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World Book Day

4 March 14 words: Clare Cole
"Which books rocked your world growing up?"
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Illustration: Ali Emm

“Which books rocked your world growing up?“ I love asking people this question. It’s a thoroughly revealing exercise.

“Oh my God,” I find myself saying over and over again as titles are thrown around, “I loved that book!” And the memories come flooding back. Sometimes it’s a book that I never forgot and a moment of unparalleled joy ensues over the discovery that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to be Nancy Drew when I grew up, or who believed that chanting “I must, I must, I must increase my bust,” every day for a month after reading Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, would definitely work. (Oh come on now, I know I’m not alone).

The books we loved as children, even the books we didn’t but which have for some reason stuck in our memories anyway, say so much about us. They chart our formative years, and celebrate the evolution of us. From Goggle-Eyes by Anne Fine, the Carnegie Medal-winning story of a girl who finds solace in friendship when family discord strikes, to Catcher In The Rye - the top pick in all ‘Coming Of Age’ essential reading lists. They were the books I found at the right time, and which left me feeling I’d just understood something so profound and revolutionary that it might just change my life forever, while at the same time suspecting I’d probably known that very thing since the beginning of time. They were virgin territory that felt like home.

My mother was a voracious reader. She carried on reading to us way beyond the age when we could quite easily have read ourselves to sleep. Together we worked our way through an eclectic collection, from Dick King Smith’s The Queen’s Nose, and Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi, to The Chronicles of Narnia, Silas Marner and Gerald Durrell’s hilarious and not entirely appropriate for a child (my mother tells me she had to heavily censor it) My Family And Other Animals. They have all stayed in my memory, each one connected to a particular feeling or emotion that perfectly sums up the place I was at when I encountered it.

And then there are the books I wouldn’t have dreamt of asking my mum to read. Judy Blume’s Forever, for example, which I remember not primarily for its content but for the fact that it was banned from our school library; the story of teenage infatuation in which two young people fall for each other, have sex and don’t die in the process, proving too much for my Catholic convent school librarian to cope with. You either came across that book yourself and can probably quote page numbers at me or what I’ve just said has made you want to read it. Proof positive that censorship is counter-productive. Of course, Forever did brisk trade on the black market and took on mythical status alongside Virginia Andrews’ Flowers In The Attic.

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I liked books that were honest and, crucially, books that made me laugh. Books that took risks and refused to candy-coat their characters and outcomes, Roald Dahl being the king of this ‘comedy and candour’ genre. There’s a thin line however, between dangerously naughty and downright traumatising. It’s often assumed it’s the modern authors who come closest to crossing this line, but it was a classic that tipped me over. I will never, ever read The Little Match Girl to my children, and I suggest you don’t either. Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic tale of the homeless girl who dies in the cold is the only thing, aside from the BBC’s ill-advised Ghostwatch, that drove me to voluntarily share a room with my sister when I was growing up, so afraid was I of being left on my own.

I blame the National Curriculum for ruining many a good book for me too. Anything marked out as a ‘set text’ was immediately bequeathed ‘impossible to enjoy’ status. But there were moments when the government’s idea of what I should be reading just happened to coincide with mine, and I’d realise why some books were referred to as ‘The Greats’. Books like Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, and Death Of A Salesman. Oh, Death Of A Salesman... now there’s a book (well okay, play) that changed my life. On the first day of reading the script, our lovely, young, enthusiastic English teacher, Miss Lawrence-Hyde, asked me to read the role of Linda. I apparently read the part so convincingly that where all other parts were rotated around the class, I was permanently Linda. And so began a love affair with Arthur Miller, the theatre and the American greats which continues to this day.

And then there were those diamond moments when sometimes, just sometimes, when all the ‘important’ work was finished, a teacher would take out a book and read to us. This was a treat of the highest order, and incumbent on us was nothing but to sit and listen. It tended only to happen in the Summer term when the teachers were afforded a precious few days of teaching freedom. And its timing at the end of the school year granted it an added privilege. Something so gloriously brilliant that you thought it might just be illegal, a teacher reading to us outside. In the actual open air. Making daisy chains under the boughs of the willow tree in the Infant Garden, listening to Charlotte’s Web or Stig Of The Dump with the sun on our legs and the white noise of the distant humming M25 in the background, it was more than just a lovely reward. It wired in us the patterns of language, it fed our imaginations and, crucially, it was the safety net which stopped those reluctant readers amongst us from falling out of love with reading altogether.

This year sees the seventeenth annual World Book Day, join in celebrations and take a look at their Writes of Passage page on their website to see if your favourites feature in their Ultimate 50 Books That Will Change Your Life.

So, go on then, which books rocked your world?
 

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Catharine Arnold: author of City of Sin: London and Its Vices

"As a child, often bedridden, books were a door into another world. Each one was a journey of discovery. The Witch’s Daughter, set in remote coastal Scotland; A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, stories of brave little girls played out against the backdrop of Victorian England; 101 Dalmatians, and Ballet Shoes... I found refuge and inspiration in these different worlds, but for utter enchantment I escaped to the magic worlds of E Nesbitt and Edwardian children whisked away on flying carpets or conducted on time travel expeditions to Atlantis, courtesy of a grumpy phoenix and a bad tempered sand fairy."
 

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David Almond: author of Skellig, winner of Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal.

"I still remember the moment of taking Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table out of my Christmas stocking. Beautifully written and brutal, and with wonderful illustrations by Lotte Reiniger.

Enid Blyton. Despite what they say, she got us reading and sharing adventures. The Adventures of Turkey by Ray Harris was a wonderful book about a boy in the Australian outback. It took me from Tyneside to the other side of the world.

The Grey Pilot by Angus McVicar. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. The Midwich Cuckoos. Taut, scary, compelling narratives. I can still hear the triffids when the breeze blows.

I remember pulling out Ernest Hemingway’s short story collection, The First Forty Nine, from the library shelves and beginning to read it on the bench. I’d always known I wanted to be a writer. For the first time, I had a glimmer of what kind of writer."
 

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Paula Rawsthorne: author of The Truth About Celia Frost, winner of the Leeds Book Award 2012

"I can still hear the voice of my junior school teacher, reading to the class while we sat on a scratchy piece of carpet. Her Benny. Written in 1879, it’s a tough, heartbreaking tale about kids who end up on the streets of Liverpool in terrible poverty. Maybe not the kind of story you’d think to read to a bunch of nine-year-olds, but I loved it.

My big sister was probably the biggest influence on my reading when I was growing up. She’d pass her books on to me; Malory Towers and St. Clare’s by Enid Blyton and then Agatha Christie. Among the age inappropriate books that she bestowed on me was Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren is my kind of girl; wild, free and fantastically eccentric. By my mid-teens I had renamed my childhood teddy, Aloysius, in honour of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited - pretentious, moi?"
 

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Wayne Burrows: poet and editor of Staple magazine

"Dr Seuss’ One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. It’s only recently I’ve been able to fully appreciate the genius with which Theodore Seuss Geisel deploys his extremely restricted vocabularies, typography and drawings to such dynamic and vivid ends. There probably is a clear line from Seuss by way of Oliver Postgate, to Jan Svankmajer, Leonora Carrington and the rest, to a lot of the things I make, read and write now.

Somewhere on that line is Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, written in the fifties, a story about a lazy youth who is forced to go off in search of his (dead) Palm Wine Tapster in the bush where ghosts, monsters and spirits live. It’s written in a strange idiosyncratic English he makes his own, and its plot I can only describe as being something like a West African version of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Once I’d read that at twelve, the rest was probably inevitable."


World Book Day is on Thursday 6 March 2014.

World Book Day website

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