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Nose Stuck in a Book

Siobhán Parkinson

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan, Square Peg, 336 pp, ISBN: 978-0224098854

For a book that is mostly about children’s literature, the fuck count here is rather high – by which I mean it is low, but any FC at all is a little unexpected in this context. What, I wondered, was the intended effect? A kind of strenuous nonchalance, I thought at first. On reflection, I think it is merely a habit of language, and worth mentioning mainly because it is an indication of the register in which this book is (partly) written. The breezy, conversational style bobs along merrily enough to cajole and tickle the reader into generally amused compliance with the author’s undertaking: a memoir focused almost entirely on her own childhood reading but marbled through with fascinating insights into her relationship, through (and not-through) books, with her family of origin and sprinkled also with the converse experience of being the parent of a young son to whom she is in the painful process of introducing books and reading. The author’s observations on how parenting and child-rearing have changed since her day and her remarks on the parenting style of her own mother and father (mostly, it would appear, a kind of gloriously benign neglect, though tempered by generous book-provision on her father’s part) are intriguing, especially as they are contextualised in time, space and politics. I note that she has written other memoirs, and My Family and Other Disasters sounds as if it might expand on some areas tantalisingly touched on in Bookworm. I shall watch out for it.

The real interest of this book, however, naturally lies in the account of the author’s childhood and adolescent reading and of the books that were important to her. The reading she did as a child is, unsurprisingly, an only slightly distorted mirror of one’s own, assuming that “one” is the intended reader, to wit, another bookworm – for who else but a fellow-bookworm would even open a book with this title?

As a memoir, Bookworm is written from personal experience and is inflected with personal taste, and this is its strength. While it makes no claim to be comprehensive, it is wide-ranging and gratifyingly introduces the reader to or reminds her of titles unknown or forgotten, which is the great value of a survey-style book of this sort. (There is a third book in the Treasure Seekers series: I never knew – hurray! And that Phantom Tollbooth I have been hearing about for so long that I thought I had read it, but now realise I have not. Thank you, Lucy Mangan.)

Since Bookworm is based on the author’s actual reading history, it is not surprising that there are unacknowledged gaps, as well as spirited refusals to engage with certain titles. The author is quite clear about her abhorrence for at least the higher end of fantasy – a prejudice with which I am in sympathy – and her aversion to fairy tale, with the result that Grimm and Andersen are barely mentioned and Tolkien gets short shrift; likewise Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman, for example, though somehow JK Rowling is exonerated. Winnie-the-Pooh is perhaps overexposed in books of this type, so we can excuse his dismissal here. Rupert the Bear doesn’t get so much as a mention. Philippa Pearse doesn’t get a look-in either; nor does Rosemary Sutcliffe, John Rowe Townsend, Alan Garner or Arthur Ransome, for example, though there is an amusing and characteristically acerbic anecdote about an encounter with the wonderful Jill Paton Walsh, as well as an account of her novel Fireweed. On the other hand, there are unexpected finds: the author makes Private – Keep Out! sound utterly hilarious, and Summer of my German Soldier, which I had never heard of, also sounds well worth looking out for. The gap that truly surprises me is translated classics. It makes me sad to think that someone who loved The Borrowers missed out on Mrs Pepperpot; and how can any child reader have totally overlooked Pinocchio, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, The Little Prince, the novels of Erich Kästner, the diary of Anne Frank? Perhaps her early experience with Babar, whom she disliked (can’t say I blame her) and Struwwelpeter (she took it seriously), put her off The Continent for life.

As is entirely admissible in a memoir, the author takes certain idiosyncratic stances – against Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, for example, which shocking opinion is mitigated by her more favourable views on Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? She overlooks the real Seuss classic, however, which is of course The Sneetches. She ambles along through Shirley Hughes’s wonderfully grounded families; Jill Murphy’s way-pre-Potter school for witches; the Happy Families of the inimitable Ahlbergs (not their best work, in my own opinion); the adventures of the wise and redoubtable Teddy Robinson. I have never met another TR fan ‑ eat your heart out, Paddington ‑ and it is balm to the soul to read of her love for this most unconventional of bears, who, long, long before it was fashionable, wore a purple dress on occasion, and so deftly is it handled that the child reader, not to mention her parents, never finds it so much as mildly questionable); the glorious Alice; the detailed and wondrous world-construction of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (with passing reference to the sequels; I always thought myself that afield and afloat are lesser conditions for tiny people who rightfully live under the floorboards); Little Women and sequels, What Katy Did and sequels, Anne of Green Gables and sequels; the stories of E Nesbit; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess; Blyton’s rather parched if, at a certain age, compelling holidayscapes and mystery adventures; Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and other novels; Judith Kerr’s books, especially When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Roald Dahl gets his due. Good Night Mr Tom and Tom’s Midnight Garden (I always have to stop and think which of those is which) are both lovingly described. CS Lewis’s Narnia series gets excellent coverage. Charlotte’s Web is exquisitely dissected, and the author’s child-self’s outrage at the ending is at once amusing and distressingly recognisable. The treatment of the Ladybird series of books is both affectionate and rather funny, though in general Mangan’s book is more convincing when she abandons her jaunty, humorous style and settles into impassioned critique.

There is plenty of room for disagreement – anyone who loves Milly-Molly-Mandy can’t really be all there, can they? And, no, there is no proper comparison with the lovely Ruggleses of The Family from One End Street. And how, I ask myself, can a reader who revels in the challenging language of Richmal Crompton’s William stories completely overlook the hilarious Jennings stories of Anthony Buckeridge? But this is all part of the fun. (William, by the way, is one of the few boys to get much attention here.)

The account of girls’ school stories of the early to mid-twentieth century I found to be the best thing in the book, partly because it is fascinatingly contextualised in the author’s personal experience of school and the pressure to be a certain kind of feminine that female bookworms rarely are or wish to be. Here she is, of course, preaching to the converted, as she is when she describes fresh air (a commodity that, like her, this bookworm was as a child constantly being admonished to consume) as “stupid”. Simple but devastating – genius. Mind you, an aversion to fresh air is perhaps a little inconsistent with a passion for pony stories, about which the author is very funny.

The later chapters move into what is now (hatefully) called YA literature. Her treatment of Judy Blume, especially Forever, is very positive, and there is an amusing account of her obsession with the controversial but ultimately, in her view, harmless Sweet Valley High series. On the other hand, she is far from impressed with the Twilight series and other commercial pap for teenagers.  She promises at one point to come out strongly against Gossip Girl, but oddly fails to deliver on this. Through it all, she hangs on admirably to the essential children’s literature precept that

you simply never know what a child is going to find in a book (or a graphic novel, or a comic, or whatever) – what tiny, throwaway line might be the spark that lights the fuse that sets off an explosion in understanding whose force echoes down years. And it enables me to keep, at bottom, the faith that children should be allowed to read anything at any time. They will take out of it whatever they are ready for. And just occasionally, it will ready them for something else.

If bookworms on a nostalgic trip down memory lane are the natural audience for this book, I suspect that undergraduates taking the modules in children’s literature that have sprung up all over academia over the last decade or so will also constitute a large part of the market. And they could do a lot worse. They will probably enjoy the bantering style and tolerate the (in my own more surly view) excessive use of exclamation marks and other such humour-indicating devices and they will learn a lot. The list of titles with which the book concludes, although necessarily no more comprehensive than the book itself, is a valuable if partial resource for any student of children’s literature. A little less useful are the occasional mini-lectures on the history of children’s literature. I don’t really see the point: either one has studied the subject and already knows about, for example, Newbery or Caldecott, or if one hasn’t already got this information, then there’s not enough here to fill the gaps.

I did feel at times that the book rested on a kind of unspoken assumption that people who read fiction addictively and were brought up on Kaye Webb’s Puffins and the classics of nineteenth and twentieth century English and American children’s literature – people like us – are inherently adorable. However, the closing pages of the text make such a convincing apologia for what we might call bookwormery, that I was relieved to let that niggling concern go and applaud the author’s closing argument:

Books remain what they have been to me since that first awful awareness dawned that I was an individual, separate from everyone else and, until and unless you come to know better, alone: they have been an endless comfort. Books connect you to others. It sounds trite but it is true. You are kept company by characters, by a story and by the consciousness – held literally in the hand, seemingly entire – that wrote the book. They all speak to you now across time and space, a commonality of minds, a sharing of experience, a proffering of thoughts and philosophies effortlessly spanning dimensions that would otherwise defeat all such efforts. They are insurmountable proof that the bundle of flaws, fancies, idiocies, instincts, anxieties and aptitudes that is you is neither unique nor alone. A man in Brooklyn can think up a story about a boy riding through a purple tollbooth – a purple tollbooth, for heaven’s sake! – and twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years later (and counting) it can delight and boggle the mind of an eight-year-old in Catford, a ten-year-old in Canberra or anyone at any point in between. You can share the adventures of a large family in Otwell or a tiny one under the floorboards just by knowing how twenty-six letters variously combine and which way up to hold a book. A boy and a garden that exist only on the page can intimate as long as that page endures that all of humanity yearns for the past, needs to know where it comes from in order to know where it’s going. If that doesn’t strike you as a near-divine miracle, nothing will.

1/6/2018

Siobhán Parkinson is a writer, translator and publisher.

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