Writer and reader Rachael King surveys the childhood reads that satisfy her as much now as they did then.
Do you read children’s books, even if you don’t have children of your own? “Of course not”, I hear you say, “I’m a grown-up. I have left behind childish things”. But go on, secretly, you really want to, don’t you. Because what is a children’s book but a map of the world, a life-altering experience distilled into a perfect package: a galloping story that leaves your hair swept back and your heart beating faster, or a gentle cajoling breeze that takes your hand and shows you magic hiding just out of sight? And don’t we all need a bit of magic right now?
W. H. Auden declared that if a children’s book isn’t good for adults as well, it just isn’t a good book. More recently, S. F. Said, author of the wonderful new Blakean fantasy Tyger, said on Twitter, “We call them children’s books, but really, they’re written for an audience that includes children, but excludes no-one. Children’s books are books for everyone.”
If that doesn’t convince you, stop what you are doing and go and read Katherine Rundell’s sparkling ode, Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. It puts into words everything I’m thinking as I merrily strain my eyes over my old, jaundiced Puffin editions.
Going back to your childhood reading offers not only comfort but intellectual joy – you will pick up on things that you didn’t as a child, because good books are multi-layered and offer a different experience for every reader, no matter what their stage of life. When Katherine Rundell writes for children, it is to satisfy both her child self (“autonomy, peril, justice, food and… a density of atmosphere”) and her adult self (“acknowledgements of fear, love, failure; of the rat that lives within the human heart”).
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, a rich, if not diverse, time for books. The books that were available to New Zealand children then were almost all written by white New Zealand, Australian, British and American authors, with occasional Scandinavians like Tove Jansson and Astrid Lindgren thrown in. Some of the books I read had Māori or Asian characters, but they were usually, apart from a few stories in the School Journal, written by Pākehā authors. So honestly revisiting my childhood books means a return to a landscape as snowy white as Narnia under the reign of the White Witch. Thankfully, today’s young people have a much wider choice of authors and stories, and much more chance of finding themselves in a book.
So with that in mind, and after trying and discarding some along the way, including Nancy Drew (read this for the best commentary ever), The Famous Five (boring!), Barbara Sleigh and Edward Eager (both of whom I adored but their sweetness and whimsy didn’t tickle my adult sensibilities), here are six books or series that reward returning to, or, if you didn’t encounter them in childhood, reading as an adult.
C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series
Children’s books are the ultimate in comfort reading, especially if you can remember what you were doing when you first read them. I picture my dad reading The Horse and his Boy aloud to me in my bunk when I was six, when he was living alone in a damp fibrolite bach after he and my mother separated. We had to abandon the book after I vomited all over it after too much fairy bread at a party, but he gave me the Narnia set for my next birthday, so I could read them myself. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read them. Yes, they had hidden Christian allegory and xenophobia that I was blind to, and Lewis did wrong by Susan in The Last Battle, but reading Narnia books will forever be tied to my memories of my late dad and other key flashbulb memories. If I had to choose a favourite it might be The Silver Chair: of all the Narnia children, I identified most with bullied Jill Pole, and mopey Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum, and it gave me complicated feelings about handsome, black-clad prince Rillian, my first literary crush.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner
I thought I had read The Owl Service as a child but when I picked it up last year, nothing about it was familiar to me. I found the book, which explores class and fate, mind-altering. To compound its strangeness, I watched the 1969 television adaptation straight after – and though the dialogue is almost word for word the same as the book, the children, who I had imagined to be about 14, are played by actors in their 20s, which heightens the psycho-sexual aspects of the book that might elude a child reader (or they might just feel something but not know what that is). The three teenagers play out an ancient love triangle that is doomed to be repeated in the small Welsh hamlet, seemingly forever. The ending is chaotic and mystical, abrupt and unexpected, as the perceived hero of the book lets the side down (she wanted flowers, not owls, you fool!). A couple of years earlier I read the more conventional The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which people look back on with moon-eyed nostalgia, but it was, frankly, disappointing and boring. I feel like a philistine for saying it, but I feel reassured that even Alan Garner called it “a fairly bad book”. So skip the Weirdstone and go for The Owl Service I reckon. Then watch the freaky TV adaptation.
Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
A classic timeslip novel which sees a 1950s boarding school pupil waking up in the same bed, but in the body of Clare, from 1918, while World War One still rages. I remembered the premise but hadn’t appreciated the beauty of the writing and how Farmer uses landscape to convey the melancholy tone, and the poignancy of the effects of war on the community. I was possibly one of the few people to come to The Cure via Penelope Farmer rather than the other way around. Robert Smith blatantly lifted the lyrics and title for his song Charlotte Sometimes directly from the book (The tears were pouring down her face / She was crying and crying for a girl / Who died so many years before…) The music video shows a sexy soft-focus schoolgirl (Charlotte is 13 in the book), haunted inexplicably by a Victorian version of herself. Farmer wrote honestly and humbly about her experience of being ripped off by, forgiving, and meeting Smith, in that order. She speaks of how she was struggling financially while the band was getting rich but conceded that the song gave the book another life, including sales it might not otherwise have had.
Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park
Set in Sydney, this 1980 novel is another timeslip story. Abigail, furious at her family situation, follows a mysterious girl – Beatie Bow – back into 1873. The Rocks of the nineteenth century come alive in vivid, cacophonous detail, as does the Bow family and their Orkney dialect. I remember reading and loving the book at 11 or 12, but as an adult was surprised by dense, lyrical descriptions and the menace that Abigail faces. At one point she is abducted and narrowly misses being sold for her virginity – I’m not sure how much I would have understood at that age, so it was worth coming back for a second read. There’s also the blossoming of first love, and a candid account of all the kinds of kisses Abigail has endured up until that point (“hot muffin” and “hairy sardine”) alongside intricate details of the types of ships that sailed in Sydney Harbour at the time. It must have been educational in more ways than one, but the thrill of the story hasn’t dimmed in 40 years, and it’s easy to see why it’s an enduring classic of Australian children’s literature (even though Park was born a New Zealander).
Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee
Under the Mountain is a foundational text in the King family. In 1980, my brother Jonathan and I lived in Auckland, side-eying volcanoes, and we auditioned (unsuccessfully) for the parts of Rachel and Theo in the iconic TV series. My brother went on to direct the 2009 film version. Gee, according to his biography by Rachel Barrowman, wanted to write for his own children, but also he’d heard that “children’s book as a rule sold better than adult ones”, so he turned to, of all books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen for inspiration. It really holds up to an adult reading. Gee’s language is typically elegant and never dumbed down for its audience, and because he thought victory was often scored too easily by child heroes, he kills off cousin Ricky at the end, “floating face down in a sea as black as oil.” And then Lake Pupuke erupts causing death and destruction… it is dark. He may have regretted frightening the bejeesus out of a generation.
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
These books meant way more to me than I can fit into a couple of hundred words. When I discovered them aged 12, in exile from my family, boarding with friends in Hastings and feeling desperately melancholy, they shaped my worldview, made me yearn to visit Cornwall and Wales and to feel the pulsing of the Dark, the Light, and the Wild Magic beneath my feet wherever I stood. So naturally I read the series every decade and they never lose their shine. Susan Cooper is having a bit of a renaissance of late, thanks to Robert Macfarlane and his annual #TheDarkisReading hashtag, and the incredible BBC audio adaptation he wrote, which was broadcast this past Christmas.
Many people have read The Dark is Rising, but reading the whole series back-to-back is an immersive, wonderous experience. While the first, Over Sea,Under Stone, has been described as “Five Go to Cornwall” in its tone, the series gathers gravitas as it goes. The Grey King is Cooper at the height of her writing power. I find the magic never leaves me; I just need to pump it up every now and again.
In the wonderful Backlisted podcast episode on The Dark is Rising, Macfarlane as guest says: “We’re all in exile from our childhoods, looking back at a threshold we can’t cross.” As a child, I very much yearned for the future and what it might bring. While reading these books can’t and shouldn’t put you back over the threshold, I reckon travelling back in time with all the knowledge and experience you have now, meeting your forward-looking self and striking up a conversation, might be just thing you need right now.
But Katherine Rundell says it better: “Plunge yourself soul-forward into a children’s book: see if you do not find in them an unexpected alchemy; if they will not un-dig in you something half hidden and half forgotten.”