Writes of passage: The books that got me through the growing pains

I was always surrounded by books at home, from Sophia Bennett to Jacqueline Wilson

Children’s author Jacqueline Wilson. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Children’s author Jacqueline Wilson. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

 

It all began with the holidays. From as young as four, even though I grew up in a predominantly Muslim household, my aunties from Dublin and Laois would always give me books for Christmas.

Like most girls, I did get dolls and journals too. But I was always surrounded by books at home, whether it was Jacqueline Wilson or the Horrid Henry series. I was never interested in fantasy series such as Harry Potter, probably because I’m Nigerian. The most I read that fell under the fantasy genre was Sienna Mercer’s spectacular My Sister the Vampire series.

I give credit to our primary school book fair for intensifying my love for reading. While I would argue that the book fair revealed the divide between working-class and more financially privileged students, I still enjoyed gazing at the books.

My friend and I always bought the same books. If it was a series I would buy one and she would buy the next and we would swap them after we had read them. This is what I call a community.

One thing reading helped me realise was the importance and power of being transported to another world, learning about issues and other societies – even when I was in second or third class. Being the girl that loved books and fashion, I was naturally drawn to Sophia Bennett’s Threads series. My best friend and I were obsessed with her novels, which exposed us to fashion’s sociopolitical issues even if we were never aware of it.

Like every pre-teen in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was obsessed with Jacqueline Wilson, to the point that I read every book she wrote

In particular, Threads: Sequins, Stars and Spotlights told the tale of fashion through the eyes of 14-year-old fashion-obsessed Nonie in London, who finds Crow, a Ugandan refugee, often bullied at school, sketching a dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Bennett’s novel explored girls’ education, immigration and sustainability. From the clothes we wear to where they are made, it reminds us that everything is political whether we realise it or not.

Education

For instance, the novel explores how some young girls in Africa have difficulties in accessing education. I’m 19 now and reflecting on how my 10-year-old self would have felt reading the book. I probably cared a lot about the glamorous fashion shows and how Crow ensured her fashion was as ethical as possible, using sustainable fabrics and always caring about her community back home, rather than focusing on profits. I think this is something some first-generation immigrants can relate to.

Like every pre-teen in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I was obsessed with Jacqueline Wilson, to the point that I read every book she wrote, even if the topic did not immediately interest me. It was practically a rite of passage for every Irish schoolgirl to have a Jacqueline Wilson phase. Even though I would be classified as a minority in Ireland, being black and Muslim, I never really cared then about Wilson not representing me. As I grew up, that changed. However, I loved how her writing was always so diverse in terms of content and the work of her illustrator, Nick Sharratt. It is on my to-do list for 2021 to re-read at least five of her books just to relive my childhood.

Wilson’s books introduced us to a lot more concepts. Whether she was discussing foster care, weight loss, relationships, family or teen pregnancy, I was enthralled, despite these not being my immediate reality. I was scrolling through Twitter and saw a trend about the Jacqueline Wilson book that damaged you or changed your life. I cannot pinpoint just one because these books had my nine-to-13 year old self crying about a fictional character’s failed love story or family trauma.

Single parent

Wilson has never shied away from any issue – whether it is having a single parent or living in a council estate – and so some deem her books controversial. Her novels represent diversity of experiences, such as how some kids grow up without a garden. In The Diamond Girls, a mother uproots her family to a small and congested flat. It allowed me to dive into another person’s perspective and reality and what this means for her family.

Authors such as Bennett, Wilson, Meg Cabot, Rachel Renée Russell, Cathy Cassidy and Sienna Mercer definitely influenced who I am today

Each Diamond sister is unique, with a different personality and a different father. The youngest, Dixie, is just cruising through life; Martine has fallen in love with the boy next door; Jude is fighting every gang in sight; and Rochelle has been living life on the edge. I completely understand why it may not be suitable for younger readers. However, it highlighted important issues of mental health, postnatal depression and neglect, and I appreciated how gritty it was.

Dustbin Baby changed me forever. It tells the story of 14-year-old April, who was abandoned by her biological mother in a dustbin moments after her birth. It highlighted the stress of children being transferred from foster home to foster home. While trying to find her birth mother, April learns that family does not only mean blood; sometimes it’s the people you meet while navigating life. It also touches on abuse and suicide.

Authors such as Bennett, Wilson, Meg Cabot, Rachel Renée Russell, Cathy Cassidy and Sienna Mercer definitely influenced who I am today. Because of them, I learned more about others’ stories, pressures that women and girls face, the desire for (some) teenage girls to be popular. Yet, nine times out of 10 their characters never reflected me.

I can still appreciate my childhood classics and continue to love books by authors of colour such as Ibi Zoboi, whose American Street explores the life of a Haitian immigrant in the US. Or Bolu Babalola’s romance novel Love in Colour, which retells mythical love stories, from ancient Nigerian goddesses to mythical Middle Eastern storytellers such as Scheherazade.

These authors taught me to appreciate diverse stories and to always look beyond my perspective – and that is what developed my love for reading.

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