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.

Teach us to pray – Gordon T.Smith

The Details

Author: Gordon T.Smith

Genre/category: Non-fiction/Christian life

Where can I buy it? Here

Release date: 17th April 2018

Review

There are a lot of books about prayer. Tons and tons of them. I’ve read a few. There have been points in my life in which I have found prayer the simplest, most natural thing. And there have been other times when I’ve struggled with it, and it seemed like a reasonable response to turn to a book.

This book is the one I could have done with finding years ago.

Teach Us To Pray is a direct book. It doesn’t waffle. It doesn’t go off on tangents. It explains what it needs to explain clearly and left me feeling informed and prepared, as opposed to overwhelmed and a bit confused.

The book covers three main principles – thanksgiving, confession, and discernment. Smith explains each of these briefly, and then in detail, explaining how each one is vital to deepen and enrich our prayer lives. Smith is obviously very well informed, but he makes it simple to understand.

It’s a small book, but sometimes less is more. Smith’s words drove me to want to pray more, which is probably the best praise I can give it. I’d recommend it anyone who needs a boost in their prayer life, or a reminder of what the basics are.

cover128086-medium5stars

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Paramnesia – Brian Wilkinson

I am a book reviewer for NetGalley, which means I received this book for free in exchange for a review. Click here for more information.

The Details

Author: Brian Wilkinson

Genre/category: Young Adult/Fantasy/Paranormal

Release date: 18th Sept 2018

Review

The premise of Paramnesia is this:

Nora Edwards is on her way home from prom with her boyfriend, Andrew, when the pair are suddenly attacked by a demon-like creature called The Revenant. Andrew dies in the attack, but Nora survives, forever marked by a scar – and the ability to see dead people.

Two things:

  1. I generally like YA. It’s not my favourite genre, but I do enjoy it.
  2. I went off dystopian/fantasy/sci-fi/whatever YA novels (nothing ever matched up to the Hunger Games for me.) But something about the plot of Paramnesia really appealed to me. It felt like an episode of Buffy or X-Files or something, both of which are happy nostalgic places for me.

So that’s the context. Here are my thoughts:

I didn’t like Paramnesia.

Oh, I hate writing negative reviews, but I do have reasons for not liking it.

First, I’ll explore what happens after Nora wakes up from the crash: essentially, she sees ghosts everywhere, all the time. That’s the first thing. Her boyfriend is just kind of hanging around with her. A doctor diagnoses her with paramnesia, a disorder that makes people confuse dreams with reality. People at school, when she eventually returns, think she is going insane. Also, the Revenant wants to kill her.

Nora deals with all this surprisingly well.

Like, really well.

I mean initially, yes, she’s heartbroken and confused. But she seems to just take it. All of it. She’s referred to as ‘strong’, so I think she’s supposed to be a kind of kick-ass determined character. But it just comes across as her being a bit one-dimensional. I know having your boyfriend’s ghost hanging around kind of interferes with the grieving process but I wanted to see her struggle a bit – with her new found powers, with her injuries, anything. Any of the struggles she did have fell a bit flat for me. It just didn’t feel real. We are told that Nora feels things, but she doesn’t show it.

I think I started to connect to Nora about two-thirds of the way into the book, when she reflects upon her childhood playing in the woods. But by then a lot of book had passed.

The whole thing felt a bit unreal. (Yes I know it’s a book about a girl that can see ghosts). The thing is, a really good story with supernatural elements in it will be grounded enough in it’s own reality to make the supernatural parts feel realistic. But they don’t in this book. And to be totally fair, I don’t know whether it’s me, whether I’m just too old to enjoy YA in the same way anymore, but I just didn’t connect with any of the characters. They just didn’t feel real enough to me. I didn’t particularly care what happened to them, so when the emotional parts happened I wasn’t able to feel what I was supposed to be feeling.

It also contained some really frustrating moments. At one point, Nora’s parents allow her to be taken away to some kind of specialist hospital. Only she doesn’t go there – she goes to meet with her ghost crew (The Deadish Society). Not once to Nora’s parents follow up on that. They don’t call. They don’t swing by to check on her. Their daughter is having a mental breakdown and they don’t even care about what kind of treatment she’s getting? I really hate that about YA novels/TV shows – the lack of parental involvement. It’s a really tired trope. It’s extra annoying, because I got the feeling through reading (and later found out that it’s true) that Wilkinson is a parent himself, because he writes quite a nice passage about Nora appreciating her parents and realising how much they’ve done for her. But then he ruins it by making her parents not care about her well-being (or whereabouts) at all.

There’s more stuff to be said – there are a fair few cheesy lines (I mean really cheesy. Like after-the-killing-90’s-Buffy-One-Liner cheesy. Also, Nora’s power is later used through her scar, which is near her eye, and at one point a line actually reads ‘Nora powered up her eye’ which made me burst out laughing). The Exposition Scenes feel like, well, Exposition Scenes, and the fight scenes are pretty formulaic (he said this, she did this, this did that, she fell over, then this happened) and didn’t feel that exciting to read.

However, having given this a thorough bashing, here are some good things about Paramnesia:

  • The concept was really interesting.
  • Some of the ghost characters were really unique.
  • I liked Nora and Andrew’s relationship after he dies – they’re both sort of coming to terms with it in their own way, and Andrew’s response to everything felt more real to me than Nora’s.
  • There were a few really well-written passages in there, a couple of profound moments. Like the line ‘That was the goal of the parent – to become unnecessary’ which made me nod and then go and give my children extra long hugs.

That’s my opinion, though – I think there’s promise within this book, but the execution wasn’t as good as it could have been. The full title of this is Paramnesia: The Deadish Chronicles, Book 1. I’ll be interested to find out where the series goes, but probably not enough to read the books that follow.

paramnesia2 stars

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