Every reader has a story about the moment in their childhood that the world of books was revealed to them, when reading turned from hobby to obsession. Here are some of ours.
by Jacqueline Wilson (1995) Double Act
It wasn’t entirely reasonable of me, looking back now, to approach my mother in a flood of tears in the middle of the night and demand to know why I didn’t have a twin brother. But I’d just finished the last page of
Double Act, and was experiencing something for the first time in my seven years of life: the exquisite pain of finishing a book you truly love.
Thousands of young people fall for
Jacqueline Wilson every year. But I think she holds a special place for those children who, for whatever set of reasons, find life at home difficult. Her special gift – aside from her wicked sense of humour – is her ability to reach out to readers through her troublesome and troubled, brave and clever characters and envelope them in a deep feeling of empathy. Whatever it is you’re going through, she gets it.
I adored all Wilson's heroines, from Tracy Beaker to Elsa the Bed and Breakfast Star. But it was the story of Ruby and Garnet, the identical twin sisters who were so very different (Ruby wanted to be an actress; Garnet preferred books), who loved each other but had to learn to grow apart, that taught me books can reveal feelings you didn't know you had.
By Sam Parker
by Anita Desai (1979) The Peacock Garden
In all honesty, it’s my mum who deserves the credit for the moment in which I truly fell in love with books.
I grew up being taken to my local library every Saturday, and distinctly remember a summer holiday in which I took part in a reading challenge there. The prize for reading a set number of books was… another book.
As I stood in front of a table of titles, agonising over which one to choose, my mum nudged me firmly towards
The Peacock Garden by Anita Desai. I was reluctant; it just didn’t seem like the kind of book I’d been reading up to that point.
But my mum saw at the time what I couldn’t: a book that showed that people like me (Muslim, of Pakistani heritage) could be the subject of stories. With its cover of a brown girl wearing shalwar kameez, like the women in my family did, and its story of a family during Partition,
The Peacock Garden was a reflection of my present, and an insight into the collective history of the country of my parents. How could I not fall in love with reading after that?
By Sarah Shaffi
by Roald Dahl (1988) Matilda
Of all the
Roald Dahl books I greedily devoured as a child, none captured my imagination quite so profoundly as Matilda, the 1988 story of a precocious five-year-old with magical abilities, out to wreak havoc on all the silly grown-ups of the world.
I can still feel the gasping claustrophobia of The Chokey, the cloying sweetness of Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake, that insatiable sense of satisfaction when one of her practical jokes played out to perfection. For bookish children everywhere, it was (and remains) the perfect adventure: funny, silly, with a genuine sense of danger and a satisfying beat-the-odds conclusion. Matilda was (and still is) the brave, free-spirited girl I aspire to be.
By Fran Pymm
by Shel Silverstein (1974) Where the Sidewalk Ends
There are two types of schoolchildren, I think: those who hate being asked to read aloud in class, and those whose arms, before the teacher has even finished asking, are wagging in the air for their attention. I was firmly, I’m sorry to say, in the latter category. Don’t blame me; it’s
Shel Silverstein’s fault.
In my school, Silverstein’s 1974 poetry debut
Where the Sidewalk Ends was ubiquitous, and in reading his work aloud, my latent love of reading flourished. Sounding out words, always a growing pain for young readers, became a thrill in reading Silverstein’s absurdist poems aloud, where I learned the joyful power of meter and cadence, and the satisfaction of paying off a line’s tension with an ending rhyme. If I was ever unsure of a word’s pronunciation, I could deduce it by combining my fledgling understanding of rhyme with the trust that somewhere in the lines above or below, Silverstein had provided the necessary rhyming point of reference.
I’m still not sure why we were allowed to read
Sidewalk; like Lemony Snicket or Roald Dahl, Silverstein’s work was silly enough for children but imbued with a sense of danger that made them feel strangely illicit, referencing the occult, violence and, particularly, disrespect for parents and authority. As a result, Where the Sidewalk Ends isn’t just a source of nostalgia, but a timeless educational classic.
By Stephen Carlick
by Dick King-Smith (1991) Sophie Hits Six
I can’t remember where
Sophie Hits Six emerged from; probably the local library, which my mum would take us to weekly. And really, it was less that specific title than King-Smith’s entire ‘Sophie’ series: a rambunctious collection of stories about its titular heroine, the youngest of three children who runs wild on an English farm. There were some parallels: my family moved to a rural farming village when I was four (Sophie’s age when the series starts), of which I too was the precocious youngest of three.
But I more associated with Sophie’s depiction – scruffy, hand-me-down jumper, wellies, mud – and proto-feminist determination (to be a “Lady Farmer”, fulfilled by her stashing away her “farm money”) than her obsession with animals. A fierce tomboy, I never was much one for princesses or fairies that dominated the children’s pop culture landscape in the early 90s. But in Sophie I saw a little of myself.
By Alice Vincent
by Roald Dahl (1985) The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
I must have been about eight when I read Roald Dahl's most underrated classic (in my opinion),
The Giraffe the Pelly and Me, and it changed how I saw books and friendship. In it, a young boy named Billy dreams of turning an old house into a sweetshop, but finds that the house has already been bought – by a giraffe, a pelican, and a monkey. How did the trio make the money to buy the house? They run the Ladderless Window Cleaning Company in which the giraffe is the ladder, the pelican holds the water and the monkey does the cleaning.
They go on sorts of adventures together, from fixing a hole in the pelican's beak to catching the world’s most famous cat burglar, as they work together to make Billy’s dream come true. But what really hit me was the world Dahl created, in which friendship is the most powerful thing of all. For a boy of eight, not only did it give me my first taste of the life-affirming power of friendship, trust and loyalty, but also how comforting great stories can be.
Like Dahl writes, “All you do is to look / At a page in this book / Because that’s where we always will be. / No book ever ends / When it’s full of your friends / The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.”
By Matt Blake
by Beatrix Potter (1901) The Tale of Peter Rabbit
It must be over 20 years since I first read
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, yet I can still recall that nervous fear I felt until Peter was finally (spoiler alert!) safely out of Mr McGregor’s garden – without his new coat and in his mother’s bad books, sure, but unharmed. (Phew! He’d only wanted some veggies…)
The book’s title – the first of
Beatrix Potter’s tales – is alone enough to evoke nostalgia and memories of reading as a child, memories I’m reminded of each time I’m in the Lake District, where Potter lived and where I often visit with my family. Whether the beautifully illustrated story of animals and adventures outdoors influenced my own love of the countryside, or the other way round, it undoubtedly sparked a love of reading and books. And almost 120 years since it was published, it’s still doing the same.
By Stephanie Tait