We’re delighted to introduce our new guest contributor; journalist, author and self proclaimed Puffin, Lucy Mangan. Lucy will be sharing her memories from her favourite children’s books and the experience of rediscovering them as an adult and a parent and more, exclusively for the Penguin Blog.
My parents called me – by which I mean “generally explained me to friends as” – a bookworm. My husband – bookish himself but still impressed/exasperated by my capacity to sit reading on the sofa for hours calls me “technically, a mineral”.
They are both right, in a way. But more specifically and accurately, I am a Puffin. I still have all my beloved childhood books, 98% of whose spines are decorated with Kaye Webb’s black-and-white babies. To look along my bookshelves now is to relive hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) of happy memories with The Family From One End Street, The Bullerby Children, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Borrowers, of afternoons discovering What Katy Did, living in The Little House on the Prairie and exploring The Secret Garden. The Fossils, Milly-Molly-Mandy, Sara Crewe, Mildred Hubble and the Melendy children were all my friends, as vividly alive and real as any of those flesh and blood kids I kept bumping into in the playground and far less likely to force me into games of British Bulldog and experimentations with Emma Bradshaw’s asthma medicine, neither of which tended to end well.
I read them so often when I was young, when my brain was absorbent and my heart a soft, expansive thing instead of the calcified, embittered organs they respectively are today, that they are forever part of me. I could no more forget Kate Ruggles’ lost school hat, Edmund Pevensie’s first taste of Turkish Delight or Donovan Croft’s tears than I could forget my own name.
There is not much to be said for growing up – except that there comes a point when you start re-reading old favourites and realise that not only are the historic pleasures are still there – and heightened by fond memories of the first time round – but that this time, as an adult, you begin to appreciate everything else. The delicate working of a Milly Molly Mandy story – “miniature masterpieces” Frank Cotrell Boyce called them a few years ago, the bravery of subject and the brilliance of execution in Summer of My German Soldier, the underlying melancholy of the story of dispossessed Arietty, Homily and Pod – these are things you benefitted from years ago but didn’t necessarily appreciate until now. The child you were lives again, but alongside an adult who can marvel at technique, at immaculate plotting, at all the things that go together to make up the worlds you stepped into again and again so easily, so willingly, so very, very delightedly when you were young. It’s a double perspective that makes the books stand revealed to you anew. Who doesn’t want that? (Unless you’ve recently had a baby, by the way, and are thinking of renewing your acquaintance with the nuclear-apocalyptic fiction of the 70s and 80s. Don’t. Brother in the Land, Z for Zachariah, Children of the Dust – these will destroy you. Trust me, I did it and part of me is broken for ever.)
The only other good thing about growing up is earning money. Don’t dwell on the fact that these days your disposable income is probably only slightly more in real terms than you were getting for pocket money thirty years ago, but on the fact that it is at least entirely yours to do what you want with. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been using mine to buy more children’s books and fill in all the gaps I didn’t even know were there when I was young. We forget that children are at the mercy of so many gatekeepers between them and their books. My dad bought me most of mine, so my collection is heavy on the solid, hearty fare of the 1940s and 50s stuff he knew. If he didn’t know it and it wasn’t in our local library or WH Smith, I didn’t know about it either.
Armed with my own credit card and knowledge that second-hand bookshops (still, just) exist, I’ve since discovered the historical fiction of Barbara Willard and Cynthia Harnett (both, I think, out of print at the time), Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, Gillian Avery AND OH MY GOD DID YOU KNOW THAT THERE ARE ELEVEN OTHER BOOKS FROM THE WORLD OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE? I did not realise it was part of a series until a very few years ago. (Younger readers, you must remember two things – a) I grew up in a world without the internet and b) I am very stupid.)
I hope with this blog we can revisit some of the classics together, share our own stories about stories, fill in other gaps for each other (if you’re a Marianne Dreams fan, for example, have you also read Catherine Storr’s Thursday? Do you know you can get hold of some of the books Noel Streatfeild and Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote for adults now? And that Jill Murphy is still writing The Worst Witch books?) and have a look at some of the wonderful new stuff too that Puffin and Ladybird is always producing.
Happy reading, my friends. I hope nobody forces you into any games of British Bulldog before we meet again.
The full range of Puffin Classics, all with brand new covers for 2015, are available to buy from 5th March.