There are so many writers I adore and who have touched my life – Harper Lee, Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Khaled Husseini, Alice Walker, Oscar Wilde – all have touched my life in some profound and beautiful way through their writing. So much so that they were used as table names at my wedding, though the high-brow literary cache was somewhat diminished by my husband’s insistence that they be couple with the names of his favourite Colchester United players.
But there was one name I left off the list, perhaps because it wouldn’t fit in with my pretence of being truly intellectual. Yet he is arguable my favourite writer of all time…
I remember having Dahl’s books read to me as a child.
I remember devouring Dahl’s books as soon as I had the ability to read myself, sneaking out of bed to turn on the light and staying up late into the night because I couldn’t bear to go to sleep until I got to the end.
I remember the sheer childish joy of stumbling across my Roald Dahl collection one summer when I was home from university. There they were – dusty, tattered, well worn and waiting to be discovered under my childhood bed. I snuggled under the duvet and gobbled up George’s Marvellous Medicine in one gulp.
Now, finally, I have reached arguably the best stage of parenting as I get to enjoy Roald Dahl’s masterpieces all over again.
We started with The Twits; short, simple to follow and so easy to love – who doesn’t love to imagine what’s caught up in that beard?
Now I’ve passed on my love affair. We’ve cheered on Bruce Bogtrotter, meandered through giant country and learned about the joys and perils of Hugtight Sticky Glue. We’ve marvelled at George’s medicine, clung tight to the stalk of the giant peach, revelled in the misfortunes of those horrid little brats in Mr Wonka’s factory, and are now soaring through space in a great glass elevator.
No one in the world got children like Roald Dahl did, and no one else can bring back the child in an exhausted, over-worked, guilt-ridden working mum of two in quite such a wondrous way.
Reading Roald Dahl truly is a phizz-whizzing experience!
I am a huge advocate of children reading. I’m not sure you’ll find a bigger one. When I first became a Godmother, I shunned the traditional silver bangles and rattles (what is the point?) and instead bought a library of classics. She may only have been a couple of months old, but you are never too young for Dear Zoo!
Aside from the many cognitive and educational benefits, it is one of the few guaranteed ways of getting a cuddle once the kids are old enough to run away from you and, quite frankly, I don’t know how anyone gets through bedtime without a story
Yet, if reading is supposed to calm and relax children before bed, why are we determined to scare them?
Have you read any children’s books recently? I have. Sadly, there is an awful lot of rubbish out there. Peppa Pig books make me want to climb the walls and nothing compares to the mind numbing boredom of being preached at about emotions in ‘Anna Angrysaurus’.
Thankfully, my extensive research has allowed us to find a huge number of excellent books, but I am slightly disturbed by how keen we seem to be to terrify our children just before they go to sleep.
Let’s start with the classics. Grimm’s fairy tales certainly live up to their name, with a genuinely disturbing view on the world where curses are commonplace, parents show their love for their children by locking them in towers and small children escape getting eaten by witches only to turn delinquent and burn said witch alive.
Then again, being eaten seems to be a recurring theme. From Red Riding Hood and the wolf, to the witch in Room on the Broom and the dragon, imminent ingestion seems to be a permanent threat in a child’s world. Often it remains only a dark threat, or something just escaped by the wily protagonists, but occasionally you will stumble across a slightly more sinister tale, where the threat becomes a reality, such as the excellent but disturbing ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klassen. I will never forget the disapproving stares I received when, bored on maternity leave, I took the book in to a baby group to share with the others. As she reached the big reveal of what happened to the naughty hat stealing rabbit, our group leader, ‘Judgemental Jane’ as I shall call her, drew back in horror and shot me a look as if she was considering calling social services, before gently placing the book down and reaching for ‘I Love My Mum’, or some other boring, saccharine nonsense. At the time, I grinned cheekily across to the one other like minded mum in the room, but now my son is older I’m reluctant to read it again, wary of the moment he realises what has actually happened and grows up to believe that the punishment for poor behaviour is being eaten!
Still, I guess it can’t do much harm. I come from a generation which grew up almost exclusively reading Roald Dahl, undoubtably the best children’s writer ever, yet also perhaps the darkest. Remember the jolly old tale of James and the Giant Peach? Remember how he ends up with the horrible aunts because his parents are eaten by a hippo? Hardly a relaxing bedtime tale. What about The Witches? Perhaps it’s the enduring image of a terrifying Angelica Huston immortalised on screen as the Grand High Witch, but I am still a little nervous of eating sweets on the off chance I turn into a mouse and get squashed under foot. Even into our twenties and thirties, a group of workmates and I discussed animatedly only the other day how scarred we were by the idea of being trapped forever in a painting, then gradually disappearing, such is the power of the Dahl. And living in Hackney has become a nightmare since the beard trend came in: don’t these people remember the Twits?
Part of me is deeply concerned about the psyche of a person who decides to make their living telling stories to young children, then filling them with nightmare inducing possibilities: horrific prospects which, if acted out in full, would result in an 18 rating.
Still, it does make a better story, and if it meant I’d never have to read Peppa Pig and the Biggest Muddy Puddle in the World again, I would happily terrify my child every night of the week.
There is nothing in the world so important and which brings so much pleasure as reading.
My life revolves around reading: my house is full to bursting with books, in my job I teach children to be able to read and to love reading, and almost the moment I get home I settle down to read with my son. In a world where we are bombarded with noise, screens and media, there is nothing more beautiful and simple than snuggling up with your child to share a story. Storytelling is the foundation of our imaginations, our literacy skills and our social abilities.
That’s why It’s so disappointing when you come across a ‘bad’ children’s book. Obviously it’s all objective, but no one likes a book that’s too preachy, too boring or so simplistic as to offend the fun and creative minds which lurk inside each little person’s brain. Thank goodness for the genius of Julia Donaldson, Jon Klassen and the perhaps less well known Werner Herzog (if you haven’t yet read ‘The little mole who knew it was none of his business’, you’re in for a treat!) who keep our bedtimes full of fun and giggles. It’s clear you’ve got a great story in your hands when you find your 2 year old, who has only just learned to speak, turning the pages and ‘reading’ the story to himself when he thinks no one is looking.
The reason these stories are great is that they look at the world, not through the eyes of an adult who wants to read to children, but through the eyes of a child. A crazy, imaginative, silly child who finds wonder and fun in everything they see.
One of my favourite authors from my own childhood, Roald Dahl, wrote that the problem for most adults was that they could not remember what it was like to be a child, they only thought they could. The difference for him was that he really could remember, and that was why he could write his particular style children’s books (written in The Roald Dahl Guide to Railway Safety, showing how brilliant he was that I remember that 25 years on).
Alongside the amazing Mr Dahl, my other favourite storyteller, I am certain, knew exactly what it was like to be a child. If she hadn’t, she could never have created the captivating stories she did. Don’t try looking her up online; like all the great artists, Ellen McCormick was unrecognised in her time. I know only of her great work because I am lucky enough that she was my Nana. For that reason, only myself and my brothers will ever know the wonders of Angus McFangus who ate only Aberdeen Angus, or Auntie Esther who lived in Chester, or the boys who snuck off in the night on adventures with little green men, seeing the world but always getting back just in time to get under the covers before their parents came in.
Two years ago when my son was born, I began to think about how sad it was that he would never know my Nana, who had passed away the year before. I could piece together her stories from the scraps she left behind on the backs of envelopes and lines of sticky notes, but he would never know the funny, mad and wonderful person she was. He could hear the stories she wrote, but not the even crazier things she did in her own life (such as painting the ceiling, failing asleep part way through and waking up thinking she was blind because paint had dripped down and stuck her eyelids together) which inspired her stories.
My Nana was the one who sparked my love of stories, which led to a lifetime love of reading. She is my inspiration.
Last year I began to write the stories of ‘Nana Nellie’ – a mad, scatty and fun loving Nan – for my son and all the other children who are not as lucky as I was to have a real Nana Nellie in their life*. It became a new inspiration, and sparked off a new love – a love of writing. Now I think back and remember what it was like to be a little child, and look through the eyes of my own child, to write stories which I would have wanted to read, and which I would like to read with my son.
This post is my entry for the Mumsnet: The Big Idea competition for aspiring children’s story writers.
* The Nana Nellie stories are in the process of being illustrated by my very talented sister-in-law. I would have asked for some pictures to include in this blog but she is getting married in a couple of days so is rather busy! She designed my logo though so you can get an idea of how it might look.