Let's Talk About Books
If ever I’m lonely, miserable or in need of a treat, I withdraw into a book. Reading both keeps life at bay and teaches us about life.
When I write books, I do it to make sense of life. And sometimes to reshape life, because being an author is the next best thing to God. You have control over your characters. Well, up to a point. Like people, some characters simply refuse to do as they’re told.
Characters are infinitely more interesting than authors, I always think. (Especially when I meet them. Certain people are just better in print than in person.)
The characters in my favourite books were my best friends growing up. In my mind, they were real – probably the best endorsement any reader can give a book.
I suppose the books I liked would be called classics, but to me they were just stories – I didn’t know they were considered masterpieces. If I hadn’t enjoyed them I wouldn’t have read them. Readers don’t come any less pretentious than children.
I remember being bowled over by the Swedish character Pippi Longstocking, whom I idolised because she lived alone without adults. Best of all, she had a suitcase jammed with gold coins. Any time she needed to buy something she simply reached for a coin.
She was also super-strong and could lift her horse one-handed. I was riddled with envy at the children living next door to Pippi who shared her adventures.
I read Enid Blyton's ‘Famous Five’ too but it was all terribly confusing: what was ginger pop? And prep? Did people really eat cucumber sandwiches from choice? Why would a girl be called George? And who’d want to be friends with the pompous Julian?
Still, I stuck with the stories because of all the smugglers, and islands accessed by rowing boat, and fearless children sleeping overnight in barns.
Nowadays children’s books are packed with contemporary references (from Jedward to the TV series ‘Glee’), dealing with teen issues including self-harming or the loss of a parent.
But we didn’t seem to have a wealth of contemporary children’s books when I was a kid – at least not in my local library, though I suspect it was the same everywhere.
So books like ‘Anne of Green Gables’, written in 1908, were popular. It’s a good read but would be considered old-fashioned today, partly because Anne has a soppy streak.
‘The Little House on the Prairie’ series was another favourite, set in the late 1800s and featuring the author’s memories as a pioneer girl.
I was so amazed, I had to re-read the book, after I reached the part where Laura took a teaching job at just 15 – some of her pupils were older than her. But her family needed the money to send her sister to a school for the blind.
Reading these books inspired me to keep diaries, which I used to illustrate. I still have some of them, and very boring they are. I seem to have ignored the civil unrest of the 1970s all around me in favour of logging what I ate, wore and watched on TV.
But at least I recognised the value of books, even if I didn’t realise how a child’s eye view of the Troubles might be useful to me in later life.
The beauty of books is that they can be read and re-read until they fall apart – at which stage you reach for the Sellotape.
They endure, in a disposable world. I say that’s worth celebrating.