Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Books That Shaped My Youth

A very non-exhaustive list of the books that shaped The Youth:

The Usborne Book Of Words To Read by Carol Watson, illustrated by Colin King.



A picture book with words dotted all over it, so you learn, surprisingly enough, words.  This follows the daily activities of a family, in the home, at the shop and in the town.

A supply of drawings without narrative was something I eagerly lapped up, from baby books to catalogues, because it gave me the chance to use The Imagination.  When playmates or toys were absent, I was still able to make up stories.  Without these many (lonely? pathetic?) hours of The Childhood, I may never have become a writer.

The Tale Of Mr. Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter.

A frog does a spot of fishing and nearly gets eaten.

I was mesmerised by the Tales Of Beatrix Potter ballet, and particularly fascinated by the Jeremy Fisher section because there was water in his house (plus he was a cool dancer).  The ballet and the books became one in The Mind.  Potter’s anthropomorphism of animals was exactly the kind of detail that hooked me.  Fisher’s boat is a lily pad, his fishing rod is a ‘tough stalk of grass’ and the line ‘a fine long white horse-hair’.  It’s pretty dramatic too which impressed The Young Mind.  Beatrix Potter was my first taste of drama, action and horror.


Jeremy Fisher was The Favourite Literary Character when I was seven.


The Church Mice Books by Graham Oakley.

Large picture books with incredibly intricately detailed drawings.  They follow the adventures of Arthur and Humphrey, leaders of the church mice, and the long suffering cat Sampson who has vowed not to eat them.

We had three of these, The Church Mouse, The Church Mice At Bay and The Church Mice At Christmas.  The drawings are so detailed that I often spent hours lost in them, each tiny character having their own individual thoughts and experiences.  This showed me that every character, every person has a life and plot, even if we’re not focused on it, and changed my perception of story telling forever because it eradicates the idea of a black and white universe.  Every character does things for a reason.  Added to this, the humour is delicious, with a dryness that I incorporated into myself.

Kingfisher Field Guide To The Mammals Of Britain & Europe by John A. Burton, illustrated by William Oliver and Guy Troughton. 

A book with drawings of mammals and little fact lists about them.

This began The Obsessive Need To Know Stuff Other People Don’t Necessarily Know.  I never actually read the paragraphs of writing, just looked at the pictures and handy fact file on each page.  The relations between animals fascinated me, such as the otter and badger are of the weasel family.  I would carry this book around with me so I would always know more about European mammals than anyone else in the room.

I also once thought it would be funny to put an egg between the pages of the book.  I was wrong and now I can’t read about wolves or feral dogs.  Stupid egg.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

Wilbur the pig finds out what happens to pigs on farms.  Only Charlotte, the intelligent spider in his sty, can come up with a plan to save her friend’s life.

I was (and am) a veg(etari)an, and generally the parents reacted to this by wearing HAZMAT suits and charging admission to the freak show, so it was exhilarating to find a story against pig murder.  It also introduced me to the concept that fiction can be more affecting than reality.  It made me cry.

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Part ghost story, part time travel adventure, this is a beautifully compelling tale.  When the clock strikes thirteen, the bin yard outside is transformed into an enormous Victorian garden where lonely Tom can play, but he can’t touch anything and only one little girl can see or hear him.

Like nothing else I had read, evocative and atmospheric.  Reading this book really was like travelling to another world, and it completley absorbed me when I opened it.  Meanwhile, it is about loneliness and freedom, which was very relatable for me as a child.

The Animals Of Farthing Wood Novels by Colin Dann.

Developers are building over Farthing Wood and the animals must escape or die.  The unlikely band form a truce and travel across country to the fabled Nature Reserve.

Appealing to The Veg(etari)an Nature (like Charlotte’s Web) this was also my first experience of ‘the book is better than the adaptation’, this opened The Eyes to a world of literature that I felt I must defend, to the irritation of everyone.

The Garfield Super Selection by Jim Davis

A big hardback book containing a selection of Garfield strips and illustrations that roughly follow a year from beginning to end.

Where The Church Mice had helped me develop a dry sense of humour, Garfield developed The Sarcasm.  The Admiration of Garfield led me to watch Garfield’s Nine Lives, which heavily influenced The Writing in Junior School, particularly the dark one about the cat that’s in a laboratory.  Meanwhile this book gave me a life philosophy: ‘I’m not materialistic, I just love owning things!’ and it was the first place I ever heard the phrase ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’ which totally blew The Mind.

Word Box by Gyles Brandreth.

A book about words. 

Through this book I became a fan of the English language.  I also used it to make up my own stories (like Words To Read) and to appear clever in front of other children (like The Mammals Of Britain & Europe).

The Story Of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharratt.

Written from the perspective of Tracy, a ‘problem’ child living in care.

This book introduced me to the concept of an unreliable narrator, a mind-bending, story-redefining discovery.

Red Dwarf Novels by Grant Naylor.

The adventures of the last survivor of the human race three million years in deep space, trying to get back home.

I read these about the time I was starting to write a lot at Senior School, and unfortunately, these really, really influenced my own style.  I basically spent a couple of years rewriting Red Dwarf.

Horrible Histories Series by Terry Deary.

Y’know, very basic history books for kids, full of cartoons, jokes and stories about all the gross or horrific stuff designed to make history fun.

Gave me my fascination with history.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

Jane Eyre is an orphan who becomes the governess at a creepy mansion.

That scene when Mr Rochester is in bed and it’s on fire and Jane saves him…  This story fascinated me the first time I saw the TV film, and read the abridged children’s version, until finally in college I actually read the proper version.  This was the first time I was interested in the romantic angle of a story and I’ve never escaped this idea of romance ever since, while the characters heavily influenced the ones I write about.

The Original Illustrated Strand Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

All the stories and novellas about Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson solving cases.

These were my first real interest in books that weren’t aimed at children, factual or adaptations of TV/film.  It helped define who I was in The Late Teens.

So that is how I grew up and probably why I write how I write.

(Apologies to the hundreds of books I have forgotten to mention.)

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