When her nose first got stuck
An omnivorous reader recounts how her love of books helped define her childhood.
As a child reading Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, Lucy Mangan responded to the threat of a nuclear holocaust by quietly thinking, “As long as there are enough books in the bunker, how bad can it really be?”
Mangan, a Guardian journalist and lifelong bookworm, has written a memoir of her childhood reading. “I read omnivorously but not well,” warns the introduction. Whatever you think of her booklist (chances are you’ve read many), Mangan writes beautifully about the hungers and satisfactions of reading as a child. On CS Lewis’s Prince Caspian: “… if I could just read the words on a page one more time, bring one more ounce of love to the story they told, I could animate them, too. The flimsy barriers of time, space and immateriality would finally fall away and Narnia would spring up all around me and I would be there, at last.”
Reading brought revelations. “Oh Milly-Molly-Mandy. Until she came along I didn’t know that either the countryside or the past existed.”
But it’s not all smooth sailing. What was Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea thinking? “A tiger who just turns up without any explanation or invitation and stays for tea? Boundaries, people!” Somehow we’re not surprised small Mangan is horrified by Dr Seuss’s “malevolent” hatted cat.
Mangan chronicles her two-year addiction to Enid Blyton (“it was an older girl who got me into the stuff”), her mixed emotions about Roald Dahl (loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; in retrospect, wary of nastiness to aunts and obese people elsewhere) and her bedazzlement by Noel Streatfeild’s stories of children consumed by a ravening lust for stardom. “Proto-sexgod Dickon” from The Secret Garden gets her off the sofa and into the garden to grow things, but pitiful results meant she “would not make the mistake of trying to find contentment in real life again any time soon”.
Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth “rocked my tiny world”, and Charlotte’s Web had her shrieking to her father, “I know people die in real life … but why do they have to die in books?”
There is much more. Pony books. Wombles. Twain, Blume, Antonia Forest, dystopia and Sweet Valley High. Lots of anecdotes about authors. My personal favourite: Maurice Sendak sent an illustrated note to a young fan. His mother wrote back, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.”
BOOKWORM: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan (Square Peg, $40)
“A tiger who just turns up without any explanation or invitation and stays for tea? Boundaries, people!”
Lucy Mangan: “proto-sexgod Dickon” from The Secret Garden got her off the sofa.