I always remember at school what a treat it would seem to get that £1 World Book Day token each year. While most of my classmates swiftly discarded theirs under desks or at the bottom of bags – those more business savvy might even trade them for something they deemed more valuable – I was the kid who took the utmost care of that little piece of paper and couldn’t wait to get to the nearest bookshop where I would inevitably wear my mum’s patience thin by spending far too long choosing something to add to my already overflowing bookshelves.
Between solving mysteries with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, giving myself nightmares from Roald Dalh’s The Witches and, of course, wishing an letter of acceptance from Hogwarts would arrive in the post, books played a huge part in my childhood (and, it would seem, my young-adulthood as I now find myself almost halfway through an English degree in spite of ever dwindling job prospects). I would rarely leave my bedroom, let alone my house, without a trusty book to accompany me, and in light of last week’s World Book Day celebration I thought I would take a moment to reflect on some of the stories that have stayed with me as I’ve grown up.
As a child there are few things as thrilling as a good adventure story, and some of my favourites were Eva Ibbotson’s novels, in particular Journey to the River Sea, which I remember reading over and over again. Following the plight of orphaned protagonist Maia as she sets out for Brazil to live with her relatives, this book definitely ranks as one of my childhood favourites; I was always delighted by the twists and turns in the plot, and enthralled by the vivid Amazon setting. I was likewise enchanted by Ibbotson’s The Star of Kazan which left me with a (still unfulfilled) ambition to visit the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Although perhaps a tad idealistic to my now more cynical reading, I still think there is a certain charm in Ibbotson’s books, in particular in her knack for infusing the locations of her stories with such life that, aged ten, I felt as if I knew Vienna and Brazil so well I might have lived in both places myself.
Continuing down the path of mystery and adventure, it is probably unsurprising that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was another favourite of mine. Spoiled brat-ish Mary is a refreshing contrast to the entirely innocent heroines of Ibbotson’s books, and for kids I think there is definitely a grow-with-the-character aspect to this kind of protagonist. The garden itself is an alluring concept – what child doesn’t want a ‘secret’ place to hide out with friends and call their own? There is definitely something magical about this one that makes it appeal to children and adults alike, and it is thoroughly deserving of its position as one of the reigning classics of children’s literature.
One final thing I find striking as I think back over some of the books I read as a child is how so many of them simply transcend time. Not only can re-reading a childhood favourite revive the delight felt upon first encountering it, but there are so many books marketed for children that are in fact quite complex if we come back to them when we’re older – take Watership Down, The Hobbit and even To Kill a Mockingbird. All three have been labelled ‘children’s books,’ yet that is certainly not to say that their readership is or should be restricted to children. Overall I think there is a lot to be said for children’s literature, and even more to be learnt from it, be it profound life lessons or basic literacy. In this so called digital age I can only hope that books won’t be neglected by future generations of children as they grow up, and this is exactly why events like World Book Day, trivial as they may seem, are really quite important.