As we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Roald Dahl, and 150 years since the birth of Beatrix Potter, Nicolette Jones reflects on how the books we read as children shape us forever
The books we read in childhood stay with us. Most of us feel a frisson when we see or hold a volume we remember from our youth – the thrill of recognition, and the excitement of anticipating the image over the page. The characters and the stories help to shape us. The ones we identify with become a part of our make-up, so there is a bit of me that is George in The Famous Five, and Anne of Green Gables, and Jo in Little Women. I am also partly Paddington and Piglet and Pippi Longstocking and Peter Pan, Dido Twite, Dickon, Arrietty, Stig and Mrs Pepperpot… We don’t have to resemble physically the characters we live through, nor share their circumstances.
In fact, childhood reading is partly about recognising ourselves, but also about extending ourselves. It changes how we see the world and other people. It gives us experience we would not have otherwise. It makes other lives understandable, and when the years are on our side and life is still full of potential, it can sometimes make them seem possible for us too. Consider anything you have done partly because it resonated from a book you read when you were young. Visited a place? Taken up a sport? Created something that showed an influence?
I know that one of my daughters, already a keen traveller, will one day fulfil her ambition to go up the Amazon – because she identified with Maya in Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. The other was passionate about Pamela Brown’s The Swish of the Curtain, about a group of youngsters who set up their own theatre troupe. She will start a graduate course at drama school this year.
All influences upon us are most potent at an early age, while experience is still formative, and our minds are still open. Everyone who read in childhood knows that this – alongside the care of those closest to them – was the foundation of their intellect, their empathy, their morality and their interests. They know too that characters in books read in our early years can feel as genuine as people we have actually met, and that the events we see through books can seem as vivid as those we remember in real life.
Childhood reading gives us material for our own dreams, but most of all it makes us love language and story themselves. And if we can manipulate words, we can manipulate the world. The cover of a book opens like a door, and it is not only a portal into the universe of the book, but the more books you read the more doors you open for yourself. For me, the Puffin book list curated by Kaye Webb, and the independent bookshop that stocked her new titles every week, made me a voracious consumer. Literature became my passion and my speciality.
Happily for this generation, the quality of the best current children’s writing and illustration is exceptional. Books are being beautifully made, and there are voices, in fiction and non-fiction, for every ear. There is a book out there to suit every child, and it is just a question of finding the right one. The only hurdle is to ensure that all children have access to plenty of books, until they find the ones that fire their enthusiasm. This means, primarily, that we must safeguard libraries, and establish a reading culture in every school. Families without a habit of reading should be supported so they may develop one. The doors that can open – to dreams and opportunities – must open for everyone.
Nicolette Jones is a writer and journalist and the children’s book critic of ‘The Sunday Times’.