My migrating childhood library
Books played a huge part in Christine Doran’s life and followed her to the US to amuse her children. So writing her own book should not have been a surprise
Christine Doran: There is definitely something about going away that makes you see the things you left behind through a sharper lens
In January of 2003, JK Rowling was still writing book five of seven, and Girls Aloud were the next big thing in Ireland. I wasn’t listening – my number had come up in the US “diversity visa” lottery and I was about to become a fully fledged legal alien. I bought a return ticket with every intention of missing the flight back, because I was finally off to join my boyfriend.
“Five years at most,” we both assured our parents in Dublin. We got married after the first year and had a baby two years after that, but we still weren’t staying for good. Our wedding presents were at home in my parents’ basement and my childhood bedroom was mostly untouched, and my bookshelves, stocked by almost 30 years’ worth of birthday book tokens, second-hand shops and English at UCD, remained.
As my children grew a little older, I began to spirit away a few books at a time in our suitcases whenever we visited home. Whatever there was space for alongside the Christmas presents and the tea bags and the packets of biscuits. (We can get Barry’s and Hob-Nobs and most other things here, too, but it’s the principle of the thing.) It started with Winnie-the-Pooh and Charlotte’s Web, bedtime reading for an unsleeping baby who understood nothing but the (hopefully) comforting drone of our voices. The Narnia books followed a few trips later, in editions that predated me by more than a decade. The Hobbit, Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – I still remembered which birthday each one was a present for. Then my Harry Potter box set – that one bought as an adult with money out of my very own paycheque.
I had – clearly – never really lost my taste for children’s literature, even during the wanton and child-free years. Those books were special because they’d grown up with me, because my friends and I had fallen for their magic together - and often just because they were the UK editions. Any books by Irish or British authors I’d find in the States would be the US edition with the wrong spelling and even, for newer books, amended words. There’s nothing worse than pulling up short at words like “trash can” or “vacation” when you’re reading Harry Potter.
Our eldest approached school age and it seemed practical to buy a house rather than keep renting. My dad waited just about long enough for the ink to dry on the deeds and then told me we should really bring all our stuff over to America now. Apparently everyone thought the house meant we were staying for good. (They may have been right; I don’t know yet.) So we shipped over our Denby dinner service and our wedding-present cutlery and glasses, as well as a bicycle and a large stereo that wasn’t meant to come, and a lot of unnecessary vases and all my husband’s notes from college, because apparently nobody paid too much attention to what exactly had been in the basement before they packed it up and put it in a container and shipped it all the way to Baltimore, Maryland.
My second-hand book addiction followed me across the Atlantic even sooner than my books did. I started picking up children’s classics at the thrift store for 50 cents apiece, lining up The Secret Garden and A Little Princess on my daughter’s bookshelf long before she was ready to read them, or even sit still long enough to listen to them. She and I are slowly discovering the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood together, because I never had read the Little House on the Prairie books myself. Her brother has listened in fascination to all the nautical minutiae of Swallows and Amazons even though they were first published when his grandfather was a baby. (And in spite of the fact that his father, long-suffering reader aloud, didn’t know a fo’c’s’le from a mainstay. It didn’t seem to bother either of them much – pirates are still pirates.)
I do read grown-up books too, of course. But very few things I’ve read since I became an adult have stuck with me the way my earlier books did. There’s something about the books you read as a child and a teenager that gets under your skin and becomes a formative experience, informing the person you become as you grow.
So when I wrote a short story about a girl called Lilac who lived in a tall house by the Irish Sea with her mother and father and her great big woofly dog called Guzzler, I didn’t even realise it was a story for children at first. Or that it was the start of a book. It took me quite a while and a few false starts to take it up again and move along with it, but then Lilac’s story kept growing until I realised this was in fact only the first book of three, because there are a lot of things that have to happen.
There is definitely something about going away that makes you see the things you left behind through a sharper lens. When I wanted to put myself back into the body of an Irish 10-year-old I just had to find a touchstone – a tiny memory of a smell or a texture or a detail of my childhood – to put myself into Lilac’s world. Her story is certainly not any memoir of my own childhood – it’s a good deal more interesting and more fun – but she comes from my world, and it’s the world I see most vividly now, from far away in both time and space.
Christine Doran lives in suburban Maryland and is currently reading a lot of Rick Riordan at bedtime. Lilac in Black and White is her first book, for readers of 9-12 (or anyone who enjoys a view of the Irish Sea), and is available in print and as an ebook from Amazon all over the world. You can read more about Lilac at lilacthegirl.blogspot.com