Books that changed my life, for International Children's Book day
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The 2nd of April is International Children’s Book day, and is celebrated on the birthday of Danish children’s author Hans Christian Andersen. I love a day which celebrates anything literary!
Growing up in a pre-digital age and on a Welsh hillside where the sheep population outnumber the humans, it is fair to say that books were a hugely important escape during my childhood. My birthday list for several years read simply – books! I am a writer and an English teacher so it’s no exaggeration to say that reading has changed my life.
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Anne of Green Gables by E.M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables was a firm favourite, and the first in the series by E.M Montgomery. Anne is a young orphan from the fictional community of Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia and is sent to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Anne is tenacious and brave, full of life and stubborn. She is fanciful and imaginative and dreams of being a writer (I’m still dreaming) and with her long red hair (like mine, only brown) I wanted to be her. Anne taught me that girls were just as good as boys (and sometimes better!), that imagination - whilst it could lead you into trouble - was a good thing, and that most importantly it was ok to be odd.
Summer of my German Soldier by Bette Greene
During my eleventh summer there was a very tall, handsome German exchange student staying at a nearby farm the summer. His arrival coincided with me reading Summer of my German Soldier and I briefly confused reality and fiction!
The main character Patty is smart and intellectually curious, particularly about words. Patty’s low self-esteem is caused by her mother's criticism of her appearance and her father's outright abuse. I always felt I was an odd-looking kid, growing up in the weirdest family and wasn’t into the same stuff as the other girls. Patty was braver than I felt I could ever be. Patty’s father was racist and prejudiced and for the first time I really questioned whether adults really were right about everything. I loved that Patty found a voice and grew in self-esteem, and found her own true self in a world where no one seemed to get her. It made me feel less alone.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
‘Better drown than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown’: although I don’t remember my mother actually saying this to me, it was very much the sentiment we lived by. From my first introduction to the Swallows and Amazons series I wanted to sail boats and go camping. I was bit of a tom boy with an aversion to washing, so camping and exploring sounded idyllic. I am still proud of my knowledge of Morse code, and all those re-enactment camp nights on our sheep-filled land were great preparation for muddy festival fields! Simple stories of children having adventures in a world free from adult interference, where you had to make your own decisions based on what was the right thing to do. And I still can’t abide a ‘duffer’!
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre was the first ‘classic’ I read in my early teens. Jane was the perfect heroine and role model for an impressionable and emotional teenager. What I recall most vividly from my first reading was Jane’s uncompromising approach. I loved the line ‘I would always rather be happy than dignified’ – dignified is not something I have much success with as an adult and as a wild haired teen there was no chance! I’ve always been careful to check that future boyfriends didn’t have any crazy exes lurking around, and can’t sit through a wedding ceremony without holding my breath in case someone objects! Most importantly, Jane embodies the value of self- respect, something I needed to be reminded of – she refused to be Rochester’s mistress and turned down the perfectly pleasant St John Rivers knowing he would not make her happy. Girls: don’t settle for less than your worth – and make sure you earn your own money!
The Changover by JM Dent
And finally, The Changeover, which I hid from my mother because I thought she wouldn’t approve! It has a fairy-tale plot, with a devoted sister risking her life to save her bewitched brother. It is also an unconventional romance between an aloof and difficult boy who happens to be a male witch and a strong-willed, psychically sensitive girl, Laura. Laura’s parents were divorced, as were mine, and this was the first book that I read that reflected a version of my family. In the mid- 80s I was the only child I knew without two parents, so this book went some way to helping me normalise my world. I now realise this is also a classic coming of age story and as I was just beginning to decide that I quite liked boys - Laura and Sorry’s (yes that was his name!) relationship was a gentle introduction to this exciting and scary world.
There are countless other examples I could have chosen, and my bookshelves are lined with my old friends - their challenges, triumphs and disasters as they navigate their fictional worlds quietly playing out between the covers - there for me to pick up when I next need to call on them.