She is never given a name, but the narrator of Private – Keep Out is a girl’s answer to Just William. She blends his curiosity, sense of adventure, utter lack of foresight with the same beautiful contempt for authority as he has, and treats her family with a world-weary resignation that Richmal Crompton’s hero does. It is a mixture that lives in the heart of every child. From refusing to be cowed by her dance teacher (real name Miss Nancy “but I call her Fancy Nancy”), who keeps trying to make her bend bits of herself that don’t bend (“’They don’t bend,” I tell her”), to her talent for exacting revenge on siblings sent to try her, to her commitment to recording her adventures on paper (Private – Keep Out is her diary), I revelled in her attitude and admire her stolid ploughing of her own furrow even more now than I did then.

And it’s funny. It made me laugh then, now and forever, more than any other book I own. It is pure joy in every way.

Kate Ruggles in The Family from One End Street

The second oldest child in the expansive eponymous clan in Eve Garnett’s 1930s classic The Family from One End Street has her heart set on a scholarship to the local grammar school and was basically the first nerd I met in fiction. Like me, she vexed her mother endlessly by daydreaming. She too looked forward to starting homework at big school. She wanted to go to “a big College-Place” and so did I. She wanted to study farming and, if I had ever discovered that land economy was a genuine subject at some of our oldest universities, I would have made it my life’s work to get there. I took her immediately to my bosom, and she lives there still.

Harriet Johson in White Boots

Dull of feature, plainly dressed and outshone at every turn (at least off the ice) by her effortlessly charming and glamorous friend – I was Harriet and Harriet was me. Ballet Shoes is Noel Streatfeild’s best-known work, but it was White Boots (and later Curtain Up) that captured my heart. Streatfeild’s insistence on the power of the work ethic (it is never enough in her books just to have talent – you must be a grafter too) was always deeply satisfying to me, and Harriet is the nonpareil of gifted grafters. Quiet, dogged, disciplined – I could do that. I had no talent for anything at all, but in all other important respects we were the same, and she kept me going.

Ramona Quimby

Ah, Ramona! I was twice her age when I first encountered Beverly Cleary’s four year old protagonist on Klickitat Street but I was in awe from the off. I loved her stubbornness, her inexhaustible curiosity, the noise she made, the exuberant fun she had and the space she unapologetically took up. I knew I would never be able to emulate it, but reading about her was like running through a strong, fresh breeze. She was also an antidote to the girls at school who were changing all around me and becoming, bafflingly, soppier and sappier by the day. Ramona’s spirit ran counter to it all. She hadn’t got the soppy-sappy memo either, and still preferred to wear trousers, still threw herself at the monkey bars and still sported the resulting scabs on her knees with pride. What’s not to worship?

Jo March in Little Women

Inevitably. There is not a bookworm alive who didn’t read Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece and seize on embryonic writer Jo as their Little Woman. Disappearing up to her garret to ‘scribble’! The hat whose angle showed if genius was burning or not! “Disappearing into the vortex” during the magic of creation. I longed to be as imaginative, inventive and independent of spirit as she. I still do. I also still want a horsehair sofa to stretch out on, but Ikea has so far failed to provide.

George from The Famous Five

Look, sometimes you don’t need to overthink these things, okay. Sometimes you just need an unrepentant tomboy with a dog and her own island to revere. And I did. Also, I have always admired the self-confidence of sulkers. Yes, George for the win, every time.

  • Bookworm

  • When Lucy Mangan was little, stories were everything. They opened up different worlds and cast new light on this one.

    She was whisked away to Narnia – and Kirrin Island – and Wonderland. She ventured down rabbit holes and womble burrows into midnight gardens and chocolate factories. No wonder she only left the house for her weekly trip to the library.

    In Bookworm, Lucy brings the favourite characters of our collective childhoods back to life and disinters a few forgotten treasures poignantly, wittily using them to tell her own story, that of a born, and unrepentant, bookworm.

  • Buy the book

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