Literary Biography: How Childhood Books Shape Us

I read Bookworm by Lucy Mangan last year (and reviewed it here). It’s an exploration of childhood reading. It is a wonderful, warm, nostalgic trip into the past, and I highly recommend it.

During the Access course I took for my degree, one of the things we were taught in our first unit was Linguistic Biographies, i.e., what places, people, and events shape the way we speak. One of the activities we had to do was to identify our own linguistic biography. It highlighted, to me, how many outside influences shape us. (It also did nothing to dispel the idea that, in my mind, daps are NOT called daps, they are called plimsolls, and the entire West Country have got it wrong.)

Surely, then, people have a literary biography? A collection of books that have fundamentally shaped who we became, what we believed about the world and the people in it, even the way we speak and behave? I started wondering about the books I used to read as a kid, and how they might have changed me. So, with that in mind, here are some lessons my much-loved childhood classics taught me:

Life Lesson Number One: Small Children Can Do Great Things

I mean, Dahl has given power to plucky little kids in order to save the day in many of his stories. It’s like his main theme. Who has the nerve to conquer corrupt adults and their stupid ways? Kids. Who can we count on to save the world? Kids! And there’s no kid quite like Matilda. (Side note, I read Mara Wilson’s autobiography recently, a woman who I understand is NOT Matilda, but will always be, in my mind, inextricably linked to her. It’s an excellent book, you should read it.) Although I couldn’t relate to Matilda’s unsupportive and frankly monstrous parents, I COULD relate to her being very tiny and super into books. I could relate to her wanting to bring down a mean teacher. And I admired her wit and courage and her purity of heart, despite her terrible parents. Yes, she has superpowers, but you know, she’s awesome and clever without them.

Life Lesson Number Two: If in Doubt, Go to the Library

Harry and Ron would have literally died without Hermione. Why? Because she’s smart and brave and strong and one of my favourite female characters of all time. Also why? Because she’s prepared. They might have teased her for all those hours spent in the library, but there were many times when Hermione’s knowledge of obscure potions or ancient wizarding history helped to unlock a problem that would have basically stopped the boys in their tracks. Knowledge is power. Many times being prepared by simply reading about a topic has helped me pull through a situation. Be prepared, and if in doubt, go to the library.

Life Lesson Number Three: Bullies Suck (but they usually have their own stuff going on)

I’ll always hold Jacqueline Wilson dear to my heart. She knew how to burrow into the heart of an issue, pull out all its painful problems and obstacles, and create a character that, if not able to conquer it, was at least able to come to terms with it. She dealt with homelessness, adoption, parental abandonment, illness, bereavement … you name a problem, Wilson has a book about it. Many of her books starred characters who, for some reason, didn’t fit in, and other kids were mean to them about it. And you usually discovered that the bullies were putting on a front, or having terrible problems at home. Her books were clever in that they made me empathise with the outsiders, yes, but they also made me rethink why people bully in the first place.

Life Lesson Number Four: Twins Are SO COOL

I mean this is not a life lesson as such, but it is DEFINITELY a lasting legacy of my childhood reading.

I was a Nickelodeon kid in the 90s. At the time, the Olsen Twins were full-blown famous, and I kind of loved and hated them in equal measure, with their perfect half-straight half-curly blonde hair and their perfect straight teeth and their perfect cropped jeans and chokers and platform shoes.

Anyway, my obsession with twins started way earlier, thanks to my sisters leaving their books behind for me when they grew out of them. We had a few Sweet Valley High books, and they were fascinating to me. (Again, what is it with blonde, perfectly-tanned, perfect-teethed twins? They’re almost magical. Like unicorns.) The Sweet Valley High twins – I only realised this as I got older – live in a weird soap-opera world where everything, literally everything, revolves around these two perfect human beings. But man, I loved those books at the time, and I was in awe at how many of them I found at the library. Did you know that there were 181 Sweet Valley High books altogether? It only occurred to me in the last couple of years, as in almost in my thirties, that many of them were ghost written. Duh.

And then Jacqueline Wilson released Double Trouble, a brilliant book about identical twins with opposite personalities, and again, it just reinforced how flipping awesome it would be to be a twin. All the stories I wrote for the next few years involved twins.

And I still think they’re kind of cool.

Life Lesson Number Five: Boarding Schools Are Awesome, But Risky

Taking Hogwarts out of the equation here (because I was too old to believe in Hogwarts being real and yet I really wished that it was, so I could take care of magical creatures and turn into cats and narrowly avoid death once every academic year with Harry and his friends), I loved the idea of boarding school. In my imagination it was an alter-ego that went to boarding school, the part of me that would be brave enough to leave my parents to go.

This is mostly down to Trebizon.

Published between 1978 and 1994, the Trebizon series by Anne Digby follows Rebecca and her friends as they experience teenage life in a very posh boarding school for girls. I say posh, because it was. They had tennis courts, and a beach across the road, and beautiful leafy oak trees under which you could lay and read poetry and argue about hockey matches. I wanted to have that life, or rather, I wanted my alter-ego to have that life. The best adventures seem to happen at boarding schools.

However, at boarding schools, there is a chance you will a) die a horrible death (Harry Potter) b) be severely neglected (The Worst Witch series). I mean, this is possibly just applicable to magical schools, but you never know.

Life Lesson Number Six: Life Can Be Very Scary

One of my earliest memories is watching Bambi and being utterly terrified by the Mum-gets-shot scene (despite not really understanding what was happening). There are many stories from my childhood that scared me, and so it has been since the days of Grimm’s fairytales. I mean, just ask the legions of people that grew up hiding behind the sofa cushions from the first-generation Daleks. Stray, by A.A Milne, is the life story of a stray cat, and the sheer amount of death, fear and sadness that happens in that book is mind-boggling when I look back on it now. The Secret of Nihm is, of course, a classic tale about a mother mouse who appeals to the dark and mysterious rats to help save her critically ill son, and both the book and the film scared the life out of me. Similarly, The Witches had me totally entranced, and yet terrified.

I’m a firm believer in that a little bit of fear is good for kids, though. Books are safe spaces to explore tough subjects. But maybe I won’t let my daughter read Stray just yet.

Life Lesson Number Seven: Do What Is Right, Even If It’s Not Easy

One of the main messages in the Harry Potter series is the one that Dumbledore gives the school after Cedric Diggory dies: ‘Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy …’ it’s an iconic speech and one that resonates strongly with Harry, who continues to choose the path of ‘right’ even when there are many easier options. This is a classic theme of children’s literature, and something every child can relate to. Even as an adult, I sometimes remember those words when I have a choice to make. Will I do what is right, or what is easy?

Big and small, books have left an imprint on me growing up. I keep an eye out for the classics from my childhood in charity shops. There’s something really nostalgic about my own copies, though. About thumbing through the worn pages, seeing my maiden name in wobbly child’s handwriting on the front page. I wish I’d kept more of them. And I can’t help but wonder which books will teach my kids lessons, too.

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