Standing on the shoulders of gnats

Gratuitous Thundercats picture

I’m a fully paid-up member of Generation Y – you know, the one that’s meant to be incapable of putting away its childish things and properly growing up. So, in between watching classic episodes of Thundercats on Youtube and snogging my Rick Astley posters, I thought I’d have a go at blogging about some of the books I remember from childhood – the ones that inspired me, informed me and ultimately made me want to write myself. In other words, the ‘giants’ of the literary canon.

The Worthy Stuff

I guess this is the bit where I’m supposed to wax lyrical about my precocious love for the classics – how I devoured The Secret Garden, sped through Treasure Island and wept over Little Women before moving seamlessly on to meatier stuff like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. But that wouldn’t be entirely true. We’ve talked a lot on my MA course about what constitutes a ‘classic’ children’s novel, and why some books are admitted to the pantheon of literary greats while others are left out in the cold. A lot of it has to do with snobbery, and the power wielded by adult parents, teachers and authors over what children read. My personal definition of a classic is anything my parents would have deemed ‘educational’. My parents were suckers for anything ‘educational’. Being an observant sort of kid, I worked out early on that I could get pretty much anything I wanted, providing I could come up with some tenuous way that it would further my intellectual development. This might not, in reality, have led to any great enlightenment, but it certainly led to some bumper Christmasses.

Pony Porn

And so I had whole shelves of appropriately wholesome and edifying books, many of which I never actually got round to reading. Some of them I genuinely loved – I thought Heidi was great, and I remember racing through Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. But the books I remember most clearly from my formative years aren’t the ones my parents would have approved of –  and they certainly don’t belong to any ‘canon’. In fact, in most cases they’d be considered (whisper it!) rather lowbrow.

During my preteen pony-fetish phase, for instance, when I nearly bankrupted my parents by demanding weekly lessons and all the accompanying kit before abruptly tiring of all things equine, I insisted on reading absolutely anything that had the world ‘pony’ in the title. All of these books were pretty much interchangeable: Pony Club Cup, Pony Club Camp, Pony Club Orgy – you get the idea. Their literary value was secondary to their ability to describe horses in spectacularly florid language, some of which would put Fifty Shades of Grey to shame: He was a magnificent bay stallion, a pure-bred Arab, whose rippling muscles were much in evidence beneath his glossy withers. OK, so I just made that up, but I exaggerate only slightly. I absolutely lapped up this kind of stuff when I was eight.

Then there were the school books – I was addicted to the Chalet School series, all 58 of which are similarly identical, except that here you replace the word ‘pony’ with a 1940s Euro-posh girl’s name, as in Carola Storms the Chalet School/Lavender Laughs in the Chalet School/Theodora and the Chalet School etc. Indeed, I may have my past obsession with all things Alpine to blame for eventually opting to study German at university, a decision that I’m still recovering from now.

The Chalet School girls’ exploits segued smoothly into those of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High series, which was in a broadly similar vein except that boys, kissing and fashion replaced the latent sapphic tendencies of the Chalet School girls. Even at 10 or 11 I recognised that these books were appallingly written; every single Sweet Valley book started off with a description of the Wakefield twins’ ‘silky blond hair’, ‘perfect size 6 figures’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes the blue-green of the Caribbean’. And they were horribly all-American – the boys were all called things like Todd and Bruce and Chad. And yet I loved them still.

The end of primary school marked the end of school stories and the start of my Judy Blume period. (‘Period’ being a highly appropriate word, given that Judy Blume was a tad obsessed with the things.) There was Are You There God?, It’s Me, Margaret, and Blubber and Tiger Eyes. And then, of course, there was Forever, which made its way around the class in a kind of sacred adolescent ritual, each sweaty-palmed twelve-year-old passing it on silently but knowingly to their successor. At least, the kids who got it at the beginning might have passed it on knowingly – by the time it got to me it was only about three chapters long, anxious parents long since having removed anything faintly risqué. I had to go and read the rest in the Enfield branch of Ottakar’s while my dad lurked in the gardening section.

Having been duly enlightened by Forever, my next literary passion was Virginia Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series. These books had everything: Sex! (And not just any sex, but incest, which was simultaneously horribly wrong and weirdly compelling) Dwarves! (Actually twins who had stunted growth because they’d been kept in a windowless attic for five years). Wonderfully implausible plotlines! (Hmm…a heroine who spends her entire adolescence locked in an attic becomes a world-class ballerina on her release? ) Not to mention characters who, way before the Kardashians, had satisfyingly alliterative names: Cathy – Chris – Carrie – Cory – Corrine. Just brilliant.

Never trust a clown.

And then there were the horror stories, which I started reading around the time of the inevitable ‘Sleepover, Pizza And Scary Video’ phase – lots of Stephen King, and one book whose title I’ve forgotten (Witch Spell? Witch Child?) which involved people being decapitated by hockey balls and the main character doing unspeakable things with a crucifix in the bath. That one terrified me so much that I convinced myself the book itself was ‘haunted’, and at one point couldn’t sleep with it in my room. Overactive imagination, moi?

How does all this literary nostalgia relate to my own writing? Well, it’s hardly rocket science – basically, it’s reminded me that whatever I write should be enjoyable to read. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty high-minded kind of girl where books are concerned – I studied literature-based subjects at university, I’ve worked for a literary publishing company and I’ve spent the past five years trying to wean the children I teach off series fiction like Animal Ark, My Secret Unicorn and those ubiquitous Rainbow Fairies. But, don’t you know, it turns out that, when it comes to sheer emotional engagement with what I read, my tastes are determinedly lowbrow. None of these books are ‘classics’ in the usual sense of the word, but I remember most of them much more vividly than all the worthy tomes that were quietly gathering dust on my bookshelf. Well-meaning parents may buy books because they’re ‘classics’ – but children choose to read them because they’re fun. And if my readers happen to learn something while they’re having fun, then that’s all to the good.

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25 thoughts on “Standing on the shoulders of gnats

  1. You’ve reminded me of my long-buried Blyton addiction, which progressed to the Chalet School of course. Also a massive murder mystery phase in the first years of secondary school, not only the entirety of Agatha Christie but Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers. Not sure how I, too managed to also read so much ‘quality’ literature along the way! Less homework in those days, I suspect and no mobile phones or instant messaging

  2. I remember going though an R.L. Stine phase. I went to a small Christian private school in 6th grade and remember the teacher confiscating one of my books. I later got a huge lecture on how I was the anti-Christ for reading them… or something along those lines! lol 🙂

  3. I have loved sharing my childhood favorites with my own kids — in fact, my daughter and I are currently reading “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” together. Such GREAT memories!

    Sweet Valley High … hahaha! I had forgotten all about those…

    Fun post. 🙂

  4. Extending your point further, parents sometimes paradoxically take the fun out of the “classics” by giving them classic stature. Many “classics” were so popular in their day.

  5. Great post..My parents taught me to read for the most part, but once I got the hang of it I was staying up WAY past my bedtime reading Goosebumpbs under the covers. While Goosebumps is not considered a classic as far as true literary children’s books are concerned, they pretty much served as the foundation for my love of reading and writing from a very young age.

    If a book can do that, it’s a classic in my mind

  6. Sounds like my parents were the same as yours. The educational thing is the reason I got computer games instead of an SNES or a Genesis (if only I could have convinced them that Megaman and Sonic the Hedgehog had educational value.)

    I loved reading as a kid, though, both “classics” and low-brow kid stuff. Some of the titles on our required reading lists were deadly dull, though.

  7. Great post! Almost glad I missed the “Sweet Valley High” era. Sadly, I was not much of a reader growing up. I did read every American Girl book I could find, along with a fair amount of non-fiction and animal stories too. This lead to a love of small-town libraries, which lead to the job I have now: processing books for a small library. Every time an American Girl book comes in, I still have to remind myself to let the kids read it first!

  8. My passion as a 12 year old was Edgar Rice Burroughs books. And I was still reading them as a 16 year old in high school. I remember my Honors English teacher catching me reading Burroughs’ “The Rider” and just snorting, “Burroughs” since he thought I should at least be reading Hemingway. I can’t get past a few paragraphs of Burroughs all these years later–too much purple prose–but I definitely resist the urge to comment on my eight year old daughter’s choices when she picks up a book about kittens rather than reading The Secret Garden. Like you, my childhood choices taught me something about how to connect with readers even if I didn’t know it at the time. Maybe the same will be true of my daughter 20 years from now.

  9. Hi, just stumbled across this and was struck by the pony club book reference. My younger sisters used to read these all the time and I found that they were excellent to relax with after a day of studying for exams while I was at law school (many years ago).

    I am delighted to see that you have a genuine Pony Club book by Josephine Pullein-Thompson. As I recall there were 3 sisters who all wrote pony books – Josephine, Christine and another one. Possibly Diana. I read tons of ’em.

  10. I think people forget that reading should be fun and get caught up on it being educational – which it is as well, but fun and learning aren’t separate (ha! I sound like a crazy teacher – oh well, teachers are frequently right). The thing about encouraging children to read (and so in reality everyone) is that is has to be fun, no one’s going to waste their time with things that aren’t and they’re certainly not going to look back fondly on them. As a kid my favorite books were by Jacqueline Wilson and Enid Blyton, but even as a 10 year old I felt the need to struggle through Charles Dickens (I was a book snob from a young age) and I can’t remember any of his books that I read at that age.

  11. This post was a lot of fun! It made me think of Umberto Eco’s novel “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” where he talks a lot about how pulp fiction and kid’s adventure stories really inspire you, far more than those so-called classics do.

  12. ahhh, I love Heidi! And Sweet Valley High! My favorite one is That Final Night which starred Terri and Ken and Lila Fowler! Stephen King…Sleepwalkers and Chiristine are great reads! I like the thundercats too. Very nice post!

  13. I love this post. I remember forcing myself through ‘classics’ but inevitably bolting for the Nancy Drew collection and Ms. Judy Blume.
    You are fun to read as well!

  14. I’m glad my parents encouraged book obsession when I was young. My love of reading came from Encyclopedia Brown, then the Hardy Boys which led to Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, Robert Crais, etc. My old Hardy Boy Case Files still have a space on my bookshelf.

    I think we put a little too much of an aura on ‘classics’. I remember reading Proust’s Swan’s Way about 8 years ago and thinking, “why hadn’t anyone ever told me how funny this was.” People held it up as a pinnacle of literature, but no one ever added: it’s also quite entertaining. I think the same happens with kids. They might avoid some really good books because it can seem like it’s ‘required’ or ‘something you’ll have to read for school’ as opposed to just fun and subsequently miss out on some really good books.

  15. Gotta say, I missed a lot of these things just because I was too busy reading about the space program and anything Carl Sagan wrote. 🙂 I was definitely the weird kid in school — I can still name all the Mercury and Gemini astronauts in order of flight. I think I memorized them while everyone else had their noses buried in V. C. Andrews …

  16. To be honest I’d mostly been into sci-fi and the odd bit of fantasy myself. Mostly liked short stories. Can’t recall all of the authors, mind, except what I was reading in my very late teens (bit of Clarke, Asimov, Terry Pratchett… with fantasy it was very much the comic sort!). Can recall a ‘brand’ entitled Point Fantasy or Point SF.

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