Wednesday, 13 April 2011

In Search of a Lost Reader

The recent death of Diana Wynne Jones has got me thinking. A great many tributes have been posted on-line recently, not just by those who actually knew her, but also by many who trace their own development as writers back to reading her magical books as children. And it's that that's got me thinking, because no matter how far I delve into the crumb-filled cardboard spaceship of my own childhood memories, I can't find Diana Wynne Jones in there anywhere.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. I mean, I have read some her books as a grown up, and seeing as how I have a professional interest in keeping my inner eleven-year-old alive and dreaming, maybe that's enough. But I can't shake off the obvious question: what was I reading then?

Well, the earliest memory I have of being signed up for permanent membership of the Great Book Club of Life was reading The Hobbit at about age 13. Yes, I know that's probably the most uninteresting piece of autobiographical information I have ever posted here (what boy didn't read The Hobbit at age 13?), but for all it's banality, it was still a key event for me. It was the first time I remember feeling bereft at the finishing of a book, and also the moment I understood fully that a story doesn't disappear just because it's over. I even remember exactly where I was standing when I realised I could turn the book over and start it again if I wanted to. The best thing about book covers is everything they contain.

Anyway,The Hobbit led to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I discovered Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, John Wyndham, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Real Life, and eventually Girls. But how did I get to Tolkein in the first place? What steps did I take to become a committed reader? And how can I – as a writer for children -- help make sure that other young people get switched on too?

Well, I can reveal that I did read Enid Blyton, though only because I borrowed my little sister's Magic faraway Tree books. I was about 11, and already aware that they were too young for me. I have also -- with the help of Facebook friends -- uncovered the fact that I read The Three Investigators, and this might push my reading back to the age of ten. There were comics of course, and much further back I know my father read Beatrix Potter to me, and my mother was definitely there when the tiger came to tea, but no matter how I look at it there's definitely a big round hole in my memory, and it's at exactly the point where Diana Wynne Jones would have fitted in nicely.

Oh, well. I can't exactly complain about having lots of great books still to read, now can I? But I am sorry to have missed her first time round, back when I wasn't bristling with critical faculties, prejudice and ugly ambition – back when all I needed was a torch and a duvet and a heap of books under my pillow.

So how did you become a reader? And what do you do to help the young people in your life find out where the stories are? In fact, should you do anything?

(I lifted this photo from a fansite. I have no idea if I need permission to use it or not -- feel free to tell me if you know better)


  1. I started reading with picture books. If it didn't have cool illustrations I wouldn't read it. In particular I loved the Berenstain Bears. Then eventually I branched out to books without pictures and became hooked on the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. And then in high school I sadly stopped reading because I became so caught up with life until a friend's Mom recommended Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks and then I became hooked on reading again. As far as helping the young people in my life find stories, I give all my ice skating students books for their birthdays and Christmas. So they are most definitely up to date on the latest and greatest YA.

  2. I have this exact same problem - writers are always waxing lyrical about the books they read as children, but I can remember very few. But I must have read lots, surely? Every so often, I will come across a book my children are reading - The Phantom Tollbooth for instance and I'll get that Proustian rush of memory. But I have such good recall normally - I find it frustrating to have this big blank patch in my early life.

    One thing I did read was lots and lots of Fighting Fantasy books - I'm sure my elapsed time spent playing those runs into months!

  3. I'm passing on my guilt about the fact that you didn't have DWJ in your life, because I didn't either. How did that happen? I shall go and ask the family librarian!
    I think one of the main ways to pass on reading to the next generation is to be seen to be reading yourself. I was struck while watching a recent documentsry series on TV about educating boys by the fact that several of the boys said that the reason they saw no point in reading is that they never saw their fathers reading books, just the occasional sports page.
    That, and sheer accessibility. Libraries are a good thing, if there are going to be any left...

  4. Anita, I remember the Berenstein Bears books too, but the Baby-sitter Club and Sweet Valley High? You're so young! I used to sell those as a grown up with a job.

    Nick, I'd forgotten those Fighting Fantasy books. I loved them, and they undoubtedly made reading interesting at a time when I might have lost interest.

    Mum, you are to blame for my stunted development, and I'm surprised you even have the nerve to comment on my blog. If you hadn't spent my entire childhood conspicuously reading and dragging me around libraries, I'd-- no, hold on...

  5. I think I had classic "scared of missing something" - as my mother would say!

    The Little Red Hen is the first book I remember reading to myself.

  6. Good point, Rachel. If you don't read, you probably don't know, even today.

  7. It is sad news. Although for some reason I never read any of her work first time round either. As to what got me started : not sure. I read a lot fron an early age. My mother would take me to the library on the bus and I'd have all the books finished before we got home, so the story goes. I suspect reading was an escape too. With little television and no computer games, retreating into a book was the only option.

  8. I'm sorry to say I've never read her work - I can feel a trip to the library coming on...

    For me it was Enid Blyton when I was younger and after about 11, when I discovered Asimov, I read nothing but SF for several years.

  9. Thanks for commenting, Simon. Escape's the word!

    Hi, Kate. I hope you enjoy discovering her books. Howl's Moving Castle or Charmed Life would be good places to start, if you're wondering.

  10. The first books I remember being read were the John Mouse stories, which were what Roger Hargreaves did before he went big with the Mr Men. Recently I found a couple of John Mouse books in Oxfam, and the feeling of being a child looking at those pictures came flooding back in a scary way.

    Then it was Enid Blyton's -- ahem -- Mr Pinkwhistle books about a weird man who could make himself invisible. I'm not sure if I'm the only person who remembers him. In time I went through just about all the Enid Blytons.

    Now I have an 8 month old son, I often wonder whether I'm going to shove books that I liked under his nose. I think probably not... I remember my Dad taking me to the library and telling me I should read Swallows and Amazons, which I tried, but couldn't get into. I was trying too hard to like it because he did when he was a boy, and was unable to get carried away by the story.

    The only thing I would love my son to enjoy is Tintin, and I'll find it very hard not to force those books on him!

  11. Thanks for commenting, Mike. I don't blame you wanting to introduce your son to Tintin.

    I'm a huge, but very lurksome, fan of your blog by the way:)

  12. Thanks Thomas. I am also a serial lurker around here!


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