For the last year or maybe more, I’ve been on a bit of a mission. I’m not sure what exactly triggered it, but I suddenly have a real nostalgic urge to re-read the books I read as a child. Some half-forgotten stories and snippets have long lodged in my mind, and due to my frequency of the local library in my younger years, I didn’t have any of them in my possession.
The writer who sparked the whole thing off- and I don’t know what made me remember her- was the late English novelist Joan Aiken. Joan’s short stories were constantly rubber-stamped for my little hands, and I remembered some of them for years afterwards. A Harp of Fishbones, which was published in 1973, contained some truly gorgeous stories. ‘The Dark Streets of Kimball Green’ was a particular favourite; it told of a poor little orphan child, Emmeline, who lived with the horrible Mrs Vaughan, but escaped into a world of knights and magic with her cat, Scrawny, and her friend, the lonely old man Mr Yakkymo. Joan Aiken’s stories contained a meld of magic and everyday which is captivating: Mark and Harriet, two recurring characters, were perfectly ordinary young siblings, but they tended to get trapped in cardboard gardens and hatch griffins in the hot press. She also specialised in simple, fairy-tale like stories: The Boy Who Read Aloud, for example (which is from A Small Pinch of Weather) tells the tale of Seb, a boy who reads to the sea, and its gratitude for the entertainment.
My own mother remembers Joan Aiken for her Wolves of Willoughby Chase books: these are another set to investigate.
There’s a danger when you revisit the stuff of your childhood that things simply aren’t as good as you remember, so it was with a little trepidation that I ordered three of Joan’s books from Amazon. However, unlike the movie Hook (which proved to be a major disappointment and ended my nostalgia for the movies of my childhood), her stories have stood the test of time and adulthood. There is something deceptively simple about her tales that’s shared with the late New Zealander, Margaret Mahy.
Ms Mahy only passed away in July this year and days before her death I remembered her collection of short stories, The Door in The Air
and clicked ‘buy’. No wonder I had loved them. Nine fable-like stories which dealt with themes of death, ageing and transformation, they are a great a read for an adult-maybe more so- than a child.
I came up against one major hurdle in my mission. There was a story I adored as a child. It was about a little girl whose granny was somewhat quirky. She kept bees and lived in a tiny house, but by the end of the story the grandmother had died and the grandchild (Deborah, I remember that much) had to tell the bees their mistress was gone. It was a truly beautiful story, and I was convinced Joan Aiken wrote it, but I cannot find it anywhere. I think my nostalgic urge might well be quenched if I find that story.
The final author I re-read was an Englishman, Robert Westall. His books Blitzcat and The Machine Gunners brought World War II alive for a younger generation, but it’s his collection of short stories, Rachel and the Angel, that lodged in my brain. These very dark stories touch on themes of religion, sin and redemption. The Cold War hovers over them like the darkest thundercloud. A quick Google reveals that this book is very underrated, and I may write a blog post on it in the near future. Believe it or not, my library still has this on its senior fiction shelf, so it’s due back to them next week.
The line between children’s and adult fictions has become increasingly blurred, especially post-Harry Potter. But these authors prove that this was always the case, and the skill of entertaining both children and adults is a rare one. I picked these books- almost all dark in their own way- because I knew instinctively that they were excellently written and would stand the test of time. Books like Goosebumps, Sweet Valley High, The Babysitters’ Club and anything by Jacqueline Wilson, much as though I enjoyed them at the time, would not have had the same impact.
What does it take to make a classic? Well, if I knew that, I’d be a very happy published author.