The books that shape us: Francis Spufford, Lev Grossman & Lucy Mangan
Built by books

That books that shaped me

The Blackberry Bush

Sleepy Time Tale

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."    - Jane Yolen

As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many essays over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child, and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.

I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the 1960s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.

Little Golden Book editions

I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.

Sleepy Time Tale

My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.

What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, the unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the sole source of her misery and shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.

Little 'Fraid of the Dark (from the Book Trails series)

We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.

Peter Pan illustration

In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.

Book Trails (Lawrence & Shepard, Inc. 1928)

Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.

The Little White Bed That Ran Away

Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.

The Story of the Three Little Doggies

The Chicks  That Stayed Up Late (from the Book Trails series)

One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.

"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"

The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"

"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."

The Fat Little Fairy

Little meIt's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. More than fifty years have passed, yet that unwanted child is at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone. Months passed, years passed, and no one did, so I was parented by books instead.

It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.

Table of Contents illustration from the Book Trails series"I  don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."

Little Milk, Little Cereal, and Grey Kitten Moorka

Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was  The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian MunnLittle Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.

Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.

The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane

None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.

Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.

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A Story Book (from Book Trails)

Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013).

Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.

Comments

I am a product of books too, and was lucky to have parents who didn't censor my reading as Mum would read anything and everything. Each week we had a visit to the children's section of our local library and would choose 4 books (only 4, it was never enough). Our small provincial library must have had a genius children's librarian as the shelves were stocked with books from so many different publishers, many American. I read Russell Hoban's Jam for Francis and Mum and I would build a den under the dining table so I could be Francis. We read Anatole the Cheese Mouse, Mary Plain. Everything by Ruth Manning Saunders and then on and into whatever took our fancy.

I have such different memories to you, being blessed to the the last child in the family, with two half brothers, I was my Mum's only one and came later on. She was such an incredible and strong person, taking on two very young boys and a widower; she adored my brothers and my Dad just as much as she loved me. She welcomed their Mum into the house and I marvel now at how she wove my Dad's first wife into our lives so that she would not be forgotten by her boys. I wish I had half her serenity, patience and empathy.

I think it showed in the books she chose for our shared reads. Although she loved to lose us in other worlds and fairy takes, like you she preferred the real ones. I think sharing reading is one of the ways a parent can have that moment out of time, away from the world, where they can share connections that mean as much to them as to us. Thank you for the generosity of your sharing; it brought me some very happy memories. At my Mum's funeral the euology I wrote centred on how I will always find her in books.

While reading your post Terri, I was transported back to my own book-reading childhood. How I gloried in books! I too, loved "The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane" by Ian Munn, but had forgotten it until now. A wave of nostalgia passed through me as I recognized the story and those oh-so-sweet drawings. Thank you opening my memory's door.

I gobbled up books as an only child in London during and just after WW2 -- the "Green Fairy Book," the "Just So stories," E.Nesbit's books about the Five Children and the Arden family stories, Kenneth Graheme -- I loved the escape fantasy provided. But the most moving of all books -- and one that I sought for and bought again, secondhand at great cost online recently -- is "The Tree That Sat Down," by Beverley Nichols, a bitter-sweet story about a girl who lives in the woods with her grandmother (a witch), a bear who escapes from cruel owners, and a very tired old tree. I'm a great-grandmother now, but that story still moves me. As a writer myself, I aspire to have that affect on my readers.

Thanks for this lovely post. You are so right, and it can work for adults too. When I lived in the US I joined Literacy Volunteers of America and spent a couple of years helping to teach a lady I'll call Jean, whose reading age was about that a five year old , though she was in her fifties. She'd had a hard life but was wonderfully engaged in everything I taught her. (Points of the compass? 'Gee, Katherine, the things you tell me are so interesting!') I used to buy her children's early readers, and the ones she loved the best were the ones about animals. 'Buddy the First Seeing Eye Dog' was to her, sacred scripture. There was a line in that slim illustrated book that brought tears to her eyes every time: Buddy and his blind master are on an ocean liner heading to Europe, and the owner loses his purse with all his money in it. The blind man is unaware of his loss: the dog retrieves the purse and brings it to his master, who caresses the dog with the words, 'Buddy, you mean more to me than all the dollars in the world!' Jean would read this aloud and tear up every time; I'm sure she still doe.s I hope she's ok. She used to write to me, but I haven't heard from her for a couple of years now. That book was like gold to her.

This is a tender post, filled with your personal memories it makes for an even more precious gift. I grew up in post-WWII Hawaii, an occupied nation an then a territory where written stories of my native culture were not a thing to read.
As you describe the sweet yet soppy tales, and the 'red book' I knew them too along with the primers of kindergarten where I read about Dick and Jane doing things, and looking like some neighborhood I should have known, but didn't.
There would be decades of unlearning, and reimagining to find the myths and tales that spring from the music and language so long buried and banned. Like you, those stories shaped me because it was the shape of letters, and my genetic strength for sound and rhythms that kept my imagination and soul alive until I could hear and re-orchestra the magic of storytelling.
Metaphor crosses borders and color guards. I am grateful to be living proof, story is powerful magic.
Thank you once again for the generous space you share!

This was so true and I'm so glad you put into words something that somehow "legitimises" my choice of books as a child. I was an avid reader as a child and my childhood was filled with books and authors whose value people now question - or in many cases don't question because no-one now has heard of them. But I enjoyed them. I found them exciting or scary or moving. And like you I learned from them; I let the characters in the stories shape my moral outlook. Like you I read many books that I would not now recommend, but I wouldn't change reading them. They are part of my history just as the books children are reading now will be part of theirs.

I was lucky! I had both those Golden Book Disney adaptations and the originals. I’m 68 years old. Those tales are still with me.

I am saddened by this post and regret reading it. It started off so well and made me tear up and think what wonderful books these must be, then turned into an attack on these same books with a scattering of contempt.

I have been reading your words for years and I think this is the first time I have encountered some sort of snobbery in them and it's off-putting.

On one hand you spoke so open-heartedly about your love for these books and was so generous about your upbringing. Yet on the other you tore these same books down with a mighty thud.

You seem so adamant that you are a better writer than these examples and seem desperate to prove to your readers (or is it your peers in your profession?) that this kind of writing is beneath you. I like what Neil Gaiman said and will seek out more of his work now as I've only read a few short stories of his in various anthologies. So thank you for including that quote of his.

You've written previously about everyone's taste being different and how you can't please everyone and how artists should follow their own voice. You mentioned even The Wood Wife has been pronounced as bad. I don't think the world should be filled with "poor" writing but I do think some "poorly" written books have their place and purpose. As you wrote, this kind of writing did serve a purpose - it kept you alive and it's all still with you to this day. So why tear it down?

Maybe I've read this post in a wrong way. I think a couple of paragraphs weren't needed, especially the last. It would've been perfect without them. I guess I just find it sad that my favourite writer couldn't talk fondly about these books without putting them down.

Katherine Langrish - Thank you for your above comment. It warmed my heart and I cried and cried.

I'm sorry you felt that way, Rose, but I stand by my essay. I do believe that writing is a craft, and that, in terms of pure craft, there is good writing, adequate writing, and poorly crafted writing -- I've been a book editor for 30-plus years, and I couldn't do my job if I didn't acknowledge that. I never said that I believe myself to be in the first category, and that's not an assertion I'd make. Most writers, including me, have done some poorly-crafted work at some point or another, and I still wince at mine.

In this post, it was my intent to show that even books that are not well crafted can have true value, tell true things, and steal into the heart; that books dismissed as "bad," in craft terms, by reviewers and book scholars (as "The Little Mailman" was in the 1950s, for example) can be "good" books in the hands of a reader who loves them. I am showing the conflict in me of the professional editor/critic/scholar of fantasy literature who knows certain books are not objectively well written and yet loves them fiercely anyway....and I come down in the end (as Neil Gaiman does in the passage I quoted) on the side of love, not objective critique.

Every book, and essay, means different things to different readers. I'm sorry this essay didn't work for you, but I don't feel there is snobbery in it -- rather, wonder at the many ways that all kinds of stories bury inside us, change us, save us.

Thank you for your long, thoughtful comments, everyone. I truly love hearing about the books of your childhood.

Thank you Terri for your calm and detailed response to my comment.

I understood your post and how we can deeply love things in spite of their level of greatness. It was nice to have a kind reply, rather than a defensive one that a lesser person like me might have provided.

My feelings were strong and urgent and because they were my first feelings, they felt true. One of those moments when ignoring a need felt worse than acting on it, to hell with any consequence. I asked myself if I was brave enough, and individual enough, to disagree with the direction a writer I respect had taken, and to express a disappointment with a perceived tone. I felt the need to stick up for this and comment. I slept on my feelings and still felt the same the next day; I took that as a sign.

It's funny because I understood your point but wondered if it was necessary and now I wonder if it was my comment that was necessary at all.

I hope I don't come across as going overboard here. My original comment was the first time I've engaged on this site and as soon as I pressed post it already felt overwhelming. A sign of my experience.

I'm a fan of your work Terri. Thank you for providing a comments section on your posts and for allowing your readers the chance to disagree with you, express their feelings, or just make a fool of themselves.

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