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This piece is part of our Readers and Writers series, where each of our content writers chooses an aspect of the written word that excites them.
The older I get, the harder it becomes to vividly remember my childhood. But one thing that does stand out are the books that I used to read as a child.
One of my earliest childhood memories with books would be the annual summer reading task run by the local library.
Nothing was more exhilarating than going to the library, choosing a book and taking it out, only to read it and return it a week later. By telling the librarian what the book was about, and why you enjoyed it, you then earnt a sticker. Do this another five times, and you could complete the summer reading challenge.
Who would have thought that such a simple reward policy could bring so much joy?!
And it was this that really cemented my love of reading growing up as a child. The library became a literary haven; a labyrinth of stories to enjoy, make-believe worlds to immerse yourself in and wonderful characters you aspired to be.
With this in mind, I have decided to take a trip down memory lane, and revisit the 10 most memorable books from my childhood that have helped shape the passion for reading I have today as an adult.
1. Funnybones by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
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This is probably one of my first memories of reading, largely due to its iconic opening…
"This is how the story begins.
On a dark, dark hill
there was a dark, dark town.
In the dark, dark town
there was a dark, dark street.
In the dark, dark street
there was a dark, dark house.
In the dark, dark house there was a dark, dark staircase.
Down the dark, dark staircase
there was a dark, dark cellar.
And in the dark dark cellar …"
(dramatic pause whilst you turn the page)
" … some skeletons lived!"
What a captivating way to start a story, and keep any five year old engaged, desperate to find out more! I love how every story starts the same, which instils comfort, familiarity and fluency, alongside an air of mystery and suspense as to what will happen next.
In my opinion, this is a recipe for success with any children’s book.
But, for me, the family of skeletons really makes the story. Normally portrayed as something to be feared, these skeletons are anything but scary.
This cute little household of a big skeleton, little skeleton and a dog skeleton could be one of the earliest introductions in children’s literature to the concept of a single-parent, genderless family. Although, at that age, I am not sure I was analytically developed enough to realise this.
Fun and quirky tales, told in a jolly and humerus way (get it?!) alongside cute illustrations – it is easy to appreciate why this has left a lasting impression on me as an adult reader.
2. Chicken Licken by Vera Southgate
This classic Ladybird story stands out for me, for two main reasons, or three if you include the ending (no spoilers to be found here I am afraid).
Firstly, this cautionary tale is the perfect example of a “cumulative”, or “chain”, fairytale in which the story slowly builds up by adding a new character each time.
It is this repetition that helps improve memory, helps recognise patterns and build confidence. I used to try and see how quick I could read all of the characters’ names when listed in the story, which made it even more enjoyable and challenging.
Secondly, the characters themselves are memorable as they all rhyme: Chicken Licken, Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander, Turkey Lurkey and Foxy Loxy.
As an adult, it is now much easier to analyse the hidden meanings and messages behind this classic fable – civil unrest, deception and our faith in the monarchy as a symbol of authority. It is a perfect case study of catastrophising and how it is easy for our brains to spiral out of control when we are in a drastic situation.
But as a child, this was just an enjoyable short story, with memorable characters and a particularly vivid ending (again, no spoilers).
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3. Goosebumps by R.L.Stine
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These stories were, by far, my favourite series of books growing up.
This collection of stories involving a cocktail of mystery, magic, adventure and horror, probably found their way onto many millennials’ bookshelves.
I particularly enjoyed the plot twists and cliffhanger sentences at the end of each chapter that just made you eager to carry on and read more.
Whether it was tales of ventriloquist dummies coming to life (Night of the Living Dummy), cameras that predict, or change the future (Say Cheese and Die) or a summer camp where everything is not quite as it seems (Welcome to Camp Nightmare), each story had the ability to make the paranormal seem normal, and keep you in suspense until the very end.
Widely criticised for not being age appropriate, and introducing horror too early to children, author Robert Lawrence Stein claims that it actually helps children to come to terms with common fears, such as ‘the dark’, unfamiliar places and strange phenomena. And I would have to agree. I certainly wasn’t left traumatised by his stories; in fact all they did was increase my appetite for more.
The stories always had ‘happy’ endings, albeit sometimes with a slightly twisted fate for the character(s), but this made them even more memorable.
4. Matilda by Roald Dahl
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When you think of children’s books, and more specifically children’s authors, Roald Dahl is likely to be somewhere near the top of the list. And quite frankly, I could have easily selected 10 titles by him alone for this top 10.
As with many of Dahl’s stories, it is the ability to turn something quite banal into an inspiring, quirky and otherworldly tale of mysticism and wonder. And Matilda certainly fits the bill!
For me, Matilda is the perfect role model for young children. She is intelligent, keen to learn and stands up for what she believes in, whilst still maintaining a cheeky, mischievous nature that pushes the boundaries set out by the adults in her life.
The characters she encounters, and how she navigates them, really makes this story work on so many levels.
What is so special about the story of Matilda, is how relatable it is to some of the challenges faced by children growing up in an adult’s world. And the fact that she is able to meet those challenges head on, with resilience, determination and a level of self belief that is to be admired.
5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
As a child reading this, Dahl manages to tap into that one thing that most children crave more than anything: chocolate!
Inspired by his childhood of working as a chocolate taster for Cadbury’s, he opens our eyes to the ‘secret’ of how chocolate is made.
What makes this so memorable is the characters, and how their greed and selfishness leads them to a series of unfortunate endings.
There is definitely a strong moral message that has stuck with me about modesty, gratitude and the true meaning of happiness, which permeates throughout the story in Charlie and his persona.
As an adult reading the book, there are certainly some more sinister aspects to Dahl’s story that you don’t realise as a child – the fact that Wonka is effectively a capitalist slave owner, who uproots a group of indigenous people and transports them to his factory– where they are paid in beans.
His factory is also the primary source of expenditure in the local community, so everyone buys his chocolate and the money is lining his pockets. He doesn't hire local people so the money doesn't go back into the local economy, which causes poverty and deprivation.
And don’t even get me started on the theory that Wonka is actually a serial child-killer…
I think this is what makes Dahl’s stories so appealing to both child and adult audiences; a world of magic and wonder interspersed with malevolence and unethical happenings.
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6. Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White
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This is probably my earliest memory of a book from my childhood that was not about horror or fantasy.
It is a story of humility, friendship and how animals can live in harmony, side by side. Even though death is a key part in the story, it is told in a way that captivates and educates, without being traumatic and macabre.
I love the fact that all of the characters have their own distinct personalities. The way that White manages to create an environment where they all coexist and look out for each other, is truly inspiring.
Unbeknown to me at the time, this is probably one of the fundamental stories that introduced the concept of caring for all creatures in the animal kingdom, and kickstarted a passion for nature that has endured with me throughout adulthood.
This story really has a multitude of moral messages, especially those surrounding empathy and looking out for those around you, particularly the weak. It teaches us that friendship can transcend multiple boundaries and is not confined to those who are similar to you. It also embeds the notion of loyalty and that true friends will stick by you, in times of joy and hardship.
7. Stig of the Dump by Clive King
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It is probably not until adulthood that you realise how much certain books stick with you, and perhaps some of the subconscious or subliminal messages that are transmitted to you by reading them as a child.
I love the outdoors; exploring new places, going on adventures and generally immersing myself in the natural environment. And I can definitely see elements of myself in this delightful story about an eight year old boy called Barney, who is curious and wants to explore.
Whilst I (fortunately) never had any severe accidents as a child, I do recall being told “Don’t go too close to the edge” or “Don’t go off on your own”. And, as most naturally inquisitive children do, you start to question “Why? What is out there? What am I missing out on?”.
And that is exactly what Barney does in this story. When he falls and lands in a cave, he comes across a short, hairy individual living there, looking bedraggled and unkempt. It is the start of a beautiful friendship between the two unlikeliest of companions that continues to blossom as the story unfolds.
Similar to Charlotte’s Web, this is a tale of tolerance, embracing those that are different and seeking to make the world a better place; something which hopefully we can all relate to.
8. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Bennett
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This was a book that was located on my bookshelf for a number of years before I actually decided to read it. I think I was probably put off by the 375 pages of small font size and seemingly dense chapters.
But, by the time I read it in my teens, I was presented with a delightful and enduring classic tale of mystery, spirituality and childhood wonder.
All of this is triggered by the discovery of a secret, walled garden within the grounds of an ancient manor house that is permanently locked, and the mystery unfolds from there.
I particularly love the way in which nature is depicted in the story; the psychological importance of being connected to the natural world and the way in which it can be used as a restorative tool for the soul. I think this is probably what solidified my connection with nature and the enjoyment of being outdoors from a very early age.
I would often explore the garden of my Nan and Grandad’s house with such inspiration – playing amongst the flowers, searching for creepy crawlies in the soil and admiring the birds as they came to feed.
At the time of reading it, I was likely inspired by how a troubled child transformed into a caring individual and the magical powers of the garden. And as an adult, I would have to concur that nature really does have these healing properties for the body, soul and mind.
9. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
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Out of all the books we were ‘forced’ to read in school, this is probably the one that sticks with me the most vividly.
I do not use this word in a negative context; after all, there were set texts that we were told to read, whether that was prescribed by the curriculum or the teacher.
This one just happens to be the most memorable in my school life, for a number of different reasons.
I remember being so shocked and appalled that people would treat other human beings with such hatred, violence and disrespect. Public humiliations, physical abuse and the setting fire to property were just a few of the ways in which these white people manifested their hate for the black people in their community.
But beyond that, is the way in which the mistreated show loyalty to one another, resilience and determination to hold onto their freedom in the form of land ownership, while taking a strong, yet peaceful stand, against these violent acts of racism.
This was an incredibly clever story written by Taylor, who highlights the harsh realities of being a black citizen in America, alongside the strength of character shown by these communities.
10. Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley
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This is probably not an obvious book to see on a top 10 list of most memorable childhood books, but this one is truly personal to me.
My father loves to fish, and having taken me once during my childhood, I could not see the point of getting up at the crack of dawn, and sitting on the edge of a large pond for the entire day.
Yes, it was incredibly exciting when we caught a fish. But the novelty soon wore off after catching the tenth perch of the day, and all of them the same size.
The stories from the book were incredibly heartwarming, and gave me a glimpse of a life that I had never seen, growing up in a predominantly urbanised corner of Essex.
Written in a time before and during World War Two, it also gives an idyllic depiction into rural life in Britain, and the challenges faced by the fishing community during this period of time.
Thank you for reading through my nostalgic summary of my most influential childhood books.
This journey has made me realise two very important things about my relationship with books growing up.
Firstly, how fortunate I was to grow up in an environment with an abundance of literature; whether that was a local library, a bookshelf in my bedroom or school books.
Secondly, being surrounded by adults who encouraged me to read for pleasure. It is to them that I am, and will always be, eternally grateful.
Blog post written by Sean; a naturally inquisitive geographer, avid reader and knowledge enthusiast.