I am looking forward to the Christmas holiday immensely. It seems to be the only time when both of us actually entirely stop working. This year, part of that lovely non-work time will be spent on Islay. Hurrah! There will be walking! Wild, wintry landscapes! Roaring fires! Last time we had a holiday, we really enjoyed reading each other’s books — by which I mean the work of authors one of us hadn’t read, and the other had recommended. I earmarked George Eliot and Josephine Tey for Tom, and he suggested Boris Akunin to me. This was fun. We thought we’d do this again, but this time with the books we’d read as children instead. I am excited about this swap; have been preparing a small selected list, and have begun to order second-hand copies of the books.
Edward Ardizzone, self portrait (1952) © Tate Gallery.
This list needs thought. The selection must be appropriate. For as well as being books one was fond of, one must also be able to imagine the other person being fond of them as well. For example, I devoured the work of Jean Webster, and Pamela Brown, but I unfortunately can’t imagine Tom being gripped by either Daddy Long Legs or The Bridesmaids. (Um, did that come out wrong?) There are other books I loved as a child — Noel Streatfield’s Tennis Shoes, for example — that I think would be very likely to get on my wick if I read them now. I was also a voracious, secret reader of my Ma’s Georgette Heyer novels, but these are emphatically not appropriate Tom-reading, nor do they really count as kids books (however formative they were for me).
I had a granddad who was not only very keen on libraries, but on sales of library books. Many of the books I read as a kid were picked up by him at sales at Rochdale, Heywood, and Bury. I grew up surrounded by wonderful, worn copies of 1950s hardbacks, and loved so many of the books he gave me, with “removed from circulation” stamped inside. Paul Gallico’s Jennie is one of these. In fact, I think Rochdale Central Library must have got rid of all their old Paul Gallicos in one go, as I read and adored most of his books — The Man who Was Magic being another favourite. Jennie‘s feisty, Scottish, feline heroine is the exponent of a very grown-up exploration of autonomy and dependence, and I remember Peter’s fight with the enormous yellow-toothed rat as one of the most thrilling and terrifying things I ever read. Thinking about it now, I am sure there is probably something suspicious about Gallico’s writing about relationships in Jennie, as much as in his deeply disturbing Love of Seven Dolls (which I was also very fond of), but, like many people, I have managed to maintain a largely uncritical take on the books I really loved as a child. I wonder if this will change in Gallico’s case if I read him again . . . hmm.
Philosophising cats appear again in another of my ex-library favourites: Eleanor Estes’ Pinky Pye, which also features ornithology, a Very Small Owl, and the marvelous illustrations of Edward Ardizzone.
Ardizzone’s illustration of Mr Bish reunited with his little owl. Eleanor Estes, Pinky Pye, (1958)
Much of my best childhood reading seems to have been illustrated by Ardizzone: his wonderful drawings really brought my copy of Stig of the Dump to life. I remember being fascinated by the American setting of Pinky Pye, and finding the sandy, summer landscape of Fire Island incredibly exotic.
One kid’s book I can’t imagine ever not liking, and which has to be at the top of Tom’s list, is Michael Ende’s Momo. I was given this book as a gift from my auntie Anne, and I think my copy must have been the 1984 English translation. My memories of Cassiopeia, Beppo, and the grim men in grey are very vivid indeed. Its a quarter of a century since I first came across it (gulp) and I am really looking forward to reading it again as well as to seeing what Tom makes of it.
This process of selection is interesting: I am picking books that I think Tom would like, but also the books that I think I would still like too. These books retain a certain spooky staying power, while the majority of things I read (and loved) then do not. What works of children’s literature have staying power for you? What would be on your list?