I know I was read to as a child, but I can’t remember what. Books were important in my household, and though we didn’t actually own many, we had a Colliers Encyclopaedia and some Reader’s Digest collections, we were a family who read. I remember going to the state library with my mother and brother in the middle of Hobart on a very regular basis as a child, and graduating from the children’s section to the adult. As a teenager I kept going – I especially remember stocking up for summer reading lying on the banana lounge in the back yard listening to the cricket.
But as I think back, I can’t remember the one book that impressed me but I do recall several that I loved and consider intrinsic to my childhood and fostered my love of reading and writing.
Let’s begin with bears. I loved Winnie the Pooh and still have an old red covered edition with my full name and address written in it in my mother’s hand, so I must have owned that early. I adored Pooh, coped with Piglet, found Owl too much, loved Tigger and Eeyore in equal measures and was thrilled to bits that a book had Australian animals in it in the shape of the irrepressible Roo and the maternal Kanga. I think I lived in the 100 Acre Wood for many years.
My other favourite bear was Paddington. I must have read all of them and have the collected works for my own children. I had this very clear image of Portobello Road for years, which when I got here to see it bore absolutely no resemblance to my imaginings! At least the Browns’ house cannot be similarly disabused. I have my own Paddington Bear too – one of the last gifts from my mother.
My favourite Australian writer was Nan Chauncy who wrote children’s adventure books from 1947 to 1969. I loved They Found a Cave, where the children outsmart the adults, living happily in a cave (a real cave used by Bushrangers outside Bagdad in Tasmania) until returned to civilization. But my favourite was the story set in Port Davey (Half a World Away – I think) where the family moves to the end of the civilized world and the daughter gets a wombat as a pet. Oh, did I want a wombat, was my heart set on having a wombat? Did I get a wombat, dear reader? Sadly no, although my father did build a pen that would keep one safe but my parents baulked at the last minute, taking advice from wild-life rangers that to keep a wombat as a pet was unwise, despite an acre of bush at the backdoor.
But it was the ‘girl’s books’ that hit me where I lived and made me write my first stories. I loved the Katy Did series (especially as my parents called me Kate); Heidi and all of the Anne (of Green Gables) books too – Nova Scotia seemed a lot like Tasmania to me. Little Women as well – I was Jo. That was the thing, you could be the hero(ine), get into trouble, not be so pretty, life was full of ups and downs but you’d be okay. They were books with clear unambiguous messages – being a girl is no barrier to having a life.
Anne, Katy, Heidi, Jo – you learnt about friendship, family, suffering, being tough, loss, love and you wanted to be like them and for me, like Jo, I wanted to write about them, or versions of them.
For many of us growing up is difficult. We aren’t the pretty, popular ones, we struggle to find our role, our place in the cosmos; our families are unhappy, violent scary places where love is not assured. Reading is the calm in the storm, the desert island you can ship-wreck yourself on, escaping to other worlds where friends call to you.
Reading got me through a lonely childhood, the troubled teens, as did my first stories, which told me I had some talent somewhere. Reading keeps me going now. It nourishes the spirit, takes us away to other places, times, to live with new friends. I couldn’t write if I didn’t read and I wouldn’t be who I am today without the books of my childhood.
Anne of Green Gables, etc by Lucy Maud Montgomery, first published 1908
What Katy Did, etc by Susan Coolidge, first published 1872
Heidi by Johanna Spyri, first published 1880
Little Women, etc by Louisa May Alcott, first published 1868
(Images courtesy Google Images)
Tags: Anne of Green Gables, australian animals, banana lounge, Heidi, library, Little Women, lonely childhood, Nan Chauncy, Paddington Bear, port davey, reading to escape, summer reading, They Found a Cave, troubled teens, What Katy Did, Winnie the Pooh, wombats, writing