They say that a child who grows up in a household full of books grows up to be a reader, but there were not many books in our house when I was very young. My Dad loved reading, but his father had burned all his books in a drunken temper not long before he met my Mum. By the time they had me, were married and had set up home, there wasn’t much money for books, so instead he told me stories. And then one day he came home with a large cardboard box. I was seven. “It’s time you became a reader” he said ” and you’ll never be lonely.”
He had spotted a pile of Enid Blyton’s in a charity shop window and bought the lot. Everything from the Famous Five to the Faraway Tree. He was right. I was never lonely again. For the next five or so years, every bit of pocket money went on Enid. I didn’t even think that there might be anyone else writing for children out there and I loved them. And then one day I fancied a change. By then, my Dad’s own bookshelves were full and so I stole his books and read under the covers until my eyes watered. They were not really books for children – Stephen King, James Herbert, Dennis Healey. I went from macaroons and ginger beer to killer rats, the occult and some fairly steamy sex. Still, it widened my horizons.
We didn’t have to study English Literature at my secondary school and growing out of Enid Blyton had left me with a bit of a gap in my life. I read a few romantic novels, devoured Sue Barton, Student Nurse books and dreamed of marrying a doctor (because of course girls couldn’t be doctors could they?) and saw reading as a means to escaping what was a fairly shitty number of teenage years. Plagued by bullying and abuse from my piano teacher, to say I was troubled would be putting things mildly and by the time I went to sixth form I was struggling to cope. I picked English Literature because after music, there was nothing else I really wanted to do. When we were asked to list the books we had read in our first lesson, I could see the distaste on my teacher’s face. “You’ve got some catching up to do,” he said, handing me Jane Austin’s Emma. And the world tipped on its axis. I loved it. I loved her. I couldn’t read enough so he fed me more. Thomas Hardy (my middle child is named after Gabriel Oak), Anne Bronte and then her slightly inferior sisters. I lapped them all up. I’d had no idea there was such beauty in the world and I thrived. Not a single book was on the syllabus. And when my clarinet teacher fondled my boobs and told me it was a breathing excercise, I packed Music in altogether assuming it was populated with nothing but dirty old men and I applied to university to study Literature.
I loved reading – all of it. The A level texts I studied became favourites – Lear, the Wife of Bath, the Ancient Mariner….but at university we had free choice on texts and I fell in love with more books and characters. Gatsby, Willy Loman, Atticus Finch attached themselves to me like limpets. But it was reading Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple that pivoted me into a love of black American women’s literature. Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison – here I was, a white girl from Burnley feeling more kinship with these abused female characters, struggling to find their voices in a world that seemed pitched against them than with anyone I’d ever read before. “And still I rise”, Angelou wrote and I realised that you did not have to carry your past like a burden. You could discard it and choose to forge forward. So I rose.
I couldn’t imagine marrying a man who didn’t read so when I met my husband and he was in the middle of Moby Dick, I envisaged a lifetime of companionable bed time reading. But it turned out that he’d been in the middle of Moby Dick for some time and it was another two years before he reached the end. It turned out he isn’t really a reader. But that’s ok because he’s happy to stare at the horizon on holiday in quiet contemplation while I devour books and our children get fed, clothed and bathed.
As I’ve gone through my adult life, I’ve carried on reading. And I enjoy most of the holiday romps that others do, but it’s the books that make you think that I love the most. Those that bring other places, lives and times to vivid reality worm their way into my heart. Barbara Kingsolver’s searing tale, The Poisonwood Bible, the story of the life of a missionary family in the Congo felt like a grenade in my mind in terms of reframing the way I viewed western attitudes towards other cultures. And other thoughtful women have brought to life other times and places in ways that have radically changed the way I view the world – Amy Tan and Hilary Mantel for example.
As I’ve become a mother and teacher, I’ve discovered a whole world of children’s literature beyond Enid. From those that have my children howling with laughter, such as little moles with poos on their heads, to the wide eyed wonder of Harry Potter, I’ve had so much pleasure from seeing them become avid readers. And in class I’ve used books as portals to worlds way beyond those that simply analyse sentence structure or the use of metaphor. Books are the means by which children engage with lives and worlds beyond their own experience. And as I know, books can heal. Every Child a Reader is not an economic aim to me; not a matter of test results and future jobs. It’s a moral crusade. For if every child is a reader, there may be no place for loneliness in the world.