Bookworm by Lucy Mangan


I feel as if I’m back in the third year infants, with the teachers complaining that I read too many Enid Blyton books and the other kids thinking I’m weird for always, always choosing reading during “reading and drawing” sessions 🙂 .  This book was quite some nostalgia fest!  I’m just amazed that Lucy Mangan had the discipline to fit her memoir of childhood reading into 336 pages.  I’d want to include so many books, so many observations and so many anecdotes that it’d end up making War and Peace look like a Ladybird book.  How would you even start?  Every time I think about it, names of books come tumbling out of my head so quickly that I can’t even begin to keep up with them.  Did I spend my entire childhood with my nose in a book?  No wonder I was so fat and everyone thought I was odd!   You know how normal people have early childhood holiday photos of themselves frolicking in a pool or on a beach or in the countryside?  There’s one of me, in my Marks & Spencer’s swimming costume, sat on a sunbed, clutching a copy of The Secret Mountain.   It says it all, really. How wonderful to be reminded that, no, actually, it wasn’t just me.  Especially when the author’s a very similar age to me, and a lot of the books we read and loved were the same ones.

I would love to write and write about all the books that were important to me as a kid, but even just writing a list of titles would take hours.   The Chalet School books, all the zillions of different Enid Blyton books, the Little House books, the Sadlers Wells books, the Jinny books, the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, the Chronicles of Narnia, Nancy Drew, Trebizon, the Little Women books, the What Katy Did books, the Anne of Green Gables books … and those were just my favourite series, before even starting to list all the other series and the one-off books.  I’m very impressed that Lucy managed to choose … well, I won’t say “a few books”, because she actually includes rather a lot, but that she managed to choose at all: I bet she could have included dozens more.

And all the anecdotes. Lucy Mangan includes loads of anecdotes relating to particular books, but how would you choose which ones to put in and which ones to leave out.  I’m sure no-one wants to know about how I used to know all the Noddy books off by heart and would howl with indignation if my tired mum or dad tried to miss a few pages out when reading me my bedtime story, my friend’s mum buying me Jo of the Chalet School, how the same friend and I tried to stick notes on other kids’ backs as was done to Elizabeth Allen in The Naughtiest Girl in the School or the time I reserved Dear Shrink from Whitefield Library and the person who had it out on loan was another friend.  Nor indeed about how narked I was when someone beat me to getting the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale out of the class library in the third year infants (I’ve got no idea why we had a class library in the third year infants, when we didn’t in any other year at primary school), how I used to nick my big cousin’s Gemma and Carbonel books or how I once insisted on reading The Last Battle whilst the hairdresser was trying to cut my hair.  And definitely not – how’s this for TMI? – about how I threw up all over The Secret of Kilimanjaro on one occasion and Ella at the Wells on another.  I take travel sickness tablets before going anywhere near a plane these days.

But, if I was writing a memoir of my childhood reading, I’d have to put in all these tales, and umpteen more. Fortunately, Lucy does it in a much more interesting and amusing way than I do.  But none of her anecdotes are about having wild adventures, because bookworm kids don’t generally have wild adventures.  We read about them instead!   And that’s much more exciting.  The sort of things that happen in children’s books did not generally happen in 1980s British suburbs.

I did rather hope that Lucy, being of almost exactly the same vintage as me, clearly like-minded, and, although born and bred in London, apparently classing herself as an honorary Lancastrian (as both her parents are from Preston) would have read all the same books as me, and that I’d be shrieking with excitement all the way through this. That was a pretty stupid thing to hope.  For a kick-off, as I’ve already said, a lot of my childhood faves were not even remotely specific to my generation.  And there’s no way that everyone’s going to be into, or indeed even come across, the same books.

It’s strange how kids come across books. It could – in my day – be via bookshops, presents or loans or suggestions from relatives or friends, school libraries, public libraries, recommendations at the back of other books, or the Puffin Club (Lucy isn’t entirely sure whether or not she was a member of the Puffin Club, but I definitely was).  Often it was purely by chance.  I stumbled across a copy of Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School in the primary school library.  I mean, imagine if that hadn’t happened!  OK, there were loads of Chalet School Armadas around then, and I’d have seen one in a shop sooner or later, but … just imagine if I hadn’t.  I go hot and cold just thinking about it 😉 .

The bookshops of my bookwormish childhood! What happened to them all?  There’s only really Waterstones now.  Lucy Mangan mentions Dillons a lot – what happened to Dillons?  Ah, Wikipedia says that it was taken over by Waterstones.  And Sherratt and Hughes: I think they merged with W H Smith.  Then there was Willshaw’s, the bookshop beloved by all Manchester schoolteachers.  I’m sure it only stocked the same books as Sherratt & Hughes and Dillons, but teachers were always telling us to go there.  My primary school headmistress spoke about the place as if it were some sort of temple.  My secondary school gave book tokens as prizes, and the book tokens were always for Willshaw’s.  Good old Willshaw’s!  It’s long gone now 😦 .

We did get recommended reading lists at secondary school, and, being the sort of obsessively minded kid who absolutely has to tick things off on lists, I read practically all the stuff on the one for first years, once I’d started on it. Some of the books on there were great.  I’m so impressed that the teacher included the Sue Barton books.   Others were not.  Yes, OK, I suppose they had to put Alan Garner on there because he was an Old Boy of our brother school, but I really don’t do fantasy novels!   I don’t particularly remember the teachers recommending books when we were at primary school.  Well, apart from The (wretched) Hobbit!  I’m sure they must have done, in between telling me what not to read, but I evidently didn’t take any notice.  I gave up on the secondary school lists fairly quickly as well, and just read what I wanted.   Kids should not be driven mad about what they should and shouldn’t read.  Just be glad that they’re reading!

I’d heard of pretty much all the books Lucy read as a very young child, but, apart from Richard Scarry (and she never even name-checks Huckle the Cat!) and the Mr Men, they hadn’t been part of my life.  No mention of Chicken Licken!  And she says that she didn’t started reading Enid Blyton books until she was about six, so she’d missed the ones meant for the youngest readers.  That’s a shame.  It’s not just Noddy, it’s all the others – the Faraway Tree books, Mr Twiddle and Mr Pink Whistle, the Wishing Chair, et al, and, of course, Amelia Jane.  We had a big armchair in the hall.  I don’t know why, because no-one ever sat in the hall, but we did.  I used to pretend that it was the wishing chair.  Unfortunately, it never sprouted wings.  And I used to drive my dad mad to make up stories about Amelia Jane, because I’d read the canon ones so many times and wanted more.  My mum was also a childhood bookworm, and had read a lot of the same books that I did, but my dad was the champion at making up Amelia Jane stories!   Anyway, getting back to Lucy –  once she got a bit older, now, that was more like it!   Well, more like me, I mean.

OK, not entirely. I don’t think I’ve ever read The Phantom Tollbooth, and, whilst I remember reading Private-Keep Out! and its sequels, I can’t even remember what they were about.  She only mentions the Little House books in passing, never mentions Sadlers Wells, Heidi or Charlotte Sometimes once, doesn’t mention anything by Joan Lingard, and, worst of all, barely even mentions the Chalet School.  But so many of the books she does mention brought back so many memories!   Milly Molly Mandy. My Naughty Little Sister.  The Worst Witch.  The Borrowers.  The Blyton books, obviously.  Little Women.  The Secret Garden.  The Katy books.  The Anne books.   Pony books, even if she doesn’t actually mention Jinny.  Noel Streatfeild books, even if she doesn’t actually mention Gemma. Charlotte’s Web.  The Just Williams.  The Melendy books.   Narnia.

And even the books she wasn’t keen on. I know we’re all supposed to love Roald Dahl, but Fantastic Mr Fox made me cry, and I had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. A lot of Roald Dahl’s books are just nasty!  She did rave about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I’m OK with that, but, in general, she is not keen on Roald Dahl and nor am I.  And neither of us can see the attraction of The Hobbit.  When I was in the third year juniors, the teacher read bits of The Hobbit out to us, and went on and on about how wonderful it was.  No.  I didn’t get it.  I should probably have another go at reading it some time, but I really don’t want to.  I don’t do “high fantasy”, and I don’t do sci-fi.  I can cope with Narnia, but nothing that goes much beyond that.

Am I looking at this the wrong way 🙂 ?  Should I actually have been looking for suggestions of new books to read, rather than squeeing over the fact that a published author of a book about books likes the same books as me?  There are a lot of children’s books that I didn’t read until I was an adult.  I always feel vaguely wrong about describing myself as an adult, even though I’m now over the hill and halfway down the other side; because I still feel like a kid.  And I’m always open to suggestions of new ones.  But I think I was looking for some sort of validation with this.  Hey, it was not just me!  I was not the only kid who would always choose reading if given a choice between reading and drawing during wet playtimes.  I was not the only kid who just wanted to be left in peace to read.  Strangely, kids in books never just get left alone to read.  The aforementioned Eustacia gets into all sorts of trouble for being in the library when she isn’t meant to be.  Kids in books are always off having adventures, or, at least, “joining in”.  The kids who read about them aren’t.

So, yes, I was delighted to find a lot of my own faves in this book. I’m also delighted to be able to say that Lucy’s overwhelmingly positive about them.  In the 1980s, “Girls’ Own” type books were a bit of a no-no amongst teachers; and anything written by Enid Blyton was a definite no-no.  I’m still annoyed about the fact that one of my primary school teachers told my mum and dad to stop me reading so many Enid Blytons.  Couldn’t she just have been pleased that here was a child who actually wanted to read?!   She even said that I wrote like a miniature Enid Blyton.  I wish!   Imagine having all Enid Blyton’s success!   (Anyway, I was way too fat to have been a miniature anything.) And, as Lucy says, a lot of our childhood favourite books are now, even more than they were then, being pulled to pieces for being sexist, racist, snobbish, over-moralistic and so on and so forth.

And, yes, to some extent that criticism’s justified. It’s rather unfair to criticise authors for showing girls taking traditional female roles and boys taking traditional male roles at a time when no-one would have questioned that, or for only showing white characters in an environment where there would only have been white characters, but it’s hard not to cringe when reading Enid Blyton’s comments about “gypsies” or Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s comments about how no-one learns anything much at “village schools”/”council schools”, and Elsie J Oxenham’s insistence that the evil Konrad Abrahams wasn’t intended as a Jewish stereotype doesn’t ring entirely true.  And, again as Lucy says, some of these books don’t stand up well when you re-read them as an adult.  The bullying at Malory Towers and St Clare’s is horrendous.  At the age of six or seven, I used to imagine fondly that, had I gone there, I’d have been best mates with all the in crowd.  An introverted fat kid with a Northern accent?  Best mates with all the in crowd?  Are you having a laugh?  They’d have made mincemeat of me!

But, as Lucy says, you don’t see it like that when you’re a kid, and I don’t believe that anyone turns into a sexist snob because of something that Julian Kirrin said in a Famous Five book, or a racist because of comments made by Ma Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie.  As for all the religious stuff – well, again as Lucy says, you don’t see it when you’re a kid.  I honestly had no idea that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was some sort of religious allegory until everyone started talking about it when the 2005 film came out.  And, when I first read Little Women, I had no idea what “The Pilgrim’s Progress” was.  I think I thought it was some sort of game the March girls played, like Hide and Seek.

Having said which, I can quite see that some of the language and attitudes in older books can be offensive, and I can certainly see the need for more diversity in books. It wasn’t until I was a bit older, and reading books by Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, that I came across non-white characters being part of the main group. And the first openly gay character – as opposed to “coded gay” characters such as Nancy and Kathie in the Chalet School books, or Bill and Clarissa in the Malory Towers books – I came across in a children’s book was probably Nigel, the best friend of Adrian Mole, and those books weren’t written until the 1980s – and aren’t for younger children anyway.  There are disabled children in older books, but they inevitably get miraculously cured – think Clara in the Heidi books, Colin in The Secret Garden, or Naomi in Trials for the Chalet School.  So, yes, there’s certainly a need for more diversity.  But that doesn’t make the older books invalid, or mean that children shouldn’t read them, and I’m very glad that Lucy feels that way too.

Oh, and that awful sinking feeling you get when you first realise that some of your beloved books have been abridged, or updated. Lucy talks about it in terms of the Dimsie books.  I didn’t get any of those until I was older, and knew about the evils of abridgement and modernisation, and I was lucky enough to find second-hand hardbacks going fairly cheaply on Amazon.  But I lived from the age of 8 until the age of 29 in blissful ignorance of the fact that my childhood Chalet School Armadas had had bits of the original text missing out of them.  It was a very hard lesson to learn!

However, owt’s better ‘n nowt, and at least I had the Armadas.  They were widely available in the 1980s.  And Enid Blyton’s school stories were everywhere.  But, even then, you didn’t see Dorita Fairlie Bruce books, or my mum’s childhood favourites, the Elsie J Oxenham Abbey books, in bookshops.  Lucy says that she doesn’t think the popularity of what are generally known as Girls’ Own books will ever return.  I hope she’s wrong.  OK, it won’t be what it was in the ’50s, or even the ’80s, but there are clubs and internet fora and Facebook groups and book dealers … and, yes, some of the members are only in their 20s, and older members try to get their daughters, nieces, granddaughters, great-nieces, young cousins etc into reading the books.  So I live in hope!

And so to secondary school, and books for older children – or, as they’re now called, “Young Adult books”. I hadn’t been at secondary school for long before I also started reading ’80s blockbusters (I said “blockbusters”, not “bonkbusters”!).  Barbara Taylor Bradford.  Maeve Binchy. Half the class was obsessed with Virginia Andrews, but I never really got into her books.  And, of course, historical fiction.  Loads and loads of historical fiction.  But I was still reading children’s books as well.  OK, that included historical fiction too, but, somehow, there never seemed to be that much historical fiction for children.  More of that later, because Lucy talks about it in a footnote. But Lucy got into dystopian fiction.  I didn’t.

But then, hooray, she gets back to my world. Antonia Forest.  I must have started on the Marlow books when I was very young (only the school stories, at that point, because they were reprinted in the ’80s and the others weren’t), because I distinctly remember trying to read The Prince and the Pauper when I was seven, on the grounds that it was adapted by the Marlow twins and their friends for a school play.  It’s not really meant for seven-year-olds: I think I read it again when I was ten.  Lucy raves about the Marlow books.  I can see where she’s coming from, but they don’t hold the place in my heart that the Chalet School books do.

Then “1970s realism” books. I read some of those too.  All I can remember about A Pair of Jesus Boots is that a classmate saw me with it and thought it was some kind of religious thing, but I remember being really keen on K M Peyton’s books about Patrick Pennington … although Lucy doesn’t mention that one.  And Dicey’s Song (1980s rather than 1970s).  Lucy didn’t like that one.  My main recollection of it is that Dicey pretended to be a boy called Danny, because people would’ve fussed if they’d thought a girl was in charge, and had to use the boys’ toilets in order to keep up the pretence.  Why do I remember that?!  And then Sweet Valley High.  Despite being the right age for those, I never read them.  They just never appealed, somehow.

Trebizon did, though.  I was actually going to read a passage from a Trebizon book when everyone in the class had to read a passage from a book of their choice out to the class.  Mum persuaded me that it might not be exactly what the teacher was looking for.  So I chose No Castanets at the Wells instead.  I don’t think that was what the teacher wanted either.  Also, the bell rang in the middle of my reading, and the teacher told me to carry on until I’d finished.  We had PE next, and the PE teacher hit the roof if you were late.  All the other kids were frantically looking at their watches.  I was hideously self-conscious anyway, and having to read out loud at the front of the classroom when you know that everyone else just wants to get out of there would faze even the most confident of kids.  It was a disaster.  Oh well.

At least none of us decided to read from a Judy Blume book. But we all read them. Everyone (I should probably point out that this was an all-girls school) read them.  This was not just me!  Same at Lucy’s school. Everyone read them!

She does mention a few more books, but more interesting for me’s the footnote in which she says how little historical fiction there was for children of our generation. I was a historian from a very early age 🙂 .  I was obsessed with the Ladybird books about historical figures, and I loved books like the Little House series, which, whilst they hadn’t been written as historical fiction, were historical by my time.  But where was all the historical fiction?  I read a book called Through The Fire, set during the Great Fire of London, when I was six, and there was The Children of the New Forest, and there were a few Rosemary Sutcliffs; but not much, for a kid who was so interested in history.  I don’t count Second World War books like Carrie’s War: “historical fiction” means set in 1914 at the latest!

Lucy’s theory is that there just wasn’t much available in the 1980s, and she’s got a point. We “did” The Crown of Violet in the first year of secondary school, but I don’t remember seeing Geoffrey Trease books in shops.  Nor Joan Aiken books.  Very odd.  Oh well, I’ve made up for it since.  Nearly all the books I read now are historical fiction!

She finishes by talking about how books connect people. To the people and the worlds in books.  All the words and phrases you learn from books.  All the life lessons you learn from books.  Not to mention the history that you learn from books!   All the time you spend in the world of books – the times and places that you go to.  The escapism.  The imagination!    Lucy, like me, wasn’t a big fan of fantasy books, but even books set in the real world are actually taking you to different worlds … the worlds of ballet schools, pony riding, and, of course, boarding schools.  And most of them are set in the past.  Very little of my childhood reading was set in the 1980s, or even the 1960s or 1970s.  They were mostly set in the late 19th century, the early 20th century or just after the Second World War.  OK, that’s hardly historical, but boarding schools in the 1950s, especially if they were in Switzerland, were still a world away from a North Manchester suburb in the 1980s.

And they connect you to other readers. I’ve written way too much here, but, if you have ploughed through all this, then the chances are that you’re a fellow bookworm!  Maybe you’re one of the many lovely people whom I’ve met through book clubs and online book groups/fora.  Books – where would we be without them?  Thank you so much to Lucy Mangan for putting so much of what so many of us think and feel about reading into this book, for a glorious nostalgia fest, and for a reminding me that, no, I wasn’t the only person who spent so much of their childhood (I did do a lot of other things too, I should just point out!!) with their nose in a book.

4 thoughts on “Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

  1. Chris Deeley

    If you enjoyed reading the Ladybird book on Florence Nightingale, I would recommend Cecil Woodham-Smith’s biography, first published in 1950. It was her first book published in her own name (she previously used the pen-name ‘Janet Gordon’) and was a huge success – taking her right to the top of writers of history. Another interesting book from the 1950s is John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’, which we Southerners read with some disdain: ‘typical of the way those Northerners carry on’ may have been a common reaction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved those Ladybird books. This was when I was 6. I’d love to say that I wanted to read the Florence Nightingale books because I’d already developed an interest in the history of Anglo-Russian relations, but it was actually because my grandfather had had a stroke and was in a place called the Florence Nightingale Hospital … which has since been converted from a general hospital to a mental health unit and renamed the Cygnet Hospital. Florence Nightingale was a better name! I learnt a lot of history from Ladybird books 🙂 .


  2. Caroline

    Loved reading this. sounds like I would like that book too. I also bought all those Ladybird historical books, and still have them I think. I seem to have the same reading history too. Amazing


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