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.
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.
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.
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.