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To all the books we loved before

An ode to childhood reading.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

My biggest indulgence as a reader, is reading about books. I can’t resist the temptation of a title containing the words ‘booklover,’ ‘library,’ ‘ex libris.’ So, given an opportunity to write about the books I loved growing up feels like a pure, confectionary, indulgence.

When I think of my own childhood, the remembering always hones in on the books I read at the time. I think it’s easiest to picture it in the form of a neatly segmented orange. Each vesicle, as Anne Fadiman puts to us, works as a chapter, made up of all the books we accumulate over the years. Soon, without knowing it, the story of who we are becomes a collection of all the stories we’ve loved over the years.

Readers and bibliophiles aren’t just born; they’re made. They’re made in each visit to the library, taking out as many books as they can at one time, or, in sneaking in a few more chapters after lights out. It starts with one quick story before bed and then, before anyone can curb the addiction, you’re out of shelf-space to store all 60 of the Rainbow Fairies series. And for my parents at least, it was an addiction they were happy to feed.

But, these stories do more than just keep us entertained and quiet. The value in children’s literature is in its ability to spark an imaginative streak and provide a wide-eyed kid with their first experience of things outside of their own realities and knowledge. This was my own experience, and I can track the development of my love of art and history to books I read as a child, like Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet. A stolen painting, with two outcast kid protagonists, and riddles to solve along the way? Sign. Me. Up. Incidentally exposing kids to the value of museums, a love of learning and art history along the way? A luxury of kid’s fiction: lessons are neatly wrapped in the narrative arc of a protagonist that we imagine as ourselves.

The joy of reading when you are young is that so much of it is uncritical. You, as a child, are unanalytical of the world around you, and unaware of the lenses through which to deconstruct text and their meaning. It’s this simplicity that brings pure joy to the experience of reading. Everything is new, each thought you have feels like your own. This feeling, the wild vulnerability felt when being recognised for something you thought particular to you, is why, for so many young readers, there is an element of comfort in books.

This was absolutely the case for me when I recovered from my precocious 5-year-old, fairy-loving self and became a cripplingly shy 7-12-year-old. Too nervous to talk to strangers or answer the home phone, I was the kid in the corner tucked up with a book full of adventurous protagonists. I took a book with me almost everywhere I went – the dinner table, family friend’s houses, school – a habit that I am yet to shake.

These were the years of Enid Blyton, pure escapism in pretending it wasn’t so much the Famous Five, but instead, the Super Six. I spent years of my life solving riddles with Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society and climbing through cupboards with Lucy, dreaming of something so tempting as the White Witch’s Turkish delight. The books came in phases; historical fiction, like every ‘Royal Diary’ in the series, or Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein was followed quickly by high fantasy. If I wasn’t part of the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica by James A. Owen, then I was surely at Hogwarts, or along for the ride with Pseudonymous Bosch’s Secret Series.

It was these characters, Darrell from Malory Towers (another Blyton special), Louise Fitzhughes’ Harriet, from Harriet the Spy, Gregor, from Suzanne Collins’s criminally underrated first series, Gregor the Overlander, who became my friends in childhood. The best sort of friends, that gently guide you towards forming a sense of self. By defeating the evils in their own stories, the trope of having the good guys win provides in its own way, a version of morality that shapes a young person’s own moral code. Who knows what sort of ankle-tattoo having, arsonist, orphan-stealer I would have been without the warning contained in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Kazuo Ishiguro, at this year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival, made a point about the best books being the ones that stay with us afterwards. In my own life, this is felt in how often when sick or miserable, I turn to rereading old favourites. In particular, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me never fails to bring me a cathartic cry at the end of the book. Her book, a homage to Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time is the perfect example of the role that formative books play in our lives. Had Stead never read the infamous, ‘it was a dark and stormy night,’ she might never have written a novel. And had she never explained ‘why do we yawn?’ I might never have loved reading as much as I do now. It is this cyclical relationship that I think provides the most comforting form of familiarity in rereading, the ability to recognise in familiar pages our younger selves, like old acquaintances, and the inner kid who is amazed by discoveries that we take as given facts now.

I am who I am, in part, because of what I read when I was too young to worry about much else except when I was going to have an opportunity to go back to the bookstore. When people say that we are made up of the friends we keep and the family we have, they neglect to mention that we are also made up of every book we have read and loved.

I started this love letter to kid’s books with a clumsy metaphor about an orange. It is only fitting then, to return to this with Wendy Cope’s poem, ‘The Orange,’ which ends with some of the most tender words I could use to sign off in this ode to all the books we’ve loved before.

‘I love you, I’m glad I exist’ (to be able to read you).

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