Saturday, 17 March 2012

Childhood Favourites: You've told me yours...

Inspired (as I hoped I would be) by all the many contributions I received in regards to my previous entry on Childhood Favourites, I think I've finally managed to cobble together a list of some of my old favourites from my younger years. I'll tell you what though, it wasn't easy; at one point, said list was about two dozen books long, and it took a fair bit of ruthless trimming to get it down to the more manageable selection below. I would like to take a few moments, though, to remember the few that didn't quite make the list...
  • The Animal Ark series, by Ben M. Baglio under his alias, Lucy Daniels. As a child, I was convinced I wanted to be a vet when I grew up, and this series of books about a girl who's parents are both vets, and who manages to rescue dozens of animals, was right up my street. 
  • The Twins At St. Clare's, by Enid Blyton. Much in the same vein of Mallory Towers, this was the first book in a series about two Irish twins and their escapades at their boarding school. It was jolly ripping to read and excellent fun, what with the circus and the midnight feast and all. Spiffing!
  • Danny, The Champion Of The World, by Roald Dahl. Like most people who mentioned Dahl, I found it really hard to pick just one, but eventually I succeeded. This was a close second, what with all the drugged pheasants, trout-tickling doctors and general espionage.
 Valiant though these books are, they aren't quite so close to my heart as my (current) selection, but I still felt they deserved a mention at the very least. I've also not included Vampire Park by Willis Hall, or Winnie The Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul, as they were both mentioned in my previous entry on the subject, and I felt it was time to make room for a few more. It also freed up two more spaces, so I'm being economical.

So we've had the starters - onto the main event!

George's Marvellous Medicine, by Roald Dahl
  This was a genuinely tough choice, as I've recently had the pleasure of being able to re-read most of Roald Dahl's books. My parents bought one of my cousins a boxset of all the most popular Roald Dahl books - about 15 in all - for a Christmas present one year, and I was so insanely jealous that I spent a good half an hour organising the books in the order I thought my poor cousin should read them. Apparently the hints I dropped later in the car were heard, because the next year, I got the same boxset all to myself, and I've worked my way through it more than once. Now, when I asked all my Facebook and Twitter chums what their favourite books from childhood were, Roald Dahl cropped up more than once, though mostly as a general choice. I challenged myself to pick one, and it was hard; there was The Giraffe, The Pelly And Me, about a young boy who opens a sweet shop with a giraffe, a pelican and a monkey; the aforementioned Danny, The Champion Of The World, and of course, a girl after my own heart, the book-gobbling Matilda. But in the end, I knew it had to be George's Marvellous Medicine. Why? Because it's the only book I ever tried to copy. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, fill the sink half up with water, and then add bits of everything I could find in the bathroom - soap, shampoo, face cleanser, toothpaste, sun cream and aftersun, all mixed together with the end of my sister's toothbrush, and topped off with a squirt of my dad's shaving foam to give it that 'mediciney' look. I'd do the same in the summer months, except with a bucket of water, and bits of all the plants in the garden, with soil to thicken it up. I never dared drink either mixtures, of course - even I knew that such concoctions were more likely to send me to A&E than sixty feet up in the air - but it was excellent fun, especially the bathroom medicine, which always went a cool shade of turquoise thanks to the toothpaste and mouthwash. Roald Dahl never forgot what it was like to be a child; he knew how they thought, and he certainly had the measure of kids like I was when he wrote this.

A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
 I was a tomboy when I was young - I fractured my arm playing football, got in trouble for taking off my Holy Communion dress to climb a tree before anyone got to take a photo, and had to be helped out of a conifer by a neighbour on a ladder after I climbed up too high and couldn't get back down (protestations that I knew what I was doing, and was taking my time, were not believed). But, like so many little girls, I loved the idea of being a princess, and this story - a riches-to-rags-back-to-riches tale of a young girl at a boarding school - captured my heart. I actually read a 'modern' re-write first, which I don't remember a lot about, apart from the main character was American and got her computer taken away - but that first taste was outclassed by the original tale. It's not just the fairytale-like qualities that I loved; it was the overcoming of obstacles by Sara, the main character, and the strength of her mind, her kindness and her belief in happy endings that attracted me. Sometimes now I do read it and Sara does seem a little bit too perfect - her one 'weakness' is a slight temper, which is revealed once in an altercation with an older pupil at her school - but the feeling the story gives me remains the same; a sheer childlike delight at the 'Magic' that Ram Dass works, her love of the Large Family across the square, and the pantomime-villain behaviour of Miss Minchin, the antagonistic proprietor of the school.

Adventures Of The Wishing Chair, by Enid Blyton
 I'm a bit embarrassed at how I forgot about Enid Blyton's books when I first tried to think of my favourite children's books; she wrote so many, after all. But when I got down to some serious thinking on my own favourites of hers, it was this one that popped up in my head first. I don't think it was as popular as The Magic Faraway Tree, which I have to say I've never read, but I think it was in the same vein. Mollie and Peter get rescued by a flying chair from an antique shop whilst shopping for their mother's birthday present, and when the chair stays with them, they discover it can fly them to Fairyland, and all other kinds of magical places! Naturally, they go on many jolly adventures, and even rescue a pixie, Chinky, who comes to live in their toy room and look after the chair for them. I've got to admit; I don't actually remember any of the places that they go on said chair, but it's the feeling that counts here; the idea that, with the right kind of transport, you can visit the most amazing places. Much like all of Blyton's books, they are a bit sickly-sweet; everyone's ever so nice to each other, and ever so remorseful when they're told they're being a bit beastly, and it's not a proper meal unless it's washed down with lashings of ginger beer - but I don't think it's the proper Blyton experience unless it's got that Wartime-Britain style patter to it. I've heard that quite a few of Blyton's series have since had 'new' titles written for them in recent years - More Wishing Chair Stories, published in 2000, is an example - but I really don't agree with this; it's just publishers trying to cash in on the nostalgic feel of Blyton's books, and you can't recreate that. Adventures Of The Wishing Chair is maybe not the best of Blyton, but it's a magical collection of tales that still, from time to time, make me hopeful that the next chair I sit in is a wishing chair. So far, no such luck.

Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling
 Anyone who's read this blog a few times will probably know that I am a sucker for a beautiful looking book - I'm a bit shallow like that - and this has got to be the first book I fell in love with, lookswise. The particular edition, pictured - which I have had for as long as I can remember - has the most gorgeous illustrations by Isabelle Brent, with metallic highlights, spectacular borders and a feel of magic to them; it's a joy to look at, and I remember flicking through the book to just look at the pictures more than once when I was a child. But the magic of the book is not, of course, in the pictures; it's in the stories, and O, Best Beloved, what stories they are! Written in a way that is almost lyrical, yet with a childlike feel, this collection of short stories explains the answers to such questions as How The Leopard Got His Spots, How The Alphabet Was Made and The Beginning Of The Armadillos - which, by the way, are my three all-time favourites of the Just So Stories. It's hard to explain why I love this book so much; again, I think it comes down to how it makes me feel. When I pick up the Just So Stories, I am transported to beautiful, hot, mystical countries, which are home to speaking animals, Djinns, and men of infinite-resource-and-sagacity. You can tell just from reading these books that Kipling was a man who read much, saw much and lived in exotic countries, but also had children, and had written these stories for them. For a long time I thought my love for this book was largely down to the illustrations by Isabella Brent, but a few months ago I found an edition in what might be considered a 'grown up' format, and I was so excited I snapped it up at once. Even without Brent's pictures, I still felt the same joy as I read through the stories, and this is how I know I love the Just So Stories.

Prince Caspian, by C. S. Lewis
 First of all, I'd just like to say - it was flipping difficult, trying to find an image for this entry, because thanks to Disney and Ben Barnes, all that came up on Google images for ages were stills and promo shots for the film! Anyway - this might seem like an odd choice, as surely the obvious option is The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? Well maybe - if I'd read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe first. As it happens, I actually read Prince Caspian first, as when I was growing up it was the only one of The Chronicles Of Narnia that we had in the house, for some reason - in fact, it wasn't until I was writing my university dissertation on Classical influences in Narnia that I even read the full series. I think what appealed to me most about this book was the fact that I didn't know what happened in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, beyond what the characters discussed - this meant that I felt more curiosity about this Golden Age of Narnia, and of Aslan, as I was not familar with their roles, or the events, of LWW. For instance, I didn't know why Edmund didn't get a present from Father Christmas, and I didn't understand the curious nature of Narnian time in relation to Greenwich Mean Time. Consequently, even though it's technically a sequel, it was an entirely new novel to me, with brand new characters to become acquainted with, new mysteries to understand and geography to become familiar with - the ruins of Cair Paravel were a particular example of this, as I managed to get a sense of nostalgia for the magnificent palace it once had been without ever knowing it as said magnificent palace. Prince Caspian not only introduced me to Narnia, but also instilled in me a fierce desire to know more about the fictional country, and it's inhabitants; it may even be partially responsible for why I was able to write my dissertation with as much enthusiasm and interest as I did. When I read Prince Caspian now, I remember how I felt those first times I read it - the nostalgia for something I didn't really know, the desire to learn more, the interest in Narnia - it reminds me why I love books; the power they have to make you want more.

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