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The book my mum gave me: authors remember their most treasured literary gift

This Mother's Day, Penguin authors reflect on the inspirational books and stories their mothers left with them.  

Penguin authors on the book their mum gave them.

A book is often one of the most formative gifts you can give and receive; it can challenge you to see the world differently, whisk you away on an adventure or even teach you something new. 

From cookbooks to children's tales, six Penguin authors share the book that their mums gifted them, and why it stayed with them long after they finished reading.

Melissa Hemsley: ‘She is my greatest inspiration’

Melissa Helmsley

My parents are huge readers. As a family, whenever we got together, we'd always be in the library or stopping to browse secondhand bookshops. So this particular book is very special as it's one of the rare books that my mum bought outright and brand new! She gave it to me for my 30th birthday and it lives next to my bed because I (try to) read it every day. It's called Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy (the updated edition, it was published 1996) and it is jam-packed with practical, inspirational, positive and actionable advice (much like my mum!). It's also full of wisdom, but not worthy, and it's a bit cheeky too – as is she.

It dawned on me over the last few years how much of what my mum, Evangelina, told me to be true, has come true. So much of what I inwardly rebelled against and rolled my eyes at in my teens and twenties, I now cherish and find myself banging on about to anyone who will listen! She is my greatest inspiration and all my own books are dedicated to her, and reflective of her teachings to me.

Melissa Hemsley is author of Eat Green

Jack Rooke: ‘It contains so many of the lessons she tried to teach me along the way’

Jack Rooke

My mum and I maybe read Matilda 1000 times and watched the film 1000 more. It is still my favourite book because of how many universal themes it covers: friendship, kindness, greed, children being smarter than adults, control and agency, corruption, huge cakes, the ties of true family going beyond blood! It’s written so innocently yet confronts so many issues that affect us in adulthood, in a way that still sticks with me today. It’s a moral guide, of sorts. 

The times where Matilda’s dad despises experts, 'clever people' or those with an education feels very pertinent in today’s political climate.  

But I guess the book reminds me of my mum because I feel like Matilda contains so many of the lessons she tried to teach me along the way. Especially after we lost my dad when I was a teenager, the book completely shines on how a young protagonist uses literature, friendship and her own magic as a means of escaping and dreaming away pain.

'You seemed so far away,' Miss Honey whispered, awestruck. 'Oh, I was. I was flying past the stars on silver wings,' Matilda said. 'It was wonderful.'

Jack Rooke is author of Cheer The F**k Up

Sophie Mackintosh: ‘I loved to perch in the kitchen and talk to my mum’

Sophie Mackintosh

The book my mother gave me that I always remember was Nigella's How To Eat, when I went off to university. She has always been an amazing cook – her ginger cake is a thing of legend, winning the local village summer fair's baking prize an unprecedented three years in a row (I have been known to eat a loaf of it within an hour). I love cooking now but was shockingly bad at it back then, though I still loved to perch in the kitchen and talk to my mum, watching her deftly mixing, experimenting and teaching me without knowing. That's how reading How To Eat for the first time felt like for me – it was a book that reminded me that food isn't just sustenance, that cooking isn't just following recipes, that actually it's all full of love. Nigella took such delight in even the simplest recipes, and so I decided I would too. I did eat baked bean pasta a lot that first year of university, but I also learned to take joy in cooking; I know now that she couldn't have given me a better gift.

Sophie Mackintosh is author of The Water Cure

Clover Stroud: ‘Mum read aloud to us a lot’

Clover Stroud

Everything is sweeter remembered through the prism of childhood, isn’t it? My sister Nell and I shared a bedroom until we were teenagers, and when we were very small Mum lit a paraffin lamp in our room, which seems entirely magical now, and incredibly old-fashioned, even though this was only the 1980s! Mum read aloud to us a lot: I think she chose writing that was quite wild and adventurous, which made a strong imprint on my life and how I bring my children up now. I remember Mum reading a very exciting and strange book called The Black Riders by Violet Needham, with a secret rebel leader called Far Away Moses and a hero called The Stormy Petrel. Those kinds of names stay with you into adulthood, like a distant and half-forgotten secret code, which when remembered can take me back to hazy memories of being a small child.  

Although I loved Needham’s writing, the book that really stays with me is My Friend Flicka, about a boy, Ken, growing up on the Goose Bar Ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming, with a difficult father and dreamy, loving mother, called Nell. The book is full of the details of ranch life and the freedom of an existence under the big skies, when Ken tries to break a beautiful wild mustang called Flicka. Ken’s fortunes are inextricably linked to that of Flicka’s, and suffice to say, both horse and boy depend on one another for survival. The book made a huge impression on me and in my twenties I went to America, searching for a ranch where I could work as a cowgirl. I stayed in Texas for two years, riding in rodeos and working on a ranch, an experience which has had a profound and lasting effect on me. I am pleased, too, that it will soon be time to share this beautiful story with my younger children, Evangeline, Dash and Lester.

Clover Stroud is author of My Wild and Sleepless Nights

Nikita Lalwani: ‘She talked up an incantatory mist of tales whilst cooking or cleaning’

Nikita Lalwani

My mother’s main method of disseminating stories and receiving them has always been verbal. As a child, I’d sit on our kitchen worktop in Cardiff while she prepared our meals and listen to her recount events from her own life growing up on the outskirts of Delhi, as one of eight siblings in a sprawling household, later as a young bride trying to adjust to a new household, to giving birth, to moving to a new country entirely. These stories, imbued with nostalgia, judgement, propaganda, hearsay, outrage, hilarity and what-could-have-beens, were often mashed up with remembered narratives from Indian cinema in the sixties and seventies, parables from the Bhagavad Gita, and historical events (the partition of India, mass migration, Gandhi, the works).

Her mother did the same apparently: talked up an incantatory mist of tales whilst cooking or cleaning. Thus, my training as a novelist began with this very egalitarian idea – that anyone can create fiction, given the desire and inclination, and that any fragment of experience or glittering thread of overheard ‘truth’ is fair game for the magpie’s nest. Mum never gave me a physical book per se – my father was the one who would go and buy a random shelf’s worth from a charity shop as a kind of lucky dip – but she gave me access to something else, mythic in its dimensions, and I’ll always be grateful for that. 

Nikita Lalwani is author of You People

Jane Corry: ‘She put little cards and photographs inside’

Jane Corry

My mother was nine when her mother died, in 1940, during the war. She was brought up by a strict aunt who packed her off to boarding school. There she met her best friend Beth whose mother Thelma often invited her to stay during the holidays. When my mother died, aged 56 in 1987, I found she’d left me a book called Daily Strength for Daily Needs which Thelma had given her, with a beautiful inscription on the cover page.

At first sight, it looked rather saintly. Then I discovered that many of the sayings were a mixture of secular and religious which provided great inspiration for my days. Mummy had written family birthdays on the relevant pages so I now know when my grandmother’s birthday was and many others, now long gone. She had also put little cards and photographs inside, including one of my eldest son, her first grandchild. It gives me a warm feeling to see her handwriting on the back.

I make a habit of reading my most precious book every night before I go to bed. Although it was first printed in 1904, it has great relevance today. I frequently give it as a present to friends going through rough times. But most of all, it makes me feel close to my mother.

Jane Corry is author of I Made a Mistake.

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