As a children’s writer, I am bound to be influenced by the books I read as a child, but when I look back, the strangest, most obscure books have left the biggest impression.
My earliest memory is a book called Unicorn Island, which my father read to me when I was three or four and I reread a million times afterwards. A coastal village of disparate animals live in fear of the offshore island, where white flashes of the dangerous unicorn can be seen circumnavigating the mountain.
When the hero’s little brother falls dangerously ill, he and his friends take it upon themselves to brave the island and come back with the healing herb. They discover all manner of wonderful things there, and the unicorn turns out to be the most marvellous of all. There is a slightly sinister atmosphere to the story and a gravity you don’t often find in picture books now…a precursor (but with a far longer story) of Where the Wild things Are.
Because I was often in bed with asthma, there were books I’d return to as a small child. The Adventures of Manly Mouse was one – Manly lived in a world where mice who went about their human endeavours in a little mousy town. He was a deliciously flawed character, often losing his job or breaking with good friends. He drove a dilapidated car and was easily duped by more suave mice. A phrase our family uses to this day came from the lips of one of Manly’s posh employers (who turned out to be a poor mouse in scam disguise)…and when I say shine, I don’t mean shine, I mean gleam. I when I say gleam, I don’t mean gleam, I mean glitter!
Some books I read too young. I can recall devouring Mary Poppins, which I was handed by my teacher in the reception class with the words, ‘you’re past all these baby books,’ but when I read it aloud to my children thirty years later, the only things that rang a bell was the marvellously flavoured medicine and a strange man on a ceiling.
I can’t pretend I didn’t grow up on Enid Blyton, but the works that made the most impression were the magical Narnia stories and Anne of Green Gables. I loved the way Anne hurtled through life. Her ‘modular’ way of learning (by making every mistake in the book – literally) suits me to this day. But, as the books watched her grow into a woman, I also (creep!) loved her commitment to duty and her attitude to life, which reminds me of that quote from Man for all Seasons, when Richard Rich asks… If I was, (a teacher) who would know it? And Thomas Moore replies…You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that…
In some ways, the books I read made me the person I am. They were probably more influential than my textbooks or my teachers…or even my parents. I’ve even tried to rewrite some of their ideas into my own work, although that has rarely worked, and most of those early stories were never published. They were my apprenticeship, I guess, and although almost all of them are gone from my hands, I will never forget their stories and characters.