word. We’d play a game where he’d change a word and I’d have to catch him. To be able to give someone else the joy Milly Molly Mandy gave me would be more than the best thing I could ever do with my life – and the fact few people have ever heard of know of it is such a damn shame. Still, the brief moment it appears in Cabin Pressure Season Two, Episode Six (Limerick) is fantastic.