Guest post by Tamara Hunter
The enthusiasm bubbling out of the authors up front spills all the way across the stage, down the steps and into the broadly smiling audience seated here this holiday Monday morning.
Memories of smugglers and sandy coves, secret passages and ginger beer; a girl named Heidi; a pair of lovable hippos – we can relate to them all. Remembering them, and all the characters and stories which once captivated us, is a pleasure so warm it glows.
These are the tales of our childhoods – the ones our parents read to us in cosy chairs and the ones we hid under blankets with, inhaling them via torchlight and risking dire recrimination for bucking bedtime. They’re the ones which sucked us into books, let our imaginations run riot, provided sweet, exciting escape and turned us into readers and writers – lovers both of stories and words.
For children’s authors Wendy Orr, Brian Falkner and Sue Whiting and author/illustrator Andrew Joyner, memories loom large of the books which inspired them.
Enid Blyton is mentioned again and again – the oft-maligned, scarily prolific but omnipresent doyen of children’s fiction whose stories punctuated childhoods throughout the 20th century, before going out of fashion and then being revived in controversially updated form.
Blyton wrote around 800 books, including her most famous creations, Noddy, The Magic Faraway Tree, Malory Towers, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, and sold more than 600 million copies.
Despite criticism that the books were poorly written and were both racist and sexist, the stories themselves linger. Fantastic yarns and tales of independent children having sometimes dangerous adventures without adult interference were the stuff of dreams for any youngster with a hint of imagination. There was magic in the branches of trees and smugglers at every turn.
“I just wanted to be The Famous Five and I identified with these characters,” Whiting says during a Perth Writers Festival session exploring the books which gave authors the reading bug.
“I could relate to them. They seemed very real but they were also just out of reach. I wanted their life and I wanted their freedom and the way they could go off and do things and solve mysteries and have adventures. I lived through their adventures.
“I can’t go anywhere now – if there’s a little sandy cove or a rocky cove, it’s always Smugglers Cove. If there’s a boat moored out just offshore, particularly at dusk, I wonder what they’re up to – and if I see a man with a lantern: very, very suspicious.”
Brian Falkner, whose bestselling novels for children and young adults include The Real Thing, The Flea Thing, Brainjack and The Tomorrow Code, admits to a similar urge.
“I can’t walk into an older panelled-wall house without having a temptation to go and just tap on the panel and see which one conceals the secret passage,” he confesses, to laughter.
Both Whiting and Falkner say Blyton not only hooked them into reading but subconsciously helped forge the kinds of writers they later became. Falkner also voraciously consumed the Willard Price adventures before moving on to adult thrillers by Alistair MacLean at the age of 10.
“The excitement and the suspense in those kinds of books really shaped me,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that now as a writer I consciously try to imitate any of those – Willard Price, Enid Blyton or Alistair MacLean – and not even subconsciously, but I think they actually shaped my brain as I was growing up into what I expected the stories to be and the way I want the stories to work. So I think there are natural elements of those stories that come through in what I write now.”
In his only conscious reference to his childhood favourites, Falkner’s next book will include a deliberate tribute to Enid Blyton – a secret passage.
Whiting says she too has been influenced by Blyton.
“When I think about all the books that really resonated with me they’re ones where as a child reader I really identified with the characters, and they were quite real stories,” she says. “I think that’s reflected in my own writing. I am much more attracted to books that have real characters and real situations and real adventures. That’s the main influence but it’s very subconscious.”
Wendy Orr, of Nim’s Island fame, says she never liked Enid Blyton but adored Johanna Spyri’s classic story of Heidi, the little Swiss girl sent to live with her grandfather.
When Orr was five and living in France, her mother read Heidi to her for the first time. She was in heaven when her family travelled to Switzerland soon after and she was able to see for herself the mountains she had imagined Heidi climbing.
Another great love was AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Now We Are Six, and When We Were Very Young. At an early age, Orr memorised Milne’s poems and fell in love with the rhythm of the language.
“I think that rhythm has gone into my brain. Rhythm is so important to me in my writing. I didn’t really know it was important to me, but people comment on it.” So set is Orr on rhythm that when she writes, she records her words on Garage Band and lies on the floor listening to check how they sound.
Andrew Joyner, who nominates James Marshall’s George and Martha stories – which followed the gentle and kind friendship of two hippos – as his childhood favourites, says he loves the simplicity of the illustrations in both those stories and the comics he consumed as a child.
“The ability to capture expression in as few strokes as possible really stuck with me. I always gravitated towards those types of drawings,” he says.
So can you recapture the magic you felt as a child by re-reading your favourites as an adult – or are the memories better left intact?
Falkner says that after revisiting Willard Price and being bitterly disappointed, he’s frightened of reading Enid Blyton again and having his illusions similarly shattered. It’s the same for most of them. They’re worried they’ll see the flaws too clearly and destroy the magic.
“I have this very, very precious memory of Enid Blyton and how wonderful it was and how it made me feel, and I am terrified if I read it again as an adult it will just evaporate, and I’d go ‘What kind of rubbish is this?’ I don’t want to wreck it because it is such a precious, precious memory for me, particularly Enid Blyton and The Famous Five.”
“I actually don’t want to re-read Heidi either,” says Orr. “I’m too afraid that it wouldn’t have that feeling of being there and feeling ‘Oh, if only I could just do one thing to help that character.’”
Whiting, however, has dug out her 58-year-old copy of Five Go Down to the Sea and happily tucked into it on the train recently.
“I was worried,” she says. “I was expecting to hate it. But I found it really interesting for lots of different reasons – mainly because it’s a wonderful commentary of life in the ‘50s.”
Asked if she agrees with revisions of Blyton, she says that other than corrections to topography and punctuation, they should stay as they are.
“They’re a wonderful snapshot of the time and they should retain that integrity. You wouldn’t go and change Jane Austen or William Shakespeare. I think today’s kids would still find The Famous Five accessible. Some of the values are different but they’re not that dissimilar.”
Joyner, who points out that Blyton may not have written well but created great stories, loves what he calls the generosity of storytelling in children’s books. He says it’s important to remember that children read books differently to adults, and that it’s a different feeling altogether reading a children’s book alone as an adult, and reading that same book to a child.
He says he now reads the Harry Potter books to his own son and although some bits don’t quite work for him as an adult, children love it.
It’s Harry Potter, the panel agrees, that the kids and young adults of today will fondly remember thirty or forty years hence. They hope others like Blyton, Tolkien, Roald Dahl and more contemporary writers will continue to feature, but Potter, they feel, is a certainty.
“It’s burning too brightly to go away,” says Falkner.
Books and authors discussed included: Enid Blyton, James Marshall (George and Martha), Roald Dahl, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the Willard Price adventures, The Hardy Boys, Where the Wild Things Are, The Silver Sword, and The Jericho Project.
Sue Whiting grew up without a book culture in her home – the only thing she remembers her father reading is the form guide. However, she went on to become a prolific reader and writer for children and young adults. She has written more than 60 books and lives by the sea south of Sydney. She is an editor at Walker Books and her latest novel is Get a Grip, Cooper Jones.
Brian Falkner knew at school that he wanted to be a writer. He grew up in New Zealand and worked as a reporter, advertising copywriter, radio announcer and internet developer before following his childhood dream and becoming an author. He now lives on the Gold Coast. His most recent book is The Project.
Wendy Orr was born in Edmonton, Canada and travelled extensively with her family as a child. She carried her book collection with her every time she moved and still has all her childhood books. She is the author of Nim’s Island, which was made into a film in 2008. Her most recent children’s novel is Raven’s Mountain. She lives in country Victoria.
Andrew Joyner is an illustrator, cartoonist and author who is published nationally and internationally. He has illustrated books by, among others, Wendy Harmer, Ross Campbell, Ursula Dubosarsky, George Colombaris and Gary Mehigan. He lives in South Australia and his latest book is Boris.
Thanks for this great summary of the session – really interesting to read!
Great article, Tamara. While I do remember the odd Famous Five, and Biggles adventure, I think I mainly grew up on Dr Seuss and music, before later being introduced to C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series, which in turn led to Tolkien and more Tolkien.
Greg – yes! Dr Seuss, absolutely. It’s a subject which just invites enthusiastic reminiscing. Little Golden books, Paddington Bear, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Enid Blyton, Asterix and Obelix, dusty op shop-sourced tales of boarding schools and midnight feasts, Judy Blume, Trixie Belden, the Nargun and the Stars, The House that Sailed Away, the Super Roo of Mungalongaloo, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl, Richmal Crompton. And later, sappy Sweet Valley High teen romances and Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Tom Sharpe (bizarre triumvirate, I know)…along with just about everything in the school library in between. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some key names. Now, we have so many children’s books in the house it’s not funny (including many of my old ones), and have watched the kids accumulate a whole new generation of favourites like The Giving Tree, Wombat Stew, Koala Lou, Hairy Maclary and, latterly, Captain Underpants, amongst others :-/. Soon, I’m sure, to be Harry Potter. What would you read again? I’ve been reading my kids Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories lately, and getting even more kick out of them than I did before.
Oh yes, and Louisa May Alcott, among others. Little Women and all the beautiful stories that existed in that vein. How to Eat Fried Worms (Thomas Rockwell), and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Judy Blume) just popped into my head, too. Oh, and the Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend…brilliant! I’ll stop now…promise 🙂
Thanks for this great post, Tamara. I really enjoyed the panel, and like you, could talk for hours about all those great books. Interesting about Dr Seuss, as I discussed this one with a few others after the panel. Not part of my childhood (showing my age!) but as a young teacher, I used Dr Seuss countless times to switch kids onto reading. And as Wendy mentioned about Winnie the Pooh, it is the rhythm I think that kids love with these – and the nonsense!