I’ve been wanting to pull together a retrospective of the most beloved books from my childhood since the day I started to build this blog. When I first imagined this list, it was about five or six books long. I’ll be honest with you right now though … the list has grown somewhat. And what follows is an unapologetically self-indulgent time warp, revisiting the books that ooze nostalgia, and happiness, and which nurtured the love of books and reading that my parents had instilled in me from an early age.
So, let’s get stuck in …
This is a cropped photo of a book that belonged to my Mum and, having just spotted the publication date (1943), most probably belonged to her brother and sisters before her. Somehow, the pages are still in place, although I’ve clearly used some of them to practice writing my name at a very early age, where my handwriting was only marginally worse than it is today.
The story is a charmingly, innocent one, with language and phrasing that epitomises the 1940s: Ameliaranne Stiggins is the eldest of five siblings. One Christmas Eve, all the youngest Stigginses had ‘colds in their heads‘ so they were sat around with their feet in the middle of a tub of mustard and water. Sadly their colds meant they wouldn’t be able to go to a grand tea party being held at the Squire’s house so Ameliaranne goes alone, with a large green umbrella in case it should rain. During the party, Ameliaranne fills the umbrella with cakes and tarts and biscuits and scones and buns to take home to her poorly brothers and sisters; not eating a single bite herself. But whilst the Squire is a lovely chap his spinster sister, Miss Josephine, was a ‘cross old maid‘ who disliked children. She spotted what Ameliaranne was up to and snatches away the umbrella, opening it and letting all the treats fall to the floor. Luckily the kindly Squire had also been watching, so he asked his footman to make up a hamper of cakes and sandwiches for the six children, while Miss Josephine ‘dropped the umbrella and walked slowly past Ameliaranne and the Squire with her nose in the air and a book of horrified disgust on her face.‘
This is a beautifully illustrated book – not withstanding my own toddler-Banksy-esque additions – and I daren’t think of the number of times I asked Mum or Dad to read it to me for my bedtime story. I rescued it from a pile of books that were destined for the village may fair a few years ago, and it’s one that won’t leave the house until I do!
Another beloved – and repetitively read book – is Corduroy; the story of a teddy bear’s adventures through the department store as he strives to find a button to repair his rather jaunty dungarees. If you have young children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren of your own, then it’s your moral duty to now purchase this book (yep, it’s still in print) for their own bookish development. Unsurprisingly, it is listed among the Top 100 Picture Books Of All Time.
Meg & Mog books are surely a right of passage in the reading ‘careers’ of every British school child. Who doesn’t fondly recall the adventures of witchy Meg and her somewhat scrawny cat Mog? I defy anyone to have a bad word to say about these books. They were always the first books to be whipped off the shelf by myself and my sticky-fingered class mates when we were unleashed from our desks and set free to read in the ‘book corner’ at the end of a long and arduous day at the chalkboard face.
Oooh, now this one definitely ages me … I’ve just spotted that is was published in 1979! But what a book! So I cast my vanity aside in the name of committing this beautiful book to the immortality of my blog. But can I remember what the book was about? Can I ‘eck!! My reason for including it in this list is all about the illustrations … I devoured every inch of them; tiny little bunk beds nestled into tree roots; cosy underground homes, washing lines hanging between twigs, teeny windows and doorways at the foot of huge oak trees. I’d act out whole new stories in those rich and intricately detailed images, letting my tiny-tot fingers climb the tiny staircases into these hedgehoggy homes.
This is the first in a series of books about the best of friends, passing their days swimming, writing letters, sleeping in the sun, finding missing buttons – the simplest, sweetest stories. I had to include these books in my list because as soon as I saw that cover image I was right back in my childhood – the illustrations continue throughout the book (a symphony of greens!) and they contain one of life’s most powerful charms … nostalgia.
Who hasn’t grown up with Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, and co? Personally, the hand-drawn illustrations on this particular book cover are the Pooh & co that I grew up with – Disney’s later designs are somewhat ‘disneyed’ … but lovable nonetheless. The book cover I’ve included here is a photograph of my copy that was published in 1977, and I clearly staked my ownership from the outset with a rather shaky inscription of my name, complete with a back-to-front ‘h’.
Now – show of hands – who believes they’ve outgrown Pooh & co? Pffft, you’re kidding yourself! My 18th birthday cake featured Winnie-the-Pooh floating upwards with the big blue balloon he used to get at the honey. The absurdly few cool-points I’d gathered in my earlier teenage years were completely blown away that day … but that cake wasn’t an act of cruelty by my parents, it was made by them both at my request. Dad made the best fruit cakes (‘best’ being something of an understatement), and Mum iced it and decorated it. I loved it. It’s committed to photograph (the old school, Truprint kind), and is even immortalised on videocam (the first one ever to film in our home!). To this day, it’s still my favourite birthday cake, and Pooh is still my favourite bear.
Another photo of a golden oldie, albeit this one fared less well at the hands of a younger me! This book is a collection of short rhymes that were read to me countless times by parents and grandparents. I can still recite most of ‘Vespers’, ‘Rice Pudding’ and ‘Buckingham Palace’ from memory! As I say though, this book has suffered slightly more at the hands of young me than ‘Pooh’ did, and has clearly been used as an exercise book for the bears and dolls who attended my ‘school’, complete with ticks, crosses, and marks out of ten from teacher Sarah.
Enid Blyton looms large in my list of beloved childhood books. I could be forgiven for thinking she was the only person who wrote books for kids in the 1970s and ’80s. This was among the first books I would read to myself at night, when I felt I was too old for bedtime stories. It’s also the book that torches were invented for – so I could carry on reading after lights-out under the totally misguided belief that neither Mum nor Dad knew what I was doing.
The moment I started reading The Naughtiest Girl I knew I’d met my book twin – notwithstanding she’s blonde and I’m distinctly redhead! This book is all about Elizabeth who sets out to do everything she can to get herself expelled from her new school. To me, she’s living the dream – playing tricks, stealing sweets, pulling ponytails, flicking ink – you name it, she dares do it. She gets off to a rip-roaring start, but the school’s unusual discipline policy (i.e. any punishment is decided upon and dished out by the other girls) soon gets the better of her plans, with punishments that are often as inventive and gigglesome as the original misdemeanours. Nevertheless, her outrageous antics soon elevate her to ‘popular girl’ status, and although she comes to love the school, she never quite leaves her cheekiness behind her. As for me, any thoughts I’d harboured of becoming as audacious as Elizabeth were smartly banished the moment I closed the book, and I continued about my school days as a quiet, somewhat swotty, church mouse … because The Naughtiest Girl is probably the first book I read that made me realise you could live another life in a book. I never would be that girl, but for 24 chapters, I very nearly was.
Whoever gave this book to me when I was a child would have been my parents’ favourite person. It was packed with quizzes, games, sugary recipes, and things to make, that kept me occupied for hours on end. It was the TikTok of its time … but with an actual purpose. Because of this book, all of my aunts, uncles and grandparents received homemade Christmas presents (several years on the trot) worthy (in my eyes) of their own shelf in John Lewis. Meanwhile, my Mum’s soaps, perfumes, lotions and creams were sneakily decanted to mix several dubious, but lovingly concocted bath foams, whilst (clean) hankies were swiped and beautifully blooming roses beheaded in order to create homemade pomanders. So perhaps Mum and Dad’s appreciation was tested somewhat, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a batch of alarmingly pink coconut ice!
This is a photo of the book I was given for Christmas by my aunt and uncle. It’s leather-bound, and judging by the great condition it’s still in, I treated it with the utmost care despite reading it over and over and over again. I clearly remember, at 8-years old, thinking how grown-up this book was, the text being quite small and tightly packed – a far cry from the large print of my childhood books – and whilst it’s illustrated, the pictures are incredibly detailed and atmospheric. I’ve treasured this book for over 36 years, and although I’ve not read it since forever, it’s one I’ve been meaning to pick up again; just flicking it through it to write this short paragraph has definitely bumped it up the TBR list!
*Sighs* … *slips into daydream* … *sighs* (again) … *gazes into middle distance* … and so on.
I’ve no idea what age I was when I read these wonderful books, but they captured my imagination so entirely that I gabbled incessantly to all and any poor soul that happened to be within my orbit – parents, grand-parents, classmates, teacher, lollypop lady, Mr & Mrs Nextdoor, even the cats had chapters read aloud to them. Any day spent not reading them was unimaginable; to the point where I pulled a school sickie so convincing that even my (nurse) Mum was convinced … result!
One day, Dad came home from work with the most enormous box of blank printer paper; he told me it was so I could draw my own giant faraway tree. Now, THAT is how Dads reach ‘hero’ status! Over the following week or so, he helped me sellotape goodness knows how many pages together, draw the tree outline with my favourite magic land at the top (one involving endless cakes and sweets, naturally), and beloved Moonface and all the characters strategically positioned around the tree. Looking back at old photos, I can confidently say that I took over completely when it came to the colouring-in, but no matter how ‘freestyle’ it looks, to me and Dad it was a flippin’ masterpiece. We’d made it large enough that it fitted floor-to-ceiling on my bedroom wall … and there it stayed until the posters of Smash Hits started to demand centre stage.
Step aside Potter! Mildred Hubble was yonks ahead of you and your wizarding ways. She was enchanting our bookshelves from Miss Cackle’s witchy academy with potions, spells, dodgy broom-womanship, and cauldrons long before you were a twinkle in your daddy’s wand. Mildred isn’t what you’d call an accomplished witch (in case the book title didn’t make that clear), and she’s the only girl in the school with a tabby cat, as opposed to the standard witch-issue black cat, but she certainly throws herself into school life with gusto making for a fabulously fun series of books that I couldn’t get enough of.
Oh, this book cover still makes me swoon with happiness. As much as I love the story (and still do), it’s the cover that I love the most. But – and there is only one ‘but’ – I was eternally disappointed that the beautiful chocolate machine shown on the cover, with its deliciously multi-coloured pipes doesn’t appear in the film. Looking back, that should’ve been my wake-up call that films never live up to the books. When the film came out … the PROPER one, with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka … I was beside myself. We didn’t have it on video, but one of my best friends did so, whenever I went missing, my parents’ search lasted as long as it took to make one phone call to Emily’s Mum.
To this day I believe you were either a Famous Fiver or a Secret Sevener. I don’t recall any childhood friends who deftly flitted between both worlds of danger and mystery. I was a Fiver, and whilst every Famous Five book was an adventure for me, Smugglers Top was always my favourite. Give me a book with a spooky, big old house, hidden panels concealing secret passages, creeping mists, and flashing light signals in the dead of night, and I’m a hooked and happy reader. The vexatious and cynical among you may believe that this sounds like the plot for most Famous Five books … but you’re wrong and should be ashamed of yourself; Smugglers Top is undoubtedly the Fives’ finest work.
I was besotted with horses as a girl (for the record, it’s impossible to grow out of this addiction), and the Jinny series fed my unwavering conviction that I should have a horse. Unfortunately for my parents, the horse of Jinny’s dreams pretty much landed in her lap, and I became convinced that I too could take on a horse; affording to feed it, stable it, and shoe it, insure it, and pay vets bills on my pocket money. (I’m nothing if not an optimist!) All in all, this probably wasn’t the best book I could’ve picked up – in my parents’ eyes – but I lived and breathed it nonetheless. I felt every high and low of Jinny’s relationship with her chestnut Arab mare; and as Jinny was a redhead herself, I was pretty much her! Dad’s epic box of printer paper made a reappearance around this time too, and before long the back of my bedroom door was transformed into a life-size stable door, with the head of my own horse looking out at me. NOTE – the colouring-in skills had improved considerably since the Faraway Tree era.
Did I ever mention that I went to school at Malory Towers? Are you sure?! I took the train to my glorious school at the start of each term, complete with a packed trunk, lacrosse and hockey sticks, and – the epitome of boarding school life – a tuck box. Somehow, though, my six years of life at Malory Towers was completed within just a few months. That’s a real pity because I loved it there; I loved the pranks; I loved sleeping in ‘dorms’; I loved the icy sea-water swimming pool; and did I mention the tuck boxes? Because I bloody loved them! In fact I loved the tuck boxes SO much, that I started to ‘host’ a regular and frequent series of sleepovers for friends, arranging the zed-bed in my room so it looked as much like a ‘dorm’ as I could get it, with a midnight feast (usually all scoffed by about 10pm) served from an improvised tuck box. I have my endlessly patient Mum to thank for allowing these sleepovers and providing admirable tuck box catering.
These books are as entrenched in my childhood as the smell of plasticine, the taste of Play-Doh (grim, not recommended), grazed knees, those gauzy-lit summer evenings when you’re allowed to ‘play out late’ with friends, soda-stream, Mr Frosty, Sindy ………. Whilst this has been a rather longer blog than I’d first imagined, it’s become abundantly clear that looking back over old books is a nostalgic and heart warming indulgence … I whole heartedly recommend it to you all.
Well hello brave reader! You’ve made it to the end of my mammoth childhood indulgence – I applaud your staying power. Did you spot any books you loved as a child? What were your favourites, back in the day?