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.

The O.U Diaries #2 – Mixed Feelings


I haven’t kept up with this series as much as I’d like because, funnily enough, studying has taken up ALL of my free time. I’ve just finished my first full year of Level One study with the O.U. On Sunday night, I submitted my EMA (end of module assignment) and breathed a huge sigh of relief.


I’ve got mixed feelings about it.

AA100 is a multi-disciplinary course, and it’s a mandatory first step in my degree. I was pretty excited about it initially, because I liked the idea of learning about topics I would otherwise know nothing about. It covered art, history, philosophy, literature, music … the whole shebang. When the course materials arrived last year, I unboxed them (with the help of the kids) and felt overwhelmed and very happy. But the reality has been, at times, really tough.

It’s been a tough year for me personally. Shortly before I started studying, we had two big life changes in our house: I got a job, and my daughter started school. Everything felt a little ‘up in the air’, but I still just about managed to keep on top of studying. Until January when I got pleurisy, which I took an insanely long time to recover from, and then bad cold after bad cold, which I would normally bounce back from but couldn’t, because my immune system was so low. Then I got the worst UTI I’ve ever had in my life. (TMI?! Seriously though, I wouldn’t wish that UTI on my worst enemy). Essentially, illness + multiple rounds of antibiotics = hard times. My grades dropped at this point, along with my mental health.

Why am I sharing all this? Because life is like this sometimes. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that 2019 has been pretty challenging so far, and not just because of all the illness. But once you’ve committed to a degree, studying still has to be done. At the end of the day, whether you’re exhausted, or depressed, or sick, or anxious, or heartbroken, or overwhelmed – essays still have to be written. You still have to sit down and hit the books. If you’ve committed to this, then you’re in it. For better or worse.

Obviously, life isn’t always like this. But the reality is it can be. When you’re an adult returning to uni after a very long time, you’ve usually got many more responsibilities and worries. (Obviously this is a bit of a blanket statement. I know young/new adults have bucketloads of stresses too). There were times when I genuinely thought I wouldn’t cope.

I did, however, cope.

The O.U are pretty understanding when it comes to life events getting in the way of academic life – I got an extension with no problem, and there are student counselling services available. However, at some point, you have to try and catch up. The feeling of work snowballing is really horrible and stressful.

And this is where the multi-disciplinary problems come in. For me, I like music, I really do. But I don’t care about the technical aspects of musical composition. I’m glad other people do, but I don’t. It was SO hard when I was sick to sit down and attempt to care about this stuff. To pour my effort and time into something that a) doesn’t feel relevant to the degree I want to do and b) doesn’t help my life outside of studying, either. I had to force myself to do it. When I got to the sections that were relevant to my eventual degree – particularly the short stories – my passion flared up again, and I got the best mark I had for the whole year. It was a relief to get to that point, because I was starting to feel concerned that I just wasn’t enjoying studying anymore.

Those are my honest thoughts. I’m not moaning, just reflecting. Multi-disciplinary courses are not as easy as I thought they would be, and I’m so ready to move onto English Language studies in October. To have a bit of focus is just what I need. Others might find they really love the variety of AA100 – but I thought I’d write down my thoughts and experiences and share them with you. It’s definitely been a mixed bag of a year. Ultimately, despite life throwing everything at me, I got through it. (If I get at least 40% on my last assignment. Agh.)

Two things I want to point out:

  1. Go to the tutorials. Seriously, attend the tutorials. There are loads of online ones, which is what I did. They’re a bit nerve wracking but they helped SO much with understanding what tutors expect from assignments.
  2. Join a Facebook group for your intake. Honestly, AA100 October 2018 on Facebook saved my bacon more than once. We shared advice, opinions, frustrations, progress – it felt like a much more open and free community than the Open University forums. Go on Facebook, search for your course code + the start time, and you’ll find it.

So there we go, my honest thoughts! I’m very relieved to have a few months off now, but I’ll be going into L101 feeling cautiously optimistic.

To my fellow AA100 Facebook people: good luck, and it was so nice to share this experience with you!

Thinking of studying with the O.U? Read this!

I’m going to start a new series on the blog called the O.U diaries – a kind of reflection on how studying is going. Obviously this is going to be more useful to some people than others, but if you want to follow me along, keep reading! ❤

Chances are if you’ve clicked on this, you’re thinking about studying with the Open University. (Unless you’re one of my seven dedicated blog readers, in which case: hey guys). To fill you in: I’m Meg. I’m a stay at home Mum to a five year old girl and a two year old boy. I haven’t slept in approximately two years (see previous sentence). And I’m about 80% through my first proper year of study at the Open University.

I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I was tentatively Googling it during the early days with my daughter, a period of great joy, and moderate discombobulation. I had a feeling I wanted to do something new, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to studying for six years (well, more like seven, with the Access course).

Then my health took a hit when I was diagnosed with an incurable nerve pain disorder. And we had our son, because it felt like a ‘now or never’ type situation with having another baby. Looking back on it, I think my health problems were really the final push to get the degree I’d been wanting for years, too. I don’t know how I will feel in ten years time. My pain levels might get better, or remain the same, or get significantly worse. Life seems that little bit more precious to me than it did before. And something about pain makes me feel less afraid.

Anyway, I took the plunge and applied, and now I’m taking a study break to chat about it, because that is one of the many perks of studying from home.

In this picture I am also eating leftover-from-birthday nougat and drinking leftover-from-birthday wine, although I don’t think either of those things are recommended by the O.U as study aides.

Here are some of the things I was worried about before taking the plunge and applying for the Access course:

  1. I don’t have enough time.
    I don’t have much time to study in the day. I have two kids. Although one of them is at school, the other has only just settled into a decent nap routine. They both wake between 5 and 6am, bright and perky and loud, and they keep going, relentlessly, until they crash into bed at 7pm. At which point my studying begins.The Access course takes around 9-10 hours of study a week, and the actual degree, 16 hours. At times, I am so efficient that I end up two weeks ahead of myself. At other times, we have busy weeks, or I have bad pain, or my kids get ill, and I find myself scrambling a bit to catch up. At all points so far, it has been doable.

    Also if you do decide to do this: be prepared for guilty feelings when you decide to binge-watch Glow of an evening instead of cracking out the books. Just a warning.

  2. I’m too tired.
    I have the Worlds Worst Sleeper in the form of our son. (I mean he’s probably in the top ten at least. In the entire world, I mean. Not exaggerating.) If I’m honest, my husband takes his share of the night wakings and a fair chunk of mine, too, but I’m still tired. A lot.

    To my surprise, I still enjoy studying, even when I’m bone-tired. I’m passionate about what I’m learning – and about my end goal – so I push through. There are nights where I am just too exhausted to continue, however, and when I hit that wall I call it a day and go to bed, guilt-free, knowing I can catch up the next day. That’s the good thing about studying flexibly: there are deadlines, but you can manage yourself and make it work for you

  3. I’m not smart enough.
    At one point I felt fairly confident in being a Clever Person, and then I lost that confidence somewhere over the years. But now I’m here, and I’ve realised that intelligence is not fixed: it’s all about growth, and pushing yourself, and being willing to work hard. The people getting the best grades might be naturally self-assured and confident, but a huge part of their success will stem from how hard they work.

    Honestly, I do feel more clever now, but not in a smug way. It’s more that I can feel my mind slowly opening up, and my world view shifting slightly as I go. It’s awesome, and challenging, and yes, at times, it’s overwhelming. But it’s good.

  4. I want to be perfect.
    I could talk more about this – in fact I probably will in another post – but I had this idea in my mind that I would be the best student. The one that makes flashcards and reads around the subject and does further research and aces all the assessments. But let’s be real: I’m not eighteen anymore. I’m thirty, and some days whilst studying, I have to stop myself from thinking about the kids or worrying about money or planning what we’re going to eat for tea tomorrow. Sometimes my notes are unintelligible. I’m not the perfect student – but that’s not the point, is it? Perfection isn’t what I’m aiming for. Good enough is what I’m aiming for.
  5. It’s self-indulgent.
    This was the hardest thing, I think. The feeling of utter selfishness. Of devoting myself to something that is, ultimately, just for my own benefit and enjoyment. This is obviously problematic. For one thing, I’m hoping that my degree will not only get me a career that I really want to be in, but a career that pays better than minimum wage, thus allowing my children a slightly easier time, financially, as teenagers and young adults. So, you know. They won’t be complaining when I’m paying for their phone contracts.

    But also: so what if I want something that’s just for me? Am I not allowed to have anything just for me? Since when has that been a bad thing? What a ridiculous idea, to think that because I am now a mother I have to lay down every moment of my waking life (and sleeping life, too) in case they, you know, need me or something.

    Education is worth something in itself. Not just for the end goal of a piece of paper, but for the challenge and the fun of it.

I completed the Access course with a distinction (94% on my EMA! Sorry. That’s the last time I’ll brag about it). Despite having a lot going on elsewhere. If you really want to do it: you make time for it.

I hope that this helps someone who is wondering whether or not to make the commitment. If you need more information about Access, click here.

Next time I’ll talk a bit more about how it actually works to study with the O.U. I’ll see you then!