Saturday 23 October 2021
Dame Jacqueline Wilson is on the radio this morning, talking about a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to celebrate her books and, if I lived in London, I would have set out to the Barbican right there and then to get a ticket! Because, I love her writing. Lively characters who just dance off the page and plots that hook you from opening chapter and are ‘can’t put this down‘ engaging. But here is the thing; I didn’t read these books as a child. No, I chanced upon her through my own children. At bedtimes, we’d read them together and she made such times magical and a truly (unexpected but) delightful parental treat. So, as I sit in my lounge with a large cup of coffee, I decide to indulge and look back at my other favourite finds from the, ‘reading to your children’ years…
Now, to be clear, my favourite quartet are not necessarily the books my children read the most. Small Boy’s obsession with ‘Captain Underpants‘ and the ‘Hunger Games‘ era, when I barely saw my eldest without a book for weeks, are not titles I read a single word of. Why? Because by this stage my offspring had moved into the realms of independent literary appreciation and I simply left them and their imaginations to it. The delicious time for me to discover new children’s authors and to venture once again into the fantastic world of children’s fiction was a far narrower window. It came in the short span of years when I read to my trio of toddlers and it was here, amongst the cherished jewels I still hold dear from my own childhood, that I uncovered new titles, great new writers and, just as I had done as a child, set off on amazing new adventures.
And so it was that I was introduced to Dame Jacqueline Wilson. I picture my two girls racing up to their attic room, fluffy and clean from bathtime, to dive under the covers ready for the next chapter of ‘Double Act‘ or the ‘The Illustrated Mum‘ and I’d be as excited as them, because she is such a terrific writer that, never mind the kids, I simply couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. Dare I confess to occasionally reading on, even after both of them had drifted off to sleep? For me her gift was to draw you in, hook, line and sinker, to the world of her young characters and make you care for them completely. My absolute favourite, ‘Best Friends‘, stayed in my head and heart for days and I do recall my two little daughters staring at me wide-eyed as I stumbled to the end, my voice choking on that final chapter.
But I’ve already hinted at four, so here are my other three:
Judith Kerr; oh my goodness I still feel a tingle of excitement at the sound or sight of ‘The Tiger who came to Tea‘. A family member gifted the children an edition complete with a tiny china tea set that we would fill with water to act out the famous ‘tea scene’ as my trio of toddlers would ask me to read it again and again and again. Every word was a joy but my most-loved scene was always this one; the mother’s calm response to what should have been the strangest request she was ever going to receive, ‘Do you think I could have tea with you?’ asks the tiger, ‘Of course, come in’ says mum! More learned critics than I have hypothesised in depth about this little book, reflecting Kerr’s own childhood experiences in Nazi Germany, but this is my favourite point because it is at this moment that you cast aside adulthood and become a child again. Because in a child’s ‘imaginative play ‘ this is exactly what would happen to keep the game going. Why there is a large carnivorous predator at the door… come on in, we’ll find you a cup and plate and make conversation!
And onto Lauren Childs and her inspirational creation Clarice Bean. One of my friends passed on these books, as her own daughter grew out of them, whereupon we all fell in love with Clarice (and Betty Moody and Mrs Wilberton). So much so, in fact, that this one made it onto audio book version for the car and turned long dreary car journeys into a delightful escape into the imagination. So funny, so sharp and such brilliant writing that the tying together of all the crazy capers and plot lines would keep us guessing until the final page. Having listened to it so many times, I can probably recite huge chunks verbatim and the best ‘Clarice quotes’ live on in our household even now, and why wouldn’t they …
“I say ‘Mom, how come you don’t change into an evening gown for dinner?’ She says ‘I do, it’s called a bath robe.
Lauren Child, Utterly Me, Clarice Bean
And to finish, JK Rowling, Harry Potter and well …what an incredible read. Her words filled my head with pictures and my heart with emotion. Perhaps more so than any other writer she took me back to that feeling I had as a child of ‘living in a book’. Yes, below the age of 10, with my head perennially stuck in an Enid Blyton, I’d often appear to be present in the room but the truth was that I was nearly always not really there! No, I’d be away on Kirrin Island with the Famous Five, or in the dormitories of Malory Towers with Darryl and Sally. And Harry Potter did this for me again. She was also my first find of the ‘reading to your children years’… in fact it is a faintly ridiculous tale.
As I was pregnant with my eldest, I foolishly told my husband that the midwife had proclaimed it ‘never too early’ to start reading to your babies. Read to them in the womb! Read to them when they are a day old! They won’t know what you are reading so read anything; it could be the perfect time to read ‘War and Peace’. Well my husband decided that it was the perfect time for me to read ‘Lord of the Rings‘. Quite why I agreed, I’ll never know but, as we brought my Eldest home I did indeed, every evening cradle her in my arms and subject her to Tolkien. Yes I ploughed my way through all three of those lengthy tomes, engaging with the story of Frodo and Sam, but finding all the complicated names, tribes and battles for power tortuous on occasion. However, by the time Prom-dress daughter appeared, the cursed ring was safely consumed in the fires of Mordor and I was free; free to meet Harry, Ron and Hermoine! Well what a difference. From the second the Hogwarts Express drew into the platform, I was addicted, gripped and invested. I devoured those books whether I had any children to listen to me or not! The books sparkled, fired the imagination, flooded my head with lavish images and, at time, pulled my heart from my chest. Reading to my toddlers became a cherished half hour of the day when I, as much as them, escaped from the stresses, strains and toil that parenting small children can bring.
Gosh, great memories! My teens are all grown-up now and for me, the world of children’s books is a closed chapter once again but not forever I hope… roll on the grandchildren years….