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“For the true bookworm,” journalist Lucy Mangan declares, “life doesn’t really begin until you get hold of your first book.” Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is, as Mangan, acknowledges, “necessarily incomplete”. Now in her early forties, and with a small child of her own who is very much not the bookish sort, she reflects on her childhood and early adolescence through the books she read (or rather devoured), offering up a volume that is not quite a detailed history of children’s literature but certainly serves as a celebration of it.
“I read because I loved it,” Mangan asserts, and as such she is far less interested in pointing to the books one ‘should’ give to small children and more concerned with the books that filled her small heart with joy, whether or not they were critically-acclaimed or teacher-approved. For adult bookworms turning the pages of Mangan’s book with nostalgia – and that is really the main audience – it offers up a more engaging narrative. We are all familiar with Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar, which Mangan cites as the first book that “entranced” her, the words “written all the way through” her heart “like a stick of rock”, but the out-of-print ‘70s feminist text Sugarpink Rose (why do girl elephants have to be pink if they want to be “a lovely elephant grey”?) is a little more unusual.
For those of us that grew up readers, this is how our book collections (owned or borrowed) looked: an odd mix of the texts one might expect and then more random titles, given to us by relatives, inherited from older cousins, discovered at local libraries. And the books we ‘should’ have loved didn’t always entice us – when Mangan, admittedly a child fond of order, finds Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea just a little bit too unnerving (“A tiger who just turns up, without any explanation or invitation, and stays for tea? BOUNDARIES, PEOPLE.”) it will resonate with so many readers who knew they were supposed to be impressed or moved by a Great Book but instead just – well, didn’t like it. Mangan’s dislike for the Babar series – finding it “lumbering dull” – also provokes a sort of giddy thrill. And then when she explains her intense dislike of talking-animal books – so often foisted upon children – my childhood self nodded firmly in recognition. (It is astonishing how validated one can feel by someone who writes for the Guardian agreeing with you.)
Bookworm is far more than just a litany of likes and dislikes, though. It wears its politics lightly, but in its endorsement of libraries and letting children read what they would like it is firmly liberal (unsurprisingly). There are also reminders throughout about how children read differently from adults, for example when it comes to rereading – which can seem like a waste of time to adults but is an essential part of the decoding process for new readers. “The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it . . . You can’t wear out a book’s patience.” Or the way in which reading these accounts of people (or yes, even those wretched animals) see the world differently from you helps inculcate empathy from a very young age, a point often made by librarians and psychologists but cast aside by politicians in favour of the importance of literacy.
Each text mentioned, whether adored or loathed, is put into its historical and cultural context – there is an immensely readable account of the development of the picture book for children, for example, which flourished in the Victorian era. Mangan also explores how older titles fare now – while she is reluctant to label Roald Dahl a misogynist, on account of the many heroic female characters in his work, she does now find “a touch of sadism about some of the punishments doled out” and feels “it IS disproportionately often that fat people and vulgar people are their recipients. I see now, for the first time, why he has always made some adults feel uncomfortable – and indeed, some children.”
The oft-maligned yet still hugely popular Enid Blyton comes in for similar treatment, with Mangan refusing to dismiss her entirely and conscious that although she may not have picked up on certain snobberies woven into the text, she is sure to have internalised some of them. She is far less fond of attempts made to update the language, as has happened with several of Blyton’s series, in an attempt to ensure readers weren’t “alienated”: “The benefits amount to a short-term gain in immediate comprehensibility but amongst the costs we can count the fact that a constant updating of books decreases the opportunities for making those little intellectual leaps that make reading both fun and valuable . . . If a child reader cannot discern the meaning of ‘school tunic’ from its context, said child reader shouldn’t be left unsupervised on the sofa with a book anyway, lest they accidentally suffocate themselves in the cushions or blind themselves with their own thumbs.”
Given how often discussion of children’s reading comes from academics from various disciplines, or from faux-concerned parents who have clearly never read a book in their lives, the light touch in Mangan’s book is pleasing. There’s also, again, that glimmer of recognition when she has a child’s, and not a literary critic’s, response to a text. After reading all seven of the Narnia chronicles (coming to terms with the talking-animal trope), Mangan has a slightly funny feeling but it isn’t until much later that the religious overtones hit her. “I was simply furious at the deception. Sneaking this God stuff in without telling me!” The ‘messages’ that seem so obvious to the adult reader are often far less interesting to the child than the story. We all bring our own experiences to bear on our reading, and Mangan reminds us that for the young reader, we never know what might go over their heads – or conversely, “what tiny, throwaway line might be the spark that lights the fuse that sets off an explosion in understanding whose force echoes down years.”
Alongside the traditional classics read at primary school– Richard Scarry, Raymond Briggs, Dr Seuss, Dorothy Edwards, Shirley Hughes, Mary Norton, LM Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett – we follow Mangan into secondary school. Here, two book crazes hit – Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume. Blume is still in-print today and much-beloved (she recently celebrated her eightieth birthday), while the world of Sweet Valley continues to inspire nostalgic devotion (see the glorious Double Love podcast, for example, or the references woven throughout Lucy Vine’s recent novel What Fresh Hell). The preposterousness of the Sweet Valley plots are gleefully recounted, while Blume’s more nuanced accounts of teenage ‘issues’ still ring true today. And that lovely thing that happens to readers as they grow up happens to Mangan – they find more of their tribe, the other bookworms that don’t find the idea of spending lunchtimes or weekends curled up with a heavy tome or brightly-coloured paperback incredibly odd.
Despite its closing paragraphs reassuring parents of bookworms that all will be well, this is not a book for casual readers in the slightest. Mangan is writing to and for her fellow book junkies, the ones who can’t leave the house without a book (or three) in their bag, for whom even the thought of doing so brings them out in a cold sweat. Bookworm invites us to relive and re-evaluate our own childhood reading, and has the good manners to entertain us along the way.