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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 30, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Books you read when you were a lad

    Fiona McCann

    I remember Tom’s Midnight Garden. The magic of night-time and half-lights and a friendship that bridges genders and generations. I remember Ballet Shoes, as a middle child of three girls, each one identifying with a Fossil, and how pleased and proud I was to find in Petrova the tomboy I felt. I remember Little House on the Prairie, The Hobbit, Little Women, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Peter was my first crush, sigh), the five findouters, the faraway tree and a story about two girls who swapped identities in a train station, and another about a secret garden behind an overgrown wall. I remember sneaking to the window to read by the light of the streetlamp oustide after my mother had turned the light off. I loved books as a child, still do. Which is why the Children’s Book Festival, kicking off tomorrow, makes me at once nostalgic and excited about the wealth of stories in store for young imaginations today. the festival, launched tomorrow by Philip Ardagh at Cork City Library, will run for the full month of October, and offers young readers all over the country plenty of bookish goodies, including readings, poetry performances and creative writing workshops. (More information about events near you at www.childrensbooksireland.ie). So what were the books that marked your childhood, the stories recalled, read and reread, and the ones you still remember from being young?  

    • mise says:

      I’ve never found the escapism as an adult that I did in children’s books. The What Katy Did series, the Chalet School, Biggles, Five Children & It, Billy Bunter, Julie of the Wolves, Wizard of Earthsea, Just William, and so many more. I’m looking forward as my children reach reading age to seeing which of those bear re-reading. Have you seen ‘The Child That Books Built’ (Francis Spufford)? It’s a journey back.

    • Medbh says:

      Loved “The Endless Steppe” by Eshter Hautzig, a book about a Jewish girl and her family forced into Siberian exile. I keep saying I need to find a copy and see what I think of it as an adult.

    • BRENB says:

      I loved the Alfred Hitchcock presents The Three Investigators series…

    • Urchinette says:

      Oh God, so many. I also loved Laura Ingalls Wilder, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Louisa Alcott. And The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first “proper” book I ever read, aged five. Edmund, worryingly enough, was my first crush…

      There are plenty I still regularly re-read now – I was, and still am, a huge E. Nesbit fan, who basically invented modern kids fantasy. It always annoys me that she’s now associated mostly with The Railway Children, which I think is her weakest book. The magic-y books and the Bastable stories are so much funnier and smarter and better all round. I was a big fan of Diana Wynne-Jones too – Charmed Life was one of the books I got out repeatedly from Coolock library. Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe books were also very popular in our house – they’re hilarious, and almost even funnier when you read them as an adult. I absolutely adored Noel Streatfeild – my favourite was The Painted Garden, but I did love Ballet shoes too. I actually intended to go back and do an M.Lit on Streatfeild about ten years ago – I had a supervisor who agreed to take me on in Trinity but had to give up because of lack of funds (my parents had already paid for one MA and I couldn’t afford to pay the fees myself).

      I was also a big school story fan, starting, of course, with Mallory Towers and St Clares and then moving on to the Chalet School. When I was about 11 I started buying old ’20s girls’ annuals and school stories from markets and became a big fan of Dorita Fairlie Bruce (whose books have since been reissued by Girls Gone By). But the queen of school stories, and the only school story writer who is genuinely a great writer, is Antonia Forest. She only wrote four school stories but they are totally unlike everything else in the genre – incredibly, beautifully written, morally complex, unsettling and insightful. And really entertaining too. A few years ago a critic – whose name I can’t remember – said that her general obscurity is the equivalent of no one knowing about Jane Austen. She was a genius.

    • Catherine Crichton says:

      I read loads as a child, all the Enid Blyton stuff of course, plus Narnia books, The Hobbit, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, What Katy Did, Charlotte’s Web, Frances Hodgson Burnett books, Alice in Wonderland, Pollyanna. I could go on and on at great and boring length. But I must mention the one stand-out book for me, which was Watership Down. It absolutely blew me away, such a powerful tale and memorable characters. I must have read it ten times or more. I had to buy a new copy as the old one fell apart. Ok, I was a bit obsessed, but what a book.

    • Fiona says:

      Medbh: I’ve never even heard of that book – must check it out. It has reminded me of another book I loved as a child called I Am David. Hmm, must look for that as have since married a David. May have been a sign of some sort . . .

      BRENB: The Three Investigators – just googled ‘em and they look brilliant. Talking skull and whispering mummies. I suddenly feel like my childhood was deprived!

      Urchinette: Glad to hear you fancied Edward – no conflict there, so. I too loved Mallory Towers and St Clares, as well as the Chalet School (lacrosse, anyone), though the storylines didn’t stay with me like Tom’s Midnight Garden and Ballet Shoes. Never heard of Antonia Forest – where can I get her stuff now?

      Catherine Crichton: WHAT KATY DID! Oh my, had forgotten those!! Ditto Pollyanna, which also reminds me of the Anne of Green Gables series – gah, it’s all coming back to me! I saw the Watership Down film and was traumatised for weeks afterwards. Can’t even think about it now without my eyes stinging, so I don’t think I could have born the book. Ooh, but I’ve also just remembered two other books I loved as a kid: Dawn of Fear and Puddles in the Lane – those war stories about evacuees etc were such a part of my childhood.

    • jean says:

      Where to begin? I loved many of the ones already mentioned, and was a real sucker for melancholy ones like The Borrowers series, and The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Lots of kids books are very sad and/or dark, and that’s a Good Thing in so many ways.

      The Anne of Green Gables series was great, and even better was the Emily of New Moon books by the same writer.

      I’m reading Roald Dahl’s simpler books to my three-year-old at the moment and loving them all over again. He really is one of the best story-tellers of all time, and I’m particularly enjoying his rants against his personal bugbears. Not a man to let plot get in the way of a three-chapter rant about beards, Dahl, and all the better for it!

      I envy the kids who got to grow up with Harry Potter, and can’t wait to introduce them to my little one.

    • Kieran says:

      So many! Kiss for Little Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, Pooh, Dr. Seuss, Wind in the Willows, Secret Garden, Little Prince, Aesop, etc., etc., etc.

    • Urchinette says:

      Antonia Forest is, alas, pretty hard to get hold of now. All of her books are about the Marlow family and four of them are set in boarding school; most of the school books haven’t been reprinted since the 80s and copies of the non-school stories, which are even more rare, go for crazy money on the internet.You can get copies of Autumn Term, the first of the school stories, fairly easily because it was reissued as a Faber Children’s Classic. They’re all worth hunting down, though – you can get bargains online.

    • badbirdwatcher says:

      URCHINETTE: the critic who said that about Antonia Forest was Victor Watson in ‘Reading Series Fiction’. I was so excited to find that chapter as I hadn’t really met many people who’d even heard of her back then. Also, Lucy mangan in The Guardian warmed the cockles of my heart when she said in the Travel section that she’d always wanted to try falconry because of Antonia Forest …

    • Hermione says:

      Oh, so many of these I loved! I am David was one of the most startling and disturbing books I read as a child – I think I was eight when I first read it. I also loved Little House on the Prairie, the Chalet School books, What Katy Did, Narnia, Black Beauty, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Noel Streatfield. I read everything I could get by Enid Blyton, too: we had the complete Noddy, Five Findouters, Secret Seven, Famous Five, St Clare’s, Mallory Towers, Naughtiest Girl, The Secret Series. My sister and I had fabulously illustrated hardback books of the Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair series, which we loved as much for the pictures as the stories!

      Some of my faouritest books to reread are the later Harry Potter books. I absolutely adore how they’re written.

      I must look into Antonia Forest: she’s getting great reviews!

    • Aphrodite says:

      Loved Antonia Forest too – York Minster and slabs of crystalised ginger, going for chocolate cake in the Copper Kettle. And of course the merlin

      Delighted to see someone else loves the Wizard of Earthsea too – I still have all her books (Tombs of Atuan deliciously creepy for a kids book).

    • Fiona says:

      Just remembeed a book called A Dark Horn Blowing (no sniggering down the back!) that I seem to have liked as a wain. Wish I could remember something else about it, except there was a character called Owen I think, and some strange fantasy type stuff going on. . . .

    • Aphrodite says:

      A dark horn blowing wha’
      Seen a few of them in me time

    • mise says:

      Urchinette, you’ve brought back long forgotten memories of Ballet Shoes and Gemma and Sisters. And if we’re talking school stories, I have to add the wonderful Molesworth series, and Jennings and Darbyshire. Now I’ll have to find Antonia Forest.

    • Urchinette says:

      Molesworth! As any fule kno, he is the master of boys’ school tales. My entire family are slightly obsessed with molesworth (like e.e. cummings he never looks right in capitals, as one molesworth blurb said) and molesworth-related jokes are part of the family vocabulary and have been for years. I loved Jennings too, especially Darbishire who, unlike molesworth, Always Spoke in Capital Letters. And you should definitely check out Antonia Forest, she’s brilliant.

      Aphrodite, how lovely to see a fellow Forest fan! We’re like a cult – I too, like Badbirdwatcher, developed a huge soft spot for Lucy Mangan as soon as I discovered she was a Forest lover (she also loves weird ’20s school stuff like Dorita Fairlie Bruce, which further endears her to me). I love all the York Minster stuff in End of Term – I think that’s my favourite book.

      I should have seconded the L. M. Montgomery-love – I particularly like the Emily books (the creepiness of Dean Priest!).

    • mary says:

      Lots of the above.
      But I loved Patricia Lynch, I remember my first one of hers, I think it was my first book ever to own and it was like treasure.

    • Aoife says:

      God I loved Noel Streatfield – was also a big fan of Little Plum by Rummer Godden. Also went through a phase of books set during World War II like Carrie’s War and the first book to make me cry Dawn of Fear (I can still picture the shelf it was on in the local library). Not to forget the Bobbsey Twins series and Swallows and Amazons….

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      The Three Investigators was a cracking series, more brains than brawn but a good bit of derring-do. A scrap yard in California with loads of escape routes in and out was such a delightful setting for a HQ.

      I’d also put in a good word for The Black Hand Gang which involved searching for clues in illustrations at the end of each chapter before the reveal in the next chapter. they were translated from German and from googling them now have only just discovered they were original serialised in a magazine.

    • Straydogs says:

      Strangely enough I didn’t get into kids books until I was in my early 30s. That would be the 70s then. I remember only two books given to me specifically in childhood, one was Alice in Wonderland, with beautiful original illustrations and those bits of tissue paper protecting them, and the other was The Post Office Cat or Marmalade, the Cat, I can’t remember which, but written by Kathleen Hale. In a house of books for grown ups, I picniked instead on Steinbeck, Gone with the Wind, and lots of comics. I loved the annuals at Christmas. Then I set up a children’s bookshop and read everything I stocked. Bliss. Particular favourites were The Iron Man, The Mouse and his child, all the Russell Hoban Little Bear books, Earthsea, all the brilliant Alan Garners, I could just go on and on as they come flooding back in now. Never underestimate the a good children’s book. I’d read it anytime over some of the rubbish currently being published for ‘grown-ups’.

    • robespierre says:

      I mostly remember reading abridged versions of classics like A Tale of two cities, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Moby Dick, the musicians of Bremen, Silas Marner and Notre Dame de Paris. I also remember reading The Box of Delights which was a trippy little number, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, The Hobbit.

      Sinéad deVelera’s collections of Irish fairy tales were enjoyable as well.

    • Tom says:

      Probably not that well known in Ireland, but Stanley Bagshaw by Bob Wilson was my all time favourite ‘read together’ book when I was a kid .

      My dad would put on his best Yorkshire accent and away we went to tank-top heaven! Definitely worth a squiz if you can get your hands on a copy, though I think they’re pretty rare nowadays.

      Thanks for the festival mention! td

    • Have really fond memories of lots of Blyton, particularly Magic Faraway Tree and Malory towers. Funnily enough, I don’t remember the story of My Naughty Little Sister but I remember Shirley Hughes’s illustrations vividly.

      Read and reread and reread Danny Champion of the World for years. It now sits very proudly beside a first edition hardback of the book I got as a gift.

    • Simon McGarr says:

      Peter Dickinson- The Changes books are creepy. But A Box Full Of Nothing is my favourite. My DW Jones No 1 is Archer’s Goon. best treatment of her eternal theme of functioning and non-functioning families. E. Nesbit the foundation of children’s books with real children in them.

    • Kynos says:

      Think I read “The Naked Ape” when was 8. Maybe 9. Liked Winnie-The-Pooh also.

    • Eithne says:

      Just thought I’d let all those searching for Antonia Forest books know that they are probably held in their local Children’s Library – they certainly are in Dublin City. All of the other classics mentioned should be there too. By the way, was anybody else out there a sucker for Elizabeth Goudge? Old-fashioned and very sweet – probably too much for modern tastes – but the final page of The Little White Horse can still make me cry… the film they brought out last year wasn’t a patch on the original.

    • Kynos says:

      Also was fond of Blyton, plus the stories of Sinead bean deValera, plus my grandmother’s copy of Standish O’Grady’s CúChulainn Cycle, plus basically anything else that had writing on it including the back of a cornflakes box it we weren’t allowed read books at the table for some reason that day or the copes of the African missionaries’ magazine that my mother kept in our downstairs loo because she knew that was the only way she’d get any of us to read them. Basically, if it were in English, we read it in our house. Whatever it was and at any age past 5.

    • Kynos says:

      To be precise, “The Magic Girdle and other stories” by Sinead De Valera is what it’s called. Published by Fallons and illustrated by Eileen Coughlan, now that I look at it for the first time in about 30 odd years. Just dug it out from the pile of books I have spread out across four or five different places so happened I’m in the one where this is tonite. It’s a white cover all spotted with mildew hardback with an orange drawing of a little girl in a boat that would be Triona from “Triona’s Escape”. God old Sinead had a lovely plain way of writing. Not more than two or three clauses in every sentence. “Triona was the only and idolized child of a chieftain named Fergal and his wife Finola. Their beautiful castle was situated near a river. The great joy of the child’s life was to go sailing on this river. Eanna, the boatman, enjoyed these trips almost as well as Triona herself.
      One morning Finola was ill and had to stay in bed.
      She sent for Anna, Triona’s nurse.
      “You will be quite careful, Anna,” she said “that the child is quite safe in the boat. You know she is so lively she cannot sit still for any length of time.”
      “Oh! my dear mistress, don’t be anxious about her. Though she is only five years old she has as much sense as a child of ten”.”
      Yeah. Of course Triona gets herself into all sorts of lumber in the boat and disappears for years but it all ends in that time honoured way, perpetuity guaranteed. Happily. Ever after. Of such myths and legends were many’s a right red rose tree watered in this dyin’ kip.

    • Kynos says:

      Also loved all the Biggles series by Capt. WE Johns. He seemed to go from fluttering above the bleeding trenches of France in an old Sopwith Camel to flying Spits in 1940 to Marchettis and DC-10s in the fifties without a single hair turning grey. At least according to the covers. Also very fond of the old Battle and Action comics with lots of Jerrys getting murdered by the Stirlings of the jolly Tommies. And those 15penny dreadfuls produced by Commando books that contained an entire graphic novel involving again lots of Germans going “AAaarrgh” and “Schweinhund!” and “Achtung! Gott im Himmel!” and so forth. With ads on the back for Cresta rings with genuine cubic zirconia diamonds. Yes. And all my sisters’ Mallory Towers books by Eleanor M Brent Dyer I think used to have to lock meself in the downstairs loo with them too a) so none of my mates would know I was reading them if they called to the house while I was and b) so my sisters couldn’t take them off me and give me a rough time for going into their bedrooms to borrow their books. Kind of a mixed bag really could go on all day about the stuff we all read as kidz.

    • Kynos says:

      Chalet School by Elinor M Brent Dyer even. There was one particularly memorable one where the gels fool the local Nazi spy. The Mallory Towers ones were by Miss Blyton.

    • MT says:

      I loved most of books you all loved – esp little house on the prarie which I was reading on my bed on a fine summers day age 12 and I was so engrossed that I could feel the cold of the snow around the Ingalls house and was shocked to look up and see the sunshine!My favourites though when I was 7 were the ‘Mary Plain’ books about a bear from the bear pits in Berne who lived with people like ‘The fur coat lady’ (The irony of that only strikes me now!). I bought them all second hand on Ebay lately as they’re out of print.

    • Sean says:

      Ah Biggles, I was fluent in German thanks to W.E. Johns – Hande Hoch! still comes in handy in German banks…

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