"The reluctance to put away childish things may be a requirement of genius." Rebecca Pepper Sinkler
Ooh, let's hope so, because I've been meaning for some while to write a regular post about books I loved as a kid, books that hooked me, inspired me, and maybe I'll sneak in some books that peed me off too.
I'm talking independent reading here, so I won't include anything that involves flaps, is made of fabric or features caterpillars with eating disorders. Or anthropomorphism in any form. Truth is, I'm curious to know if the books I read as a child and young adult informed my writing preferences and style, or if I was drawn to these books because I was already inclined to The Dark Ways. I'm not sure if I'll be any clearer by the end of this thread, but it gives me the chance to rattle on about some books I love.
Now we have the ground rules covered, let's begin.
First up is Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. (That's the book, not the song by The Cure. The song is based on the book, though the video stars a VERY grown up, make-up-wearing version of Charlotte!)
Now, I was no reading genius. I was not devouring the words of Homer at my mother's breast or quoting Plath at nursery school or discussing the merits of Dickens over Austen whilst eating my fish fingers and chips. In fact, part of the reason I won't be including many books for very young children, is I don't really remember many. I don't know if that's because I have a terrible memory or because my parents didn't read to me - I'll leave that for my shrink to work out.
But the first book I do clearly remember is Charlotte Sometimes. In fact, I think it was the first book I read entirely alone.
Picture the scene. It's the late seventies, so there was a lot of brown, big floral prints and the smell of Findus Crispy Pancakes and Smash hanging in the air. I guess I'm about eight-years-old. If you want to imagine mini-me, think of a moon-faced, knock-kneed barrel on skinny legs with a huge gap between her front teeth, with long, tangly reddish hair and B.O. (All kids had B.O in the seventies in the UK, as most of us were still only having one bath a week and an occasional scrub down at the bathroom sink in-between. I've asked lots of other people of my age and we were all the same - delightful.)
This little barrel is being encouraged to read by her teachers. There is a school library and on the shelves, wrapped in a thick plastic cover, with its dog-eared pages, is this book. Imagine my sticky little fingers grabbing it to my chubby little chest. I open the cover and read...
The book is about a young girl called Charlotte who is sent away to boarding school. On arrival, she finds she can travel back in time, swapping lives with the girl who slept in her bed during the First World War. Charlotte has to be clever, deceitful and resilient, especially when she's in danger of being stuck in the past forever.
I don't know what it was I loved so much about this story.
There was the pride of reading a book alone.
There was the whole boarding school genre, popular with generations of children and authors (see Harry Potter, the Malory Towers books, The Worst Witch etc, etc) though, as a parent, I'm not sure what it says about home life that children find the idea of dormitories and shared bathrooms so alluring.
There was the feisty heroine, of course - always a lovely thing when you're a plump no-hoper with low self-esteem and bully issues.
But most of all, there was the time travel. Now, if you've read my About post, you'll have some inkling of how weirdly obsessive I can be when it comes to history. It snakes into my own writing a lot. My first novel was a time-slip YA fantasy about a feisty young heroine who uses a Tudor sixpence to slip back to the reign of Good Queen Bess, my current one is set in the 1970s, the next in the 1960s (and no I'm not sure I class those eras as 'historical' either, but that's an argument for another day.
So on the day some bright spark invents a time machine or I fulfil my dream of becoming Doctor Who's assistant, I'll be there, sporting a ruff, a doublet and a pair of hose I've knitted especially for the occasion.
Another thing that might just have drawn me to this story is that, when Charlotte goes back in time, she's effectively talking to ghosts, girls who are dead in her own time. And you might have noticed - I really like a ghost story.
So, there you have it. The first book to spark the flame of reading for me, full of history, time travel, the supernatural and plucky young gels in pinafore dresses.
Do you have a first book? One that sticks in your memory as triggering a love of the written word, that made you read under the covers at night?
(A version of this blog post first appeared on my previous blog, Word Shamble)