So what makes good children’s books?

I’ve talked about some of the children’s books that had a negative effect on me; what about the positive side?

The biggest positive has to be Enid Blyton.  I know she has a lot of critics these days, but she got an awful lot of children reading.  I grew up with the Famous Five, Five Find-outers, Secret Seven, Magic Faraway Tree and many other series and stand-alones.  One type of book that I loved was the short stories that would explain things from nature – like why the magpie’s nest is always a mess, and how the fairies use poppy seed heads as salt shakers.  Sure her characters were very simplified, and the Famous Five stayed the same age for years and years, but her adventures were exciting.  I still remember the first ever Famous Five book I read – it was number 8 in the series, and included kids held captive in the grounds of a large house until one hid inside the boot of a car and escaped.  I still remember the fear I shared as the kid climbed out of the boot, so stiff he could hardly move, and tried to run to the police station before the bad guy caught him.

I was really disappointed when I learnt that unlike the children in her stories I wouldn’t be going away to school – I was forever like Pip in the Five Findouters, sitting at home longing for the time I was old enough to be sent away, and I couldn’t understand why adventures and crimes followed them everywhere while I saw none of it.

Another author who had a great influence on me growing up was Leslie Charteris, who wrote the Saint books.  These were the first adult books I ever read – I picked up the first one sitting on the stairs waiting for the bathroom to be free.  I’d always assumed that they were religious books, but somehow I was captured by the first few pages of Saint Overboard, and he became an obsession for the next few years – in fact I always say I chose my secondary school on the basis that their school library contained Saint books I hadn’t read! I think he was a remedy for all those Uncle Arthur stories: a character who thumbed his nose at the law, made his own justice and got away with anything up to and including murder – but for the best possible reasons.

I would guess that the third strand of books that had a great influence on me were all the pony books I would read – the Pullein-Thompson sisters are the only authors I can remember offhand, but I read all those I could get my hands on.  Some stick in my mind – The Perfect Horse, where we meet a horse who can do no wrong.  Always brilliant even with a novice on board, he enters and wins competition after competition – until a strong rider is needed to nurse him through when he does make a mistake and loses confidence. Fire Horse – where a girl who loses her memory and her nerve after a riding accident learns to love and tame a horse that no-one else can handle, after rescuing him from a fire.  Monica Dickens’ House at the End of the World series – reading as an adult is terrifying, but as a kid, reading about these kids who lived in an old abandoned inn and took in animals was wonderful – never mind the meddling adults, the kids were coping just fine!  Each of these seems to have the thread of co-dependence between children and animals.

Throughout a lonely childhood, my books were my friends; they saw me through tough times and good times, and were always there, always reliable.  I lived for library visits, and would walk there and back by myself, often with my nose in a book as I walked.  Each book on my shelf was well loved and well read, and I would read anything I could, including some odd things: the annuals that used to come out with picture stories and longer stories, including boys’ books – that’s where I learnt most of what I know about cricket.  And old hardbacks with nothing to tell you what they contained – sometimes boring, sometimes turning out to be a complete gem, like Kit and the Mystery Man.

The way I understand the world is filtered through childhood experiences in books, often to the point where I can think back to the specific book that gave me that outlook.  And sucks to those who say Enid Blyton has a limited vocabulary – I can still remember coming across the word “seldom”, being told it meant the same as “rarely”, and trying to understand why anyone would want two words that mean the same thing!

Anyone else got childhood memories of books to share?  What do you remember most?

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