I’m can’t help but balk at my refusal to read when I was a kid. I’m still like that today. Stubborn. I don’t like trying new things. No, I’ll say, shaking my head, grimacing, I wouldn’t like that. No thanks.
But you’ve never tried it, how do you know you don’t like it?
No, I know I know, I wouldn’t like it, no.
And that it is the exact conversation I had with my best friend Caroline over the Sweet Valley Twins book that she waved in front of me. It had been donated by her older neighbour and babysitter who knew about very grown up things like Doc Martins, kissing boys and discos. And we reckoned she had to shave under her arms. This book spelled ‘a.d.v.a.n.c.e.m.e.n.t.’ And I was having none of it.
I don’t do books with just writing I said. I wasn’t about to give up my picture books. No drawings, no reading.
But, being the wonderful friend she is, she didn’t listen to my nonsense and forced me home with the book and its sickly blue cover under my arm. At home, I flicked through the book and sighed. It looked so BORING. How could anyone just read page after page, with black lines and words and not one, not even one little sketch at any point to break up the BORING text and bookiness.
My eyes wandered over the first page and I thought, well I’ll read a little bit just to see how awful it is and then I can really tell Caroline how mean she is forcing me into something I didn’t want to do.
And so I did. And then I turned the page and I wanted to read more. And then the chapter ended and I wanted to know what happened next. And in a day and a half, I was at the end, every previous waking hour outside of necessary sleep and school, consumed by this one little ‘boring’ book.
I realised, that I had been mistaken, and I would have to go back and say, you were right; I was wrong. But the apology had to come because Caroline had a rake of Sweet Valley Twins books that I needed to borrow or I might actually die.
Once I’d read my first ‘real’ book, there was no going back. I dived right in. And here are the top ten books that helped form my childhood and influenced me in some way. What would yours be?
- Sweet Valley Twins, followed by Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal as mentioned above. I can’t really remember the stories; they’re significant because they got me to read.
- Matilda – Roald Dahl
I read every single one of Roald Dahl’s books when I was a child, even down to his own biographical book for adults. To me, is the greatest children’s writer there ever was. The breadth of his imagination, the characters he created and portrayed and his quirky way of looking at things in the world stick with me today. We have a picture hanging in our hallway that I bought because it reminded me of the little girl who is trapped in the painting forever in the witches. Matilda is a very empowering book for children, especially for little girls. It highlights the gift that is literature and the bane that is ignorance. It said: reading is ok – do it, a lot. And after I got over the fact that non-picture books wouldn’t actually bore me to death, I tried to be a bit like Matilda. At least without the psycho parents. And still with the ability to move shit with my eyes.
3) Under the Hawthorn Tree – Marita Conlon McKenna
The Irish potato famine was something that had been mentioned a few times to us, but we had little understanding of it until we read this book. Here, history, politics and the meaning of life was wrapped into one beautiful and powerful story. It taught us about sadness and death – that the unthinkable could happen – that the world is not run by Mr. Disney. And I’ve never looked at a hawthorn tree the same since.
4) The Hiring Fair – Elizabeth O’Hara
Santa brought me this lovely book when I was about 12. It tells the story of a Irish girl sent out to be a servant in the 1890s, through the timeline of Parnell. I gobbled it up and think a lot of my interest in Irish social history came from reading this. There were also a few life lessons – poverty, politics, birth, divorce. Imagine hiring your kids out now for a few quid. Do they accept husbands do you think?
5) Are you there God, it’s me Margaret – Judy Blume
Judy, Judy, Judy. If only you knew what your books meant to us when we were tweenagers. Margaret was looking for God, but we were looking for Judy. She was a queen, an angel, an author sent to teach us the mysteries of periods, hormones and how to shave your legs. She captured our feelings, our thoughts, our confusion and poured them into a range of spectacular books for twelve year old girls. Copies were passed around like grubby teenage bibles. What a lady. And my middle name is Margaret.
6) The Magic Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton
I was and still am a big Enid Blyton fan, even though she wrote about golliwogs and sit-me-downs and apparently neglected her own kids to write her collection of books for other children. They were of a different time, but they tickled our imaginations, brought us on adventures and made us crave midnight feasts and ginger beer. I loved the faraway tree because every branch was a different land and you didn’t know what was coming or where you were going. It was mystery, suspense and surprise, all rolled into one safe, polite adventure. From Enid, I learned manners. And she gave me a writing level to aim for. A million children’s books. And no less.
7) Babysitter’s Club Series – Ann M Martin
I can’t pick one book, because they were all pretty much the exact same and all I can really remember is that one of the girls ate tofu, which I thought my have been a type of white toffee you cooked on a pan and another (lucky bitch) had a telephone in her bedroom. (To get the calls about the babysitting jobs, obvs). But we devoured them anyway, longing for our own babysitting jobs and murder mysteries and lining up the books to form a nice little brick wall on our bookshelves. These books passed our childhood for us. They filled the boring afternoons and the long summer holidays. And they were grand. They kept us out of trouble.
8) Run with the wind, Tom McCaughren
I always loved animals and was a member of the RSPCA when I was kid – even writing campaigning letters to try and stop evils like bull-fighting and testing on animals. Tom McCaughren’s series about Irish foxes captured the spirit of animals and how children imagine animals might really live. It was similar to Watership Down I felt. It taught us to be kind to wildlife, to the environment, to those without a voice. And that you should mate for life; definitely if you can.
9) Boyne Valley Book and Tape of Irish Legends
This book came with a tape and I kept it for years before really tackling the stories. I learned about the Children of Lir, the Salmon and Knowledge and Tir na n-Og. I learned about my culture and heritage and the art of a good story. I learned that the Irish are a funny lot, but have some fabulous legends to tell. And I find the stories still weave their way through my own work. Not nostalgic atall, atall.
10) The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
I thought that this book would be too difficult for me. It was a classic, famous, like trying to tackle a Shakespeare. But I got through it very quickly and discovered that I needed to give myself more credit for my intelligence and trust in these magnificent authors. The TV series helped too though. Anyone else ball their eyes crying when Aslan is… well you need to read it, don’t you?
I was born in the 80s so my books and reading are influenced by what was popular in Ireland during this time and the 90s. What would you choose as your influential childhood books? Which do you still think about?