Christina here – I was chatting to some of my writing friends via FaceTime the other day and for some reason we started reminiscing about our favourite childhood reads. We came up with one great title after another and I thought back to those exciting days when I would go off to the library to browse the children’s section – there was so much waiting for me to discover! What really struck me, however, was how similar my reading experiences and tastes had been to those of my two friends – all the Enid Blyton stories (especially the Famous Five series), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and many more. And because we all write romance now, it made me wonder whether we are all predisposed to liking certain types of stories from an early age? Is it tied up with our personalities or are we influenced by those around us?
Personally, I seem to have been fixated on fairy tales, romance and happy-ever-afters right from the start. This could have been because of the stories I was told (my grandmother especially passed on lots of Swedish folklore), but as far as I can remember, my parents read me lots of different things and not just about princesses and castles. I just happened to like the romantic ones the best and I was hooked on fairy tales. Only the nice ones, though, I didn’t like the Brothers Grimm stories in their gory original versions (wasn’t Snow White’s step-mother’s punishment just horrendous?!?), and I positively loathed Hans Christian Andersen’s sad tales.
My grandfather had a mini library with beautifully bound novels, including a wonderful set of four books containing One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights) – these enthralled me. He wouldn’t allow me to read the stories until I was a bit older (I guess he felt some were a bit racy and/or violent), but he used to show me the gorgeous illustrations and tell me edited versions of the tales. When he died, he left those books to me and they always remind me of our times together. (Here's a photo of me and my grandparents with all those books – long before I was able to read them).
As soon as I was allowed there on my own, I scoured the shelves at the library for the kind of stories I wanted – anything with even a hint of romance. I was extremely happy to find that Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer contained a scene where Tom kissed his love interest Becky, but upon eagerly reading Huckleberry Finn to see if there was more romance from this author, I was bitterly disappointed that there was none whatsoever. There was a distinct lack of romantic novels for children and teenagers altogether back then and I quickly graduated to the more adult stories. My father often made suggestions of classics I might like and I was happy to discover The Three Musketeers and The Count of Montecristo by Alexandre Dumas for example, which are still favourites. But they weren’t romantic enough. It wasn’t until I came across Georgette Heyer and Victoria Holt in my teens that I found what I’d been looking for.
With my own two daughters, I read them the same fairy tales and passed on the same Swedish stories my grandmother had told me, but neither of them likes romance. Not even a little bit. And despite my abiding interest in history, dragging the two of them to all sorts of stately homes and castles, they didn’t want to read about that either – history was ‘boring’. The books I’d enjoyed as a child they considered too old-fashioned. With regard to the Enid Blyton books, for example, I suppose they had a point since their generation would never have been let loose to roam the countryside alone to go camping without parents, but still … I so adored those and think I read every single one. I wanted to be George, and even named my dog Timmy. I felt my kids should have enjoyed the stories for the adventures and pure escapism they offered, but they simply couldn’t relate to those long-ago children and their lives at all.
I had clearly failed to pass on my passion for romance and history – or was I always doomed to failure because their personalities were so different to mine?
Obviously, the age/era we live in influences us too. I grew up in a small-town environment without the distractions of tv/internet/handheld games etc. Apart from playing with friends, reading was my main entertainment. My children, on the other hand, lived in a big city and have always had all those additional distractions. I don’t believe their school did enough to encourage them to read for pleasure either – when studying classics like Jane Eyre they were only given parts of it to analyze and reading the whole book was optional. Optional? Seriously? That made me so mad! It wasn’t until my daughter watched a tv adaptation with me that she realised it was actually a really good story. (And yes, she liked it despite the romance).
In my class at school, we had a reading aloud session once a week where we all took turns. I loved this, but at the same time it always made me very impatient because some of my classmates were so slow. Usually I would sneak read ahead of where we were supposed to be – a potentially risky strategy if I was suddenly asked to continue where someone else had left off and I was absorbed in another chapter! Anyone else do this?
I read quite a lot of Young Adult novels these days and I can’t help but wish such an incredible array of great stories had been available to me. My teenage self would have been in seventh heaven! I especially love the fairy tale retellings – no surprise there! (My favourite so far is Marissa Meyer’s series starting with Cinder – so inventive!) I feel it’s a shame that my daughters never wanted to read anything like that, but we are all different and as the French say, vive la différence! If people didn’t have differing tastes, perhaps I would never have found readers for my own stories. And now that these YA novels exist, I’m taking full advantage of that – aren’t we all still teenagers on the inside sometimes?
Re-reading childhood favourites doesn’t work though – I recently tried reading Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island just to see what it was like and to be honest, I should have left it alone. But there are some stories that stay with you and can be enjoyed in other ways. Whenever the ones I loved are made into a film or tv series, I always watch – I have the DVD of The Secret Garden, for example, which I can happily sit through any number of times. It never fails to delight! Perhaps it’s the nostalgia – being instantly transported back to your childhood self – or maybe it’s just that some books are simply really good stories, no matter what?
Which of your childhood favourites have you never forgotten and what story takes you back? And is there any kind of book you wish you’d had then but couldn’t find?