Never has the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover been proved more wrong. You can and you should. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is beautiful inside and out. A tribute to the extraordinary importance that books have in childhood. I laughed, nodded my head vigorously, and even shed a tear as I read this wonderful memoir.
In one of those coincidences that life throws at you, I visited my parents while reading Bookworm. My dad casually mentioned that there were a couple of boxes of mine still up in the loft and I should go through them as he was planning a clear out. And oh, how glad I am that I did. I opened up the boxes and there were some of my old childhood friends. The rush of nostalgia when I saw the covers overwhelmed me. Many of my favourites have sadly been lost, or donated, over the years so it was a very eclectic mix that remained. But every book had a history for me. And I spent a couple of hours exclaiming happily over each and every book in those boxes.
I had the same feeling reading Bookworm. Reading as a child, I would frequently emerge dazed and blinking, hours after first picking up the book, confused as to why I wasn’t in Narnia, fleeing from a laboratory with my fellow rats, ice skating with Hatty in the moonlight, or making a shelter from willow branches on a secret island.
My parents supported, but were slightly baffled by, my constant urge to read. Breakfast (“put that book down and eat your toast!”), still breakfast (“are you reading the cereal box?! just finish your breakfast!”), post school/pre-tea time (“why don’t you go and run around outside?”), bedtime (“alright, one more chapter”), still bedtime (“lights off now”), still bedtime (give me that torch), still bedtime (“you’ll ruin your eyes sitting in the windowsill using light from streetlamp, for the last time, stop reading and go to sleep”)…you get the idea.
The only way to keep me in books was our local library. Without fail, every week my dad would take me to there (and in school holidays, twice a week, such a treat that was!) where he would patiently wait as I agonised over which five books to check out. And every birthday and Christmas, my mum would make sure that all the relatives knew which books I did(n’t) own or hadn’t read, in a vain attempt to ensure that I received books I hadn’t already read.
As adults we forget that intense love and passion we had for our books as children. How we could read and reread the same book over and over again. Every now and then I still have a flash of that childhood passion, like when I come across a particular edition of the The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. [He was an owl. He had issues. He was called Plop. He was perfect in my eyes.] I read and reread Plop’s story so many times. And every time I finished the story, I felt the same sense of satisfaction that Plop had managed to overcome his fears. Another children’s book that I reread obsessively was The Secret Garden. It was a revelation to me; the main character was a girl, but not a sweet ‘setting an example’ kind of girl, but a grumpy one. A girl who gave as good as she got, who could scream louder than a boy, a girl who had an adventurous spirit and who wasn’t afraid. Mary Lennox, I salute you.
Reading this memoir, it felt as if Mangan was telling the story of MY childhood reading; every chapter of her book journey reflects a step I took on my reading journey (I suspect we are a similar age!). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Garden Gang (The Garden Gang!!). Enid Blyton. Roald Dahl. Tom’s Midnight Garden. The horsey books. Narnia. The boarding school stories (Ah, Chalet School!). The dystopian future books (Z for Zachariah, Changes). Judy Blume who gave me the courage that I would survive my teenage angst. And last, but certainly not least, I Capture the Castle.
This is a memoir for anyone who loved books as a child, who saw them as friends, who could quote whole chunks from them. And for anyone who still loves reading as an adult.