How my childhood reading made me a writer

They say a mother’s love is a blessing. I say a mother’s love of reading is one of the greatest blessings of all

Helen Cullen: it was one of my proudest days when I was allowed to graduate from the blue card of the children’s section to the yellow card of the adults’ section of Portlaoise library

Helen Cullen: it was one of my proudest days when I was allowed to graduate from the blue card of the children’s section to the yellow card of the adults’ section of Portlaoise library

 

Books were my primary source of entertainment of my childhood; instead of dress-up boxes, hula hoops or My Little Ponies, I devoted myself to the pursuit of great adventures with imaginary friends. Thankfully my real-life friends would force me to come outside to play or I would have spent long summer days indoors perfectly content inside the pages of a book. I still believe this is blissful holiday behaviour, although I’ve become a little better at embracing the outside world.

My earliest memories are of being read to; by my parents, Frank and Margaret, and by my siblings. It will come as no surprise I’m sure that those memories are also amongst my happiest. Before I began primary school, my elder sister Mary had taught me the alphabet and how to read simple books by myself.

It is remarkable to think that a love affair that has endured throughout my life began with something so simple as A is for Apple, B is for Ball and the trials and tribulations in the lives of Ann and Barry. It was the greatest gift that could have been bestowed upon me. I will always be grateful that I had the privilege of being raised in a home where reading was valued and considered one of the most important and enjoyable ways that hours and minutes could be filled. There is little doubt in my mind that I have become a writer now because of the foundations laid by that childhood reading.

Those early adventures instilled in me how powerful the imagination could be, demonstrated the immense magical potential of stories to transform lives, to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary and conjure worlds beyond our wildest dreams. For that is what I believe reading does; it expands the ability of the mind for empathy, creativity and curiosity.

I still remember the exquisite joy of Miss Forde, my senior infants’ teacher in Scoil Bhride, reading aloud Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood to us. It was the most exciting experience and it left me desperate to discover every other book Enid Blyton had written as I chased that feeling up and down the aisles of Portlaoise library. To this day whenever I walk through a forest, I hear the trees say wisha wisha to each other as if they too are enchanted.

They say a mother’s love is a blessing, and I say a mother’s love of reading is one of the greatest blessings of all. Eager to encourage me in my reading, my mother introduced me to the classic novels she had loved as a girl; Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, the Anne of Avonlea books, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, Heidi, Black Beauty, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Apart from the happiness the books themselves gave me, the other wonderful outcome of a parent sharing their favourite books with their child is being able to discuss them afterwards; through the narratives of these stories so many of life’s challenges, opportunities and mysteries can be discussed in a safe way. Children have the opportunity to reflect upon what they’ve read and develop an ability to articulate their thoughts and feelings and that skill is priceless. Sometimes they need guidance to help them discover the book that will speak to them and spark their enthusiasm; recommending something you once loved yourself can be a great way to start.

Books open the door to every subject, all human conditions, everything that heretofore had been incomprehensible, inconceivable, impossible to imagine. And beyond the great work reading does to inspire creative thinking in children, good literacy skills arm them with confidence and skills they need to tackle every other lesson they are presented with in school and later in life. It is the gateway to all other learning and I believe fundamental to their development on both an intellectual and emotional level. Whenever we have the chance to read to a child, or have them read to you, we should seize it. I can think of few better ways to inspire the future leaders of the world.

This is also why I feel very strongly about the importance of libraries in our communities. I spent what might be fair to say was a disproportionate amount of time as a child in Portlaoise library; my mother and father patiently escorting me to and from what was then a beautiful old building on Church Street.

My reading was insatiable, and it was one of my proudest days when I was allowed to graduate from the blue card of the children’s section to the yellow card of the adults’ section. The upgrade needed parental sanctioning as I was officially too young but having exhausted all of the resources available for young readers, I was approved with the warning that with great power comes great responsibility. I embraced the opportunity with enthusiasm and revelled in turning into the adult section each and every time; just as I had seen my mother do for years before me. That may be the secret to all of this, I believe; if parents want children to read, they must show them the joy books bring to their own lives by reading in front of them. You can’t be what you can’t see.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by our consumer-driven culture, libraries remain one of the few havens that offer entertainment at no cost, in a safe space. They are the beating heart of our communities where everyone is welcome. For folks arriving to Ireland for whom English may not be their first language, for families who cannot prioritise books over household bills, for children and adults everywhere who would benefit from the meditative and inspiring practice of reading a physical book instead of staring at a screen, we must protect them.

In July I wrote a piece for this newspaper about the lost art of letter-writing and since then have received a number of lovely letters from Irish Times readers across the world. One such letter was written by a wonderful woman, Marguerite, who was the librarian in Portlaoise Library when I haunted the place. She remembered me and wrote of how she had recognised my passion for books when I was little and had anticipated they would become my profession in some way as an adult. When you think of the hundreds, the thousands, of children who passed through during her time there, it is remarkable that she would remember me two decades later. It is a testament to the care and commitment of librarians who value the importance of supporting communities in their reading and recognise each and every person’s importance.

So, these days, when I sit down to write, I remain eternally grateful that my child brain developed as a sponge for a million words, a thousand tales of triumph and catastrophe, the full gamut of the human experience. By now it has absorbed so many unconscious lessons that I can draw from as I try to put one in front of the other in a manner that might prove meaningful. When I think of Miss Forde, Enid Blyton, Marguerite, my mother, there are only two words I need, however – thank you.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is October 2018’s Irish Times Book Club pick and has just been shortlisted for the newcomer of the year award at the 2018 An Post Irish Book Awards. Helen Cullen talks to Books Editor Martin Doyle on Friday, October 26th, at 7.30pm, in the Book Centre, as part of the Waterford Writers Weekend curated by Rick O’Shea

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