Bookish Beginnings: My Childhood Reads

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Ask most readers who grew up in the late 90s through the early 00s to talk about books that shaped them as a reader and I can guarantee a large number of them will give you a dissertation length ode to Harry Potter and how much it changed their lives. I will readily admit that I am one of those people. The boy Wizard entered my life at the age of 10 and I can hand-on-heart testify that he irrevocably changed not only my reading life but my life in general.  

However in any readers life there are going to be a plethora of books that laid the foundations for their reading journey. Those books that they were introduced to when they were too young to realise the little squiggles on the pages were called letters and that together they formed words. Those books  they clutched close to them, shining a torch on their shiny white pages as they read under the covers; long past bedtime. Those books that acted as kindling to their own wild, youthful imaginations. Those books that when thinking of the title, illustrations or just a characters name bring forward memories of childhood so strong they can smell the varnished wood of the local libraries bookshelves, picture the colour of their childhood bedroom or hear a parent berating them for being late to the table for tea because they just needed to read one more page. 

I recently read Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan. It is lovely book which takes us on a journey through Mangan's childhood reading, talking us through the seminal books that shaped her as child and continue to have an important part of her life as an adult. Whilst reading Bookworm I was sent on a whimsical nostalgia trip, mention of authors such as Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Richard Scarry had me reminiscing out loud to my long suffering boyfriend about my own bookish beginnings, waxing lyrical about the stories I adored as a young child. 

I honestly cannot remember a time when books and stories have not been a huge part of my life. Whilst my family never had a long held tradition of reading aloud or stories at bedtime, I distinctly remember being encouraged to read. My Grandma would take us to the library at the weekend, there would always be time made for my reading homework and I was one of those children who longed for it to be bedtime just so I could hide myself away under the covers and escape to whatever fictional setting I was currently enthralled by. 

Most of my strongest childhood memories, especially when it comes to books, centre around the long Summer holidays of my Primary School years. The Summer holidays have an almost mythical quality to them when you are child. Six weeks to those who are unencumbered by time restraints or responsibility seems like an almost impossibly long time and I would greet them with an excited anticipation. I was a very imaginative child who loved to play make believe. My brain would be abuzz with ideas for new imaginary worlds I could bring to life with my sister, creating story lines we could follow. These worlds would be so vivid in my head that inevitably I would also write them down. 

Anthropomorphic tales of woodland creatures living in villages secreted deep in dense forests were a particular preference of mine when it came to reading and writing. Between us, me and my sister owned an unseemly amount of cuddly toys, some of which were amongst our most treasured possessions. It was those cuddly animals that my woodland tales were based on. I can still picture the map I created of their little village in my head now. It was called Primose Wood, all of the animals lived in tree trunks and it had a market square where most of the inhabitants sold their wares as a way to make a living.

Two of my favourite books back then were my collection of Foxwood Tales by Cynthia and Brian Paterson and Pookie by Ivy Wallace and I firmly believe that those stories, amongst other such as Old Bear by Jane Hissey and Paddington Bear by Michael Bond were the reason my imagination was so strong growing up. The Foxwood Tales centred around a trio of young animals called Harvey Mouse, Rue Rabbit and Willy Hedgehog. The stories were quaint and followed them on their little adventures in the village of Foxwood. They were very important to me because they allowed me to imagine a world in which my beloved toys came to life. Pookie by Ivy Wallace was another book which furthered my obsession with stories about animals going on adventures. First published in 1946 the story centres around a little white rabbit called Pookie. He is different from all of his brothers and sisters not only on account of being white in a family full of brown rabbits but he also has wings, which are an annoyance because they don't appear to work. The first book in the series tells the story of Pookie striking out on his own to find his fortune. Oh how that little white rabbit captured my imagination! I would sit up night after night reading Pookie, Pookie and his shop and Pookie in Neverland. 

As I got a little bit older I found myself moving away from stories about animals. As I mentioned earlier my Grandma would take us to the library at the weekends and we would spend a couple of hours perusing the books, colouring and playing with toys. On one such Saturday afternoon trip I was determined to find a good book. I had, of course, enjoyed many of the books that I had borrowed up until that point but this time I wanted to find something that would be worthy of that prestigious title: a favourite. Well, the stars aligned and that day I took home The Sailing Ship Tree by Berlie Doherty. The book is about four children named Dorothy, Walter, Tweeny and Master George and centres around their lives on the estate of the 'Big House' by the Mersey in Liverpool. Dorothy and Walter are the butler's children, Tweeny is a little maid and Master George is the son of the wealthy owner of the 'Big House'. To say I loved this book would be an understatement, I think I borrowed it from the library quite a few times. It inspired a whole range of role playing games and I even wrote a story based on Walter for a writing exercise at school (which I still have.) Reading The Sailing Ship Tree lead me to inhale The Malory Towers stories, reach for my Mum's What Katie Did books and lit up my imagination to the point where my favourite game was to pretend I was a girl called Ethel who had been sent away to boarding school. 

It was at this point that I started yearning for longer books. I begged to be allowed to move on from the banded reading at school so that I could have free reign on the extended reading shelf. I can't remember exactly where or when I came across The Prophecy of the Gems by Flavia Bujor but it must have been at school. My memory seems to recollect it being in the last year of Primary School but the publication date in the copy I now own states it was published in the UK in 2004 which would mean I was in the first year of Secondary School. Either way I remember seeing this bright pink and white hardback book on a shelf and being immediately drawn to it. I had, by now, found Harry Potter and was well on my way to becoming a full fledged Potterhead, so fantasy was the flavour of the moment. Up until then I had almost exclusively been reading books set in the past about whimsical children going on little adventures within the confines of their home/school and their immediate surroundings. Being introduced to fantasy fiction expanded my reading horizons exponentially. The Prophecy of the Gems is about three girls called Jade, Amber and Opal who are part of a prophecy that means they must travel to a kingdom called Fairytale to help defeat an evil that is threatening to spread. If the books I had been reading previously about quaint country life and idyllic boarding schools had sparked my imagination, this book positively set it on fire. I was entranced by the magical rules and laws, the fantastical settings and the wide ranging quest the girls were sent on. That book along with Harry Potter, opened up another level of reading to me that I did not know existed and it is a trajectory that I am still hurtling along to this day. 

Nowadays the writing has somewhat fell by the wayside, lost because my confidence dampened as I got older, as I began to doubt my ideas or realised that were certain rules that I had to adhere too. My unquenchable thirst for books and the faraway lands they can take me to, however, is still there. There were some wilderness years. Where, as an impressionable teenager, I quietened my love of stories because they weren't cool. Regret for the lost years where I could have been inhaling book after book without the hindrance of a job or other responsibilities is something I still dwell on and I often wonder what jewels I have consequentially missed out on now that I don't have those wonderfully long summers to fill. 

Happily I did find books again. Through my Mum's small collection of what is so sometimes sniffed at because it is 'women's fiction'. Through the required sometimes laborious but often wondrous reading lists set for me by my lecturers at University. Through ignoring said reading lists and reading other stuff instead. Through finally being allowed to read freely upon graduating. Through finding Tumblr and Twitter and being introduced to books I would never have heard of otherwise. And now through being a bookseller and being lucky enough to spend my working week surrounded by books. 

I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes that I think sums up my feelings perfectly: 

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” - Stephen King. 

What books were your favourites growing up? Are there any that you feel have shaped the reader/person you have become? Let me know in the comments!