This month, Lucy Mangan muses on her childhood favourites, and how passing them down a generation can result in a shared love, or potentially sever even the closest of bonds.
Re-reading your childhood favourites as an adult is a strange experience. Your previous selves shuffle in and out of prominence within you. The child you were when you first read it and loved it. The child you were as you grew out of it and disdained it (a misguided but necessary phase). The adolescent you were who returned to it as comfort reading when the newly-hormonal world Out There became too much to bear. And your adult self overseeing the rest, who has come full circle and loves it unreservedly, wholeheartedly again. Except that now with your grown-up mind you can also – at least until the story sucks you in and under once more – see more of how it’s all put together, more of the workings, how it’s done. Sometimes this is an additional delight – like understanding a neurosurgeon’s movements or a dancer’s technique can make you marvel all the more at their accomplishments – and sometimes it has the saddening effect of letting daylight in upon magic.
When you read them to your child, you add several more layers of complexity and, not infrequently, perplexity. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, for example, could have been our first biblio-link between generations. Instead, my inner three year old wrestled with the envy occasioned by my son’s edition, which had a finger puppet attached which you could poke through the holes said caterpillar munched through the book while my adult self took periodic breaks from marvelling at the solidity of Eric Carle’s story structure, the endless usefulness of the whole butterfly-as-metaphor thing (which renews itself and is reborn for each generation! Do you see?! Do you see?!) to rage against the whole pollution-by-puppet of what should have been a pure reading experience.
(This is all while my mother-self inwardly cried with delight and sorrow at the fleeting nature of youth, pleasure and innocence, the frailty of human connection and the fragility of shared history, which is why mother-selves have to ingest more gin and chocolate than is technically good for the other selves. But that’s another column.)
We have done better since then, discovering a shared love of Mog the cat, Would You Rather…, Hairy McClary, Spot the dog (I got that joke for the first time literally as I typed it out. Bring me more gin), The Snowman and Father Christmas, along with mutual worship of The Wombles, horrified fascination with Where the Wild Things Are and abject fear of The Cat in the Hat (which has gone Back in the Box).
A near-severing of relations was occasioned by his rejection of The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark without even hearing the first chapter but was averted by a) his father pointing out that I am a grown woman who should be able to take these things less personally and b) a recognition that we do share an abiding mistrust of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. There are two types of person in this world – those who long for a tiger to arrive at the door and disturb the domestic scene and those who absolutely don’t. My son is the product of two fully-paid up members of the latter and lives his life, and chooses his books, accordingly.
Even more pleasingly than this, I have learned although there is on the whole very little to be said for having children (as Victoria Wood noted, they can’t crack jokes, they can’t shift pianos), they do provide the only legitimate excuse for buying up all the books you remember seeing but, for one reason or another, didn’t manage to get your hands on when you were young. Most of the Meg and Mog books – technically available in the school library but not to anyone smaller or slower than Simon Sullivan – are now mine including the newest one, Meg and the Dragon, so IN YOUR MASSIVE FACE, SULLIVAN! The Jolly Postman too, which is 30 years old next year, can you believe? A special anniversary edition is coming them but for now I am perfectly content merely to have an intact version instead of the poor, shredded thing from my sister’s toybox.
And I’m keeping a mental list of all those books that were published long past my own childhood and which I hope will be passed down to the next generation. I want Once Upon an Alphabet, The Day the Crayons Quit, The Book With No Pictures and a hundred more to be going strong another ten, twenty, thirty years from now, to join all the other books that are and have been a joy to me, to my son, millions of others – all our many, many selves.