This week has been a busy time for me. At the beginning of the week I took part in the St.Ives Literary Festival and at the end of the week I was in London attending the Romantic Novelists' Association's Summer Party as I (and my debut novel The Thief's Daughter) was a contender for the RNA's Joan Hessayon Award. I enjoyed the events immensely as they both involve my passion for fiction.
Books have always played a major role in my life. My mother read to me as a child until I graduated to being able to read to myself. Like most British children, I learnt to read through the use of the Ladybird's Key Words Reading Scheme which was used by British primary schools throughout the 60s and 70s. Specially designed for children, the 36 small hard-backed, illustrated books used a reduced vocabulary to help children learn to read and, for some, built the foundation of a love for books that would last for the rest of their lives. However, there was one book in particular which turned on a light-bulb in my head and made me aware that reading a book could be quite magical. In other words, it ignited my passion for reading.
I loved Charlotte's Web. I identified with the setting (I also lived on a farm) and the little heroine called Fern, however this farm was very different to my own. In Charlotte's Web, the animals could speak, had personalities and faced great hurdles. I experienced a range of emotions as I followed Wilbur and Charlotte's story and I still have a vivid memory of holding it in my hand, when I was about to return it to the library shelf, and thinking how amazing a good book could be. It was truly magical and, on that day, my love of books began in earnest.
I asked my fellow contributors on the Novel Points of View blog to share their light-bulb moment and here are the books they shared with me.
I’ve chosen Enid Blyton’s ‘Those Dreadful Children’ as my light-bulb book. We had a tattered old hardback edition which I loved and read over and over again. I think what was special about it was that it made me realise that different people saw the same things in different ways. That was a real wow! moment – and a very useful one for a future writer.
In this book, a harum-scarum family move in next door to a prim and proper family. Both sets of children think the others are ‘those dreadful children’. And, as a reader, you can see exactly why they irritate each other so much. But gradually they become friendly and have to work out ways to accommodate each other’s differences. It might be a children’s book, but it probably has a lot to teach adults, too, especially in the current climate!
I don’t remember having a light-bulb moment from reading as a child – I used to read so much and my mother took me to the library every Saturday. Woe betide me if I hadn’t read the books I’d selected the week before. Sometimes, I would have to get an extension on the loan and take it out a second time, getting the little card stamped with the date. What I do remember is loving the non-fiction section as much, if not more, than the children’s fiction section which wasn’t very big in those days. There were some books in there where the paper was tissue-paper thin, and crackled when you turned the pages. Leather bound. Of course, as they were in the adult section I couldn’t take them out with my Junior Library card. But I used to linger. I think, on reflection, it was the feel and smell of books that got me hooked. I still use Paignton Library although its moved from its first floor venue in the old Liberal Party headquarters to a swanky new site near the railway station. Cafe on site – what’s not to like!
The first books I remember receiving and treating with great reverence were Twinkle annuals, which, to my delight, magically appeared in my stocking on Christmas morning. I adored all their covers, but the one that sticks in my memory showed Twinkle twirling as a ballerina. Long before I could read, I would row up my teddies, who made for a particularly appreciative audience, prop a Twinkle annual in my lap, and compose stories, which vaguely fitted the pictures.
But the two series that really fired my passion for reading, were both written by Enid Blyton – The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. I loved the adventures of The Secret Seven but longed to belong to the Famous Five. Living along the coast of north-east Scotland, our village had both sandy and rocky beaches, a natural stone stairway known as the Giant Steps, a hermit’s cave to explore, a disused railway station, walks in the grounds of an abandoned stately home, woods surrounding a loch and more... If only Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog would visit Cullen – there were so many places for them to discover! Since joining the Famous Five wasn’t an option, I cajoled my best friend to join me on picnics, long cycle rides, hikes to a temple monument which sat atop a local hill – always on the lookout for a Famous Five mystery-style adventure. So perhaps it was no surprise that when I began reading adult fiction, I devoured Agatha Christie's cosy crime. But my heart was still on Kirrin Island, solving mysteries with the Famous Five.
Books that gave one the reading bug! I’m afraid I’m going out on a limb here! I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read and neither can I remember the first books I read. The ones I remember are from when I was about ten when the reading bug was already deeply ingrained in me. But I do remember the books that really got my son reading - and also I think influenced him in one of his career choices! It was the ‘Biggles’ series of books by Capt. W.E.Johns. He positively devoured them and the Gimlet stories afterwards. The picture is of half a dozen out of his childhood collection currently sitting in my attic.
I used to worry that my favourite ever children’s book was out of print. Maybe it is: you don’t see it in the bookshops any more, which is why I cling so tightly to the tattered old copy (possibly now without its cover) that was mine when I was a child.
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively came out in 1973 and I must have read it when it was new. It’s about James, who moves to the country with his parents and finds himself being plagued by (and taking the blame for the actions of) a ghost disturbed during the renovation of the family’s cottage) and for some reason, it caught my attention.
Penelope Lively wrote other children’s books but they weren’t as good. She wrote acclaimed literary fiction for adults, too, and I’m afraid I didn’t think that was as good, either. It’s so long since I read it that I can’t remember what was so wonderful about it; but I do know that it’s clung in the back of my mind for decades and now, when I think of it, I remember the line drawings, the characters, the snippets of descriptions.
It’s as if by disturbing that memory, the book has come back to haunt me — almost, you might say, like the ghost of Thomas Kempe himself.
***After a wonderful time at the RNA party (where I also had a chance to meet up with fellow Novel Points of View contributor, Gill Stewart), I am now home ... tired, happy and thoughtful. I have come to the conclusion that although life is a journey, the direction it takes is often decided by, what appears, inconsequential events. In the mid 70's, mine took a direction towards a love for fiction. Oddly, it was a fictional spider, called Charlotte, and a pig, called Wilbur, who pointed the way.
Author of The Thief's Daughter