Who doesn’t love finding some new books under the Christmas tree? This year I gave my book wish list to my son – then the latest Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t meet up after all so I’ll have to wait until – well who knows when?
For some reason, thoughts about the books I’m looking forward to receiving triggered memories of books I loved as a child.
Amongst my favourites was What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. I also loved What Katy Did at School – remember the game of rivers in the schoolroom? – though What Katy Did Next didn’t capture my imagination in the same way. I remember once snapping shut What Katy Did saying, “Thank goodness, I’ve finished.”
My mother asked if I hadn’t enjoyed it. And when I assured her I had, asked, “So why are you pleased you’ve finished it?”
“So I can read it again,” I said. And I did, many times. The number 23 resonates but I couldn’t have read it 23 times, could I?
What was the allure of What Katy Did and what she did at school? I decided to find out by re-reading. It was like bumping into an old, much-loved friend. As soon as I began I remembered everything, could almost recite parts of it. While there are some things with which my adult self takes issue – the message that disabled people should be good and kind and sweet-natured – I understand why as a child I loved Katy so much. She was real. She tried to be good but, like most children, she usually failed. She wrote stories, she and her brothers and sisters played daft games and wreaked havoc.
And the narrator took Katy’s side most of the time, which I suspect was unusual in those days. When Katy disobeyed Aunt Lizzie and used the swing in the barn the narrator points out although she was wrong to ignore her aunt, it was also wrong of the aunt to expect unquestioning obedience. I must have relished a grown up person (as the narrator is) taking the child’s side – perhaps that when my need for explanations was born!
I was a voracious reader throughout my childhood – unlike my younger sister who, having read a Hardy Boys novel declared it was the best book she’d ever read and refused to read another book for several years because, she insisted, “It won’t be as good as that one.” I’m pleased to say she did return to reading and enjoyed many other books just as much.
Johanna Spyri’s Heidi was a great favourite; though I have a feeling re-reading it now would probably tarnish my glowing memory of it – another of those ‘disabled people are good and sweet’ books. And I now know from experience I do not like goat’s milk.
I’m sure I’m not alone in listing Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series and The Famous Five as well-loved, often-read books. More and more memories of happy reading flooded back: the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton or The Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer let me enter a different world of boarding school, tuck boxes and midnight feasts in the dorm. The nearest I came to a midnight feast was when my friend who was visiting her grandparents next door agreed to meet in my garden shed at midnight. We climbed out of our respective windows but when she cut her finger trying to open a tin of corned beef she ran home, blood dripping down her granny’s nightdress.
The Pullein-Thompson sisters allowed me to live in a world of ponies and I loved Pat Smythe’s Three Jays series.
When I was older, and still pony less (my parents said we couldn’t afford one as they cost a lot to feed – although Dad was always complaining about having to cut the grass) my absolute heroine was Pat Smythe. I was so shocked when I learned Pat’s horses were chosen for the Olympics but she wasn’t allowed to ride them because women weren’t allowed to compete against men until 1956 (I was only two then. I read about it later). For a while, I became a horse, jumping clear rounds at White City: a series of homemade jumps around the garden. Played havoc with Dad’s grass cutting.
I’ve missed out so many: The Secret Garden – and a very odd book called The Nabob’s Garden – The Borrowers, my list of well-remembered and much loved books could be endless!
What were your favourite childhood books?