Sunday, 4 November 2012

Children's Literature

My favourite of the series (book 4)
If there's one area of learning that gets me excited it's children's literature. I will even read it still, to this day. I must have read the Harry Potter series 5 times by now, every year or two I revisit them, and it's like visiting old friends. Every year as the books came out, Barry and I would rush into town and buy the copy hot off the press, and fight over who was reading it first. One year we bought two copies as we were both adamant we needed to read it first. Waiting until the next one came out was excruciating. We've even joked about ekeing out the books in a similar way for our kids to read, so they get the same excited build-up (not gonna happen, obviously!) I nearly died when one of my students shouted out "Dumbledore dies!" as a spoiler when she heard I was reading the latest book. I didn't want to believe her, and I cried buckets when I got to that part. (IfI've just spoiled it for you, you deserve it for not having read it yet!)

Reading for me, as for most people, is total escapism. It's quiet, it's at your own pace, you are in total control of where, how and what you read. Well, you should be. If you're not you might want to sort some issues out!
As a kid I remember being stuck into books all day long. In bed in the mornings before getting up for school, sometimes in school at break times, before, during and after my homework, and in the darkened bedroom at night until I fell asleep. Repeated daily for all of my life. My house had loads of books, many were from my aunt's bookshelves from the 60s and 70s, so I grew up reading some great classics.

I remember Abigail, the pioneer girl with the ragdoll, crossing the prairie with her family. I read Heidi, and tasted the goat milk and bread with her. I cried with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and followed them with Good Wives, Little Men and Jo's Boys, I even found out What Katie did Next.
The Bobbsey twins.
Then there were the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, the mysteries to solve. Fatty with the unfortunate name in the Five Find-outers, all of Blyton's books were amazing to me. I wanted to have midnight feasts of boiled eggs and pop, picnics with gingerbread and apples (yes, most of my fascination was with the food consumed). The world of the 1950s depicted in so many books was not so different to the world of the 1980s in which I was growing up. Parents still dictated what kids did, most mothers stayed at home, teachers were all-powerful. I'd have some politically correct pointers to make if my kids were reading those books now. Though I think some of Blyton's have been "improved" for the modern mind. (Noddy is no longer car-jacked, stripped naked and abandoned in the woods at night by 4 golliwogs in the modern books, but I have the original in all it's racist form sitting on my shelf)

Fantasy in the form of The Cat in the Hat, Alice in Wonderland, The Neverending Story, The Hounds of the Morrigan, The Box of Delights, all of the Brother's Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson's gothic horror fairytales... All of these still give me shivers, and bring me to a magical place, as they did 25 years ago, and I suspend my disbelief and re-live my adventures again.

Kid's books written today are still as good as the ones of yesteryear. There are some fantastic new characters and series out there, I'm thinking of course of Harry Potter, but also Artemis Fowl, Skullduggery Pleasant, The Gruffalo etc, modern classics that have become staples on every bookshelf worth it's salt.
Books are the perfect present if you're not sure what to get a child. I'm not talking 3 words per page, lift-the-flap baby books. One or two of them in a house will suffice, they're not investments as I see it.

One of my favourite presents Charlie recieved for his naming day was a gorgeous hardback boxed complete Winnie The Pooh in one volume, with colour pictures. Even if it sits unread for a few years, a book is never wasted, it will be discovered, and loved, and part of a child's memories forever.
I've been collecting children's books forever. I still have all of mine, and have been buying more in my adult years, mostly from charity shops. A few were (cough) gifted from some primary schools I may have sub-bed in. We have some beautiful 1960s fairytale books, large with gorgeous illustrations, classic Ladybird books, some Little Golden books, and many books I'd forgotten about, but recognise, and snap up, in the hopes that someday my children will enter the same magical lands I did and we'll have that to talk about.

Dahl, King Dahl (Roald) how could I forget him?! I still remember sitting in my parent's car outside an Irish dancing feis at the age of 6 or 7 reading Danny the Champion of the World and loving every word. My favourite book of his is The Witches, it still scares me, especially the film version with Anjelica Houston which makes me laugh, cry and cringe even though I must have seen it 20 times. The film versions sometimes led me to the books, or sometimes vice-versa, but I would never call myself a fan of a story unless I'd read the original book it came from. (I'm talking to you, 10 year old boy who recently told me he was a Harry Potter fan "I've seen all the films"...)

When I reached about 11 or 12 I got into Judy Blume, read all her books, then the Babysitters Club and some Sweet Valley High. Then, influenced by some peers, or films in the cinema, I went on to Stephen King, Virginia Andrews, Christopher Pike, Tolkien and more adult books, and I started reading more non-fiction.

But those years between about 6 and 11 were the most magical. Fairies, goblins, dancing shoes, a sapphire-eyed statue of a prince, ogres and match-girls peopled my imagination, and fired my dreams.
I read without discrimination, skipping the words I didn't know, and getting the gist of it as I went along. I thought picturesque was pronounced "picture-skew", grotesque was "grot-skew" and Penelope was "pen-elope". I memorised passages like "Fury said to a mouse that he met in the house..." from Alice in Wonderland, I composed tunes for Winnie the Pooh's poems, I ate, slept and breathed every book I read.
I got in trouble (!) in primary school for being so immersed in a book that I didn't see the whole class had left the room at home-time, and I was the last one left there. Hmm, Teacher...
I will vet what my kids see on tv, I will vet what they do online. But I will not vet what they read. That is up to them. I don't think you can go wrong with a book, whatever it's content, if they can read it, they should be able to handle it's contents.
I even named my children after favourite characters in books from my childhood.

Books, books, books...
Not ebooks, real books. Books that go musty with age. Books you can dog-ear, kids can rip and you can tape back together. Books you can remove the flapping dust-jacket from. Books that you have to bend the spine thrice before it will let you read it properly. Books that fit into your handbag, that you find under the car-seat, that you find in an old box in the attic. And they wait for you; they're still the same, with the same stories to tell, predictable and lovely as an old friend.
It helps that I have a pretty bad memory, so re-reading a book is almost as exciting as reading it for the first time, I still get surprised at plot twists and shocked and scared and laugh in all the right places.

The only book I could never finish was:
The Lord of the Rings
This bastard came with me on every holiday, school trip, foreign exchange from the age of about 14 to 20 and I never got more than half-way through the second book. It's the 3 books in one. I'd loved The Hobbit, loved the pastoral simplicity and the whole world Tolkien created. But do you think I could get through the heavily-detailed descriptive passages, the never-ending back-stories of each character, the dark and dreary world of the battles? Nope. My copy has written in it the dates I started it each time, from 1992 to 1998, and where I was in the world each time. I always had to start again at the beginning, as I'd have forgotten who was who. Someday...

Nowadays I'm re-reading some Bill Brysons (for about the 4th time), going to start on Edna O'Brien, and soaking up all the local history I can get. I've reunited with my local library, and am being a model borrower, returning books on time and renewing online. One of my favourite series of recent years (as in the last 10 years) are the Lucia books by E.F. Benson. Hilarious, and if you thought Jeeves and Wooster were good you ain't seen nothing yet. I love a bit of 1920s affectation, me. Seriously, Benson is a master character-constructor, and his books have me laughing out loud. Some may have seen the fabulous Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales as Mapp and Lucia in the dreadful BBC adaptation in the 80s. Don't let that put you off.

If I'm reading a good book, I'll get it read in a night or two. I'll know in the first page if a book is going to hold my attention. If I'm dubious about it I'll read a chapter or two, but I have no problem putting it aside if it is pure drivel. Life's too short to read crap. And don't get me started on chick-lit. If the cover has mint/pink on it, or a line-drawing of a woman with a handbag, or "shopping" in the title I generally run a mile. Yes, I'm a book snob, and proud. I'll read one fiction book to 10 non-fictions, and have done so for the last 5 years or so. I detest parenting and baby books. I researched so much in my first pregnancy I should have the letters OB/GYN after my name. I seriously just stopped short of buying medical midwifery textbooks. So I overdosed, and have stayed clear ever since. With the exception of Steve Biddulph's Raising Boys, which you can read in an hour and is good for a clueless mother of boys. (Tells you how testosterone affects them, how they need to play, how their brains differ from girl's etc.)

BUT Facebook has all but killed off my reading, I'm seriously worried about my attention span at this stage. If I had an e-reader that had internet access I think I'd never read a book again. I'm hoping for a series of power cuts this winter, that force me to just sit down with a good book.
Oh, and I got a loan of Fifty Shades of Grey (rolls eyes). I'd always wanted to see what the fuss was about, and this copy handily falls open at the good parts. I did read the first three chapters or so, and was so blown away by the terrible turn of phrase, it was almost as bad as Twilight. So I skipped on to the good parts, and it just reminded me of all the Mills and Boons we used to sneak a look at as kids. Just a more modern setting.

Enough blathering, buy your kids some books!


  1. I LOVE this post Niambh, I'm actually a bit emotional reading it as I share a similar passion for books. I love nothing more than to be surrounded by them and my dream would be to have a house with a 'library' (I'm working on it one wall section at a time). I'm mortally offended by book wallpaper.
    My heart leapt everytime you mentioned a book/author from my childhood. Enid Blyton was always the favourite. I bought The Faraway Tree during my first pregnancy and 4 years later am still waiting in anticipation to read it to my sons when the time is right (I couldn't cope with the rejection if they're not ready to love it!). I've been tempted to read it by myself but I'm slightly afraid in case I don't find the same magic in it now that I'm a boring old grown up.
    Thanks to Judy Blume I wasted away a significant part of my 13th year swinging my elbows around and saying "I must, I must, I must increase my bust" (to no avail).
    I'm totally with you on chick-lit and having flipped through a friend's copy of 50 Shades I put any thoughts of having my own well out of my head. I'm a book snob too and I can't bare to be distracted from even a great story if the writing isn't up to par. The DaVinci Code suddenly springs to mind! On the subject of 50 Shades, and keeping in mind that this is a family orientated blog, if you want a great read with added benefits (nudgenudgewinkwink) look up Nancy Friday - she put together compilations of women's sexual fantasies at a time when they weren't thought to have them. Don't worry if you can't publish this comment due to the plug - just take my word for it and order either My Secret Garden (the first one and therefore the most fascinating), Forbidden Flowers or Women on Top. Better yet, go for them all!
    My favourite books are the James Herriot vet books. I can read them over and over again and I'm either crying or laughing at the end of every chapter - I'm not even a great animal lover.
    Anyway, sorry for going on so much. I could talk about books forever!
    Lovely post, thank you.

    1. Hi Jennifer, thanks for the amazing comment! I read the James Herriots too in my teens, and loved them, had totally forgotten about them!
      If you think this is a "family orientated blog" you should check out my birth stories ;) Thanks for the Nancy Friday etc recommendations, I'll check them out. I also want to read "The Story of O", apparently a banned book in the 50s.
      So brill to find a kindred spirit, and I hope you get your library!
      If your sons are 3 or 4 you could try the Faraway Tree now, I wouldn't worry about it being too beyond them, you can always paraphrase bits if they are convoluted.
      You're making me want a library now too, we have wall to ceiling bookshelves on one wall in the dining room, but could fill it 3 times over and counting. When my boys are grown up I'll look forward to sitting with a cuppa and reading to my heart's content, but for now I'll snatch a few chapters as I breastfeed!
      About 4 years before my grandad died his eyesight worsened, and he couldn't read at all. He said life wasn't worth living without books, and though the family got him magnifying glasses, cd books and large print he said it was never the same. just thought I'd share that.
      Yes, the Da Vinci code was stunning in it's mediocrity. Oh the snob in me loves to write that!
      Thanks a million for reading and taking the time to comment, it means a lot xx

    2. Still here! Sorry for putting a b in your name, I always do that for some reason.
      I read your birth stories ages ago. I had never heard of clitoral stimulation as a method of pain relief until then! Just didn't want to put anything in my comment that might get either of us in trouble!
      I think I'd be like your grandad too.
      Now to tend to my currently neglected boys!


A lovely comment makes my day, please share your thoughts! xx