Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, by Lucy Mangan, very much does what it says on the tin. This is Mangan’s account of falling in love with reading in the early 70s, aged around 3, and how that love evolved and developed over her childhood, running through until she was around 16. It takes in many classics, and many books that were not destined to become classics, and Enid Blyton, whose books have somehow become classics despite being wildly unqualified for such an honour (more on this later). It does loosely touch on other aspects of her life, but for the most part she seems to view real events as an inconvenient backdrop to her reading.
The book opens with Mangan talking about her earliest childhood reading memories – The Very Hungry Caterpillar; The Tiger who Came to Tea. I loved her comments on the latter: ‘There are two types of people in the world – those whose long for the arrival of a tiger at the door and those whose profoundest wish is that nothing so unexpected happens, ever. Ever, ever, ever.” Unlike Mangan, I am very much in the former camp, and although The Tiger who Came to Tea was not such a favourite in my home, I enjoyed the vicarious excitement. I do agree that the world is divided into roughly half and half of each category. As much as I value stability and routine, I think when I was a child I was reading for friendship and adventure. In that respect, I should find this book deeply unrelatable – and yet. And yet.
I could have written this. I don’t only mean this in the sense that I was an extremely avid childhood reader – though that is true – but it’s the first time I’ve ever read something that feels like it is written in my own speech and thought patterns. If I were to write a book, it would sound like this. I assume this is because Lucy Mangan and I read and loved many of the same books as children. In some senses, it was disorientating. In addition to sharing my thoughts about a lot of books, Mangan also shares my flaws as a writer. Her sentences are too long (and have too many parenthetical clauses). She meanders. Transitions between ideas aren’t always clear. But because it was so much like a book that was happening in my own head, it was an absolute joy. Reading Bookworm feels very much like those golden conversations that sometimes happen with people you love – when suddenly you have told them all the funny stories from your childhood, and wandered through all the books you have in common, and laughed until you hurt. It was precisely and exactly what I wanted to read, even with all its flaws.
Because reading this book felt so personal, it was difficult not to have strong reactions to some of the things that she was writing. I was deeply indignant when she slagged off Tolkien (and – unlike anywhere else in the book – was rude about the people who love him), and dismissed CS Lewis’ faith as being merely a byproduct of trauma*. I flew through the next few chapters in anger, and only warmed back up to Mangan when she issued a stout, and correct, defence of Jo March ending up with Prof Bhaer. She had a confusing pre-adolescent crush on Dickon from The Secret Garden (guilty), and she mentions Stig of the Dump fondly – this was one of my favourite books as a child, but it rarely gets a look in on best-of lists. For the most part, I had read and had strong feelings either way about the books she touched on. There were a few more obscure ones that I hadn’t heard of, but the only classic she mentioned that I don’t remember reading was Tom’s Midnight Garden. Having now read Mangan’s absolutely rhapsodic review of it, I wonder if it would hold up reading it for the first time as an adult.
My favourite chapter of the book was probably the one that dealt with her Blyton addiction. Most bookish British children go through a phase where all they read is Enid Blyton. For me, my favourite Blytons were the Malory Towers series (when I finally got the opportunity to swim in an outdoor sea pool as a teenager, all I could think about was Darrell), and The Secret Island, which was a kind of junior Robinson Crusoe featuring children running away from abusive guardians and setting up home on an island. Although I didn’t agree with everything she said about the other books, the depiction of her all-absorbing Blytonmania certainly rang true to me. She addresses Blyton’s genius – which was to keep churning the stuff out and not be bothered about the quality – and her flaws – which were numerous. Mangan mentions the Blyton books that she never read, because they were so overwhelmingly racist that their publishers were already shuffling them hastily under the carpet by the end of the 60s. She discusses the difference between removing or asterisking out a slur, and updating the language overall (e.g. changing “tunic” to “skirt and blouse”), deciding that the former is understandable but the latter makes the book less good. Agreed on both counts.
The other aspect of the book that delighted me was Mangan’s relationship with her dad. Mangan’s father was also an extremely avid reader as a child, and seems to take a huge amount of delight in gradually introducing her to all of his favourite books. There is a scene where Mangan receives a very old book from her grandmother that has scribbles on it. “Did you do this?” she asks him, awed. It transpires that not only had the book been his, it had also been his grandmother’s. It reminded me of a very precious softbound copy of collected Keats that my grandmother gave me when I was small (which I promptly lost)**. Mangan’s father is always on hand to talk her through a book-related crisis: gently counselling her through the end of Charlotte’s Web; helping her to understand when words have changed their meanings over the years, so she is spared the traditional bookworm embarrassment of using a word in company and then realising it doesn’t mean what she thought. He comes across as a gentle, patient, reserved man who loves his wife and daughters tremendously.
It’s impossible to read any book right now without pandemic specs on, and I found myself becoming irritated by Mangan’s almost pathological desire to be alone. I became a childhood reader because I was largely friendless – with Mangan, the relationship seems to have occurred the other way around, and she resents the incursion of other people on her solitude. Of course, it isn’t her fault that I am reading this after spending fully a quarter of a year by myself, but when I was a child I would have gladly cut off my right arm to have some friends. She assumes a relationship between being bookish and being unsociable that simply isn’t there for a lot of people, and that wound me up a little bit. Probably, if it hadn’t been for The Situation, it wouldn’t have bothered me nearly as much; if I’d read this three weeks ago before I was allowed to bubble with another household it would have bothered me much more. We can’t separate ourselves from our contexts. Towards the end of the book, she offers a defence of reading instead of pursuing friendships that – though I still disagree a little – certainly rings true:
A man in Brooklyn can think up a story about a boy riding through a purple tollbooth – a purple tollbooth, for heaven’s sake! – and twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years later (and counting!) it can delight and boggle the mind of an eight-year-old in Catford, a ten-year-old in Canberra, or anyone at any point in between. You can share the adventures of a large family in Otwell or a tiny one under the floorboards just by knowing how twenty-six letters variously combine and which way up to hold a book…. If that doesn’t strike you as a near-divine miracle, nothing will.
The book does have some very serious gaping holes. I suppose I can forgive Mangan for not writing about Mr Majeika, who did not fly his magic carpet into St Barty’s until 1984, or The Wreck of the Zanzibar, published in 1995, etched onto my heart a few years later. She only touches briefly on The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, though, which is unacceptable. Also, you can’t criticise the first Golden Age of children’s literature for being so white and upper-middle class, and then ignore my beloved Swallows and Amazons series, which featured the Death and Glories – the most brilliantly vivid working class characters I’ve ever come across in a children’s book – and the Swallows themselves, who were based on a mixed-race Anglo-Armenian family (though admittedly the Swallows’ ethnicity is left ambiguous, and Ransome downplayed the connection in later life after a falling out with their father).
The overriding sensation I had as I sped through the book was that of thankfulness. I became a childhood bookworm for lonely reasons, but it has given me immeasurable pleasure over the years. As I read this, I was reminded of all the books that made me – the classics and non-classics that she touches on in the book, and the books she doesn’t mention that I can only remember a handful of details about. For instance, I was constantly reminded of a book I loved as a child that was set at a deserted old manor house, where the main character was a girl who could travel back in time on her horse. Careful googling leads me to believe that this book was Can I Get There By Candlelight? by Jean Slaughter Doty, and you’d best believe I ordered a copy before I’d closed Bookworm. I hope it holds up better than some of the other pony stories I loved as a child and have tried to reread recently. There were others, too, that I can’t locate – a girl moves in with an aunt and helps her with her sewing business; a girl who dances like an angel but comes from poverty gets to go backstage at the ballet and meet her hero. This is to say nothing of the remainder of my childhood literary diet, which was composed largely of Scripture Union novels, Nancy Drew, and the Babysitters’ Club.
By the time I finished this book, I had purchased all of the following: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitkin, The School-mouse by Dick King-Smith, and the aforementioned Can I Get There By Candlelight?Although none of these books really feature in Bookworm, it made me love them all over again, without having picked them up in two decades or more. Bookworm is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I honestly cannot recommend it enough to any reader (or parent of a reader, as she offers some tips for dealing with a bookworm child towards the end). There is so much more I could write about this book, but this is already an unconscionably long review, so I will leave it at this: picking up Bookworm feels almost as magical as childhood reading itself does.
*Here is something that I have never understood: all authors’ creations are coloured by their beliefs, and this is particularly true with children’s books. Frances Hodgson Burnett incorporated her spiritualist beliefs into The Secret Garden, Little Women opens with the four girls getting copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Anne Shirley becomes pretty devout over the course of the series. As for more modern children’s books, they are crammed full with secularism and individualism – the Dragon’s Green series, for instance, is remarkably sneery about anyone who has ever believed in anything, and literally has the plotline that only vegans are pure enough to be saved. Even the cleric characters are not part of any organised faith. Yet I have only ever seen CS Lewis, and occasionally Tolkien, getting criticised for writing stuff that reflects their beliefs. Why is it bad when they do it, but not for anyone else?
**Both sets of grandparents gave me books that were wildly inappropriate for my age and developmental stage, for which I will always be grateful. My maternal granddad gave me the first Adrian Mole book when I was about nine. It wasn’t until I reread it as an adult that I realised what all the documentation of “growth in cm” was all about.
I too was a real Blyton fan when I was young. I’m reading the books to my twins now – we’re currently reading The Island of Adventure – and there is a lot I have to skim over, mainly racism and misogyny. Why did I never wonder at the time why the girls always had to do the washing up!
Looking back, I wonder if this is part of why I liked Malory Towers so much more than the Famous Five. They were still extremely far from being good books, but the absence of boys meant that there was room for several different kinds of girls – they were never quite well-rounded characters, but they certainly got a lot closer to it than poor Anne Kirrin!
I don’t recognize these British children’s books, but I know that when I read Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss, I was taken right back to the books I’d loved as a girl, and even books that I hadn’t read but knew about. The topics were pretty distinct for a long time: girl clubs, girls and horses, girls and tragedy, girls and summer camps, etc.
I am really looking forward to my library eventually opening again, because I believe a copy of Paperback Crush is en route for me to read once I can actually get in!
And I wonder if you’ll recognize those books. I believe she discussed some Brit children’s lit, but it was very American.