As writers spruce themselves up in preparation for entering schools on World Book Day in order to bear witness that there are - honest! - real people behind books, I've been thinking about what books I read when I was at primary-school age that really turned me on - and why.
There was a great public library down the road, and, like some kind of ravenous termite, I burrowed through titles as fast as I could: first, E. Nesbitt, Biggles, the Jennings books, Just William, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Swallows and Amazons, Robert Louis Stevenson and Peter Pan.
|Adults hated this.|
But reading these cost me nothing of my prized pocket money. If I cared about reading something enough to part with my precious cash, then I must have really wanted to read it, right? So what were these items?
Firstly, I'm almost ashamed to admit it now, but I bought the whole set of Enid Blyton's Mystery Of
... paperbacks, featuring the Five Find-Outers. These were 2/6d each (12.5p nowadays - nothing. But given that I had 6d a week pocket money that was quite a big deal!).
These books epitomise everything that is completely wrong, from an adult's point of view, about Enid Blyton, being badly written, with sterotyped characters, and containing a character called Fatty. None of that mattered to me of course.
Apart from being page-turning whodunnits, there were three important other elements that made them attractive to this 8 or 9-year old: the children knew best, they solved mysteries without adult help, and the authority figure - usually a policeman - was completely stupid. I suspect the latter reason is particularly why adults frowned upon Blyton. But you can't knock the fact that she published a staggering 752 books in her life. That must be some kind of record. Even if they did have names like Noddy Loses His Clothes
|Matilda - probably the best model reader in the world.|
There's something in the British psyche: Britons are well known for their sense of fair play combined with a healthy disrespect for authority. And I think I know why. Most children's books liked by children perpetrate the idea that children know best - and what is fair - and adults don't. Roald Dahl is the obvious example, just look at Matilda
Then, I'd buy the Beano
. Like thousands of other kids. You won't be surprised if I tell you that Leo Baxendale, whom I've had the pleasure to meet a few times, and who came up with the Bash Street Kids
and Minnie the Minx
, is an out and out anarchist and has been all his life. That's anarchist in the traditional British sense, going all the way back to the Levellers and Robin Hood.
|Leo Baxendale's Bash Street Kids: anarcho-punks in the making.|
He believed that property is theft to the extent that he eventually sued his publishers, DC Thompson, for not paying him any royalties despite the millions they were making from his work - and then settled out of court for an undisclosed sum to pay his mother's medical costs.
And I bought Marvel comics, whether imported or reprinted in the pages of comics Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, Fantastic!
- hundreds of them, because they blew my mind with their sheer imagination. But in retrospect, I reflect that there was something else, something very special that made superheroes attractive to me - and to all kids who love them:
They have secret identities.
|Pure magic. My name is Thorpe. I WAS Thor!|
When bullied, persecuted Peter Parker became Spiderman, he left behind all of his troubles. When puny Bruce Banner transformed into the incredible Hulk, he could smash anybody. When the selfless and lame Don Blake hit his walking stick on the ground, it became Mjolnir, and he was the mighty God of Thunder, a noble Asgardian.
But all of these were secrets known only to themselves - and to me, the reader.
Stan Lee wrote all of these. He is a genius. Like Dahl, Blyton and Baxendale he knew how to create the equivalent of crystal meth on paper. Addictive or what?
These writers are not equal by the way. Today, I can't recall a single Blyton plotline. (And was she the first kids' writer to trademark her name as an instantly-recognisable signature? Is that part of her success - and should we all do this?) By contrast, very many of Stan the Man's stories and characters are burned into my brain. I'd say he was the most prolific of all these writers, and his inventions are the most successful (whether in terms of readership, sales or influence.)
Back to the subject of secret identities. It's not just that every kid longs to have special powers that could help them defeat their enemies (flying, super-strength, invisibility), it's that children have secret lives as well. For many grown-ups these secret lives are forgotten as they get older.
As a child I remember wondering why it was that adults seemed no longer to remember what it was like to be a child themselves, and vowed that I would do my best not to let the memory fade. I don't know whether I do - very well - but I certainly recall that feeling with great intensity.
The powerful idea that you have a secret self, with a special life known only to you, in which you accomplish remarkable deeds, heroic feats - and nobody else (adult) understands, nobody
must even know about this - is surely experienced by all children!
They are all, almost perpetually, engaged in one quest or another, one struggle, one battle, or one tumultuous adventure, whether it is emotional, adventurous, imaginative or intellectual. This is what's going on inside children's minds. All the time.
And this is what the best games, books, TV, films and so on both feed on, and feed into, in the fertile forming minds of children.
Always have. Always will.
I learned via and email from Random House this morning that today is Roald Dahl day, a day to celebrate mischief and mayhem (image to the left is from Random House). How appropriate for a Friday the 13th. The email urges us to "Visit
the official Roald Dahl site for ways to celebrate in your classroom or library
and learn about the man behind the stories: www.roalddahlday.info."
But personally, I just want to talk about my two favorite Dahl stories:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the first Roald Dahl book that I ever read, and I love it to this day. It both captures the childhood imagination and contains biting satire. Such a perfect blend! When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I learned to type. I practiced by copying Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sitting at the desk in my basement bedroom. I don't remember being bored for even a moment. Who wouldn't love (in regards to TV):
Before this monster was invented?'
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:
THEY...USED...TO...READ! They'd READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
(You can read the full poem at the RoaldDahlFans.com site.)
Although it is somewhat different from the book (particularly the songs), I also love the movie. The original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder, of course, not the travesty of an unnecessary remake. What child of the 70's doesn't occasionally find herself humming: "Oompa loompa doompety-doo". (Full song lyrics here, if you want them.) And who hasn't dreamed of the chocolate waterfall?
My other favorite Dahl story is Matilda. I'll even go so far in Matilda's case as to say that the movie may be better than the book. But the book is lovely, too. My favorite part of the movie is when young Matilda visits the library, and sits there and reads and reads. The image of this tiny person waiting for the walk light so that she can be with the books that are as necessary as breathing, well, of course it resonates.
My husband and I have already introduced the movie to our three year old daughter. We were a bit worried that she would find it scary, but I think (and this is the beauty of Dahl) that it is so over-the-top that she finds it hilarious. She loves the part where the indifferent parents throw the baby seat loose into the back of the station wagon, so that it careens all over place. I think that witnessing the terrible parents that DeVito and Perlman bring to life so well makes her feel more satisfied with her own life. Or something.
But for me, Matilda is special because we share the eternal love of books, and the knowledge that books can take you anywhere. Happy Roald Dahl Day! (And than you Random House for the idea for this post.)
What are your favorite Dahl books? What will you do to celebrate Roald Dahl Day?
© 2013 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate.
What am I reading now? Oak Island — A Tale of Two Treasures by Mary Donovan
The children’s literature blogosphere is expanding on a daily basis. As a result, every once in a while I stumble upon a site that’s a true gem. Elizabeth Bird, of a A Fuse #8 Production, gushed about Uncovered Cover Art in her latest edition of Fusenews.
The creator of the site, editor Heidi Kellenberger, describes the it as “a sketchbook of reimagined children’s books.” Uncovered Cover Art combines two of the things that I absolutely love: art and children’s literature. The creativity and imagination these talented artists possess is truly spectacular. Kellenberger says of the site,
Uncovered Cover Art is a celebration of creativity, children’s literature, and art.
This is for you.
This is for artists who want to show off their passion for illustrating
This is for art directors looking for artists, wondering if the editorial work in
Hot New Thing’s portfolio will transfer to children’s book illustration.
This is for agents on the lookout for new talent.
This is for children’s book lovers who stay up late imagining the faces of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Little Red Riding Hood.
But, wait, the fun doesn’t stop there. Kellenberger is giving her audience the opportunity to participate in the launch of Uncovered Cover Art by casting their vote. “The three most popular artists will receive a copy of Show and Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration.” Voting is currently underway and ends on Tuesday, August 30, 2011.”
A couple of my favourite pieces are Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Billy Nuñez and Matilda by Chrystal Chan. What are some of yours?
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