The Child that Books Built: a memoir of childhood and reading by Francis Spufford

Leafing through childhood's back pages
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The Independent Culture

Today's older generation of children's book critics often came across comparatively little writing for the young during their own childhood. An absence of children's libraries and cheap paperback editions before the arrival of Puffin Books in 1941 meant that keen child readers were forced to fall back on adult fare: from stately classics to the clubland fantasies of authors like Percy F Westerman, "Sapper" and Rafael Sabatini. The best modern children's books, about which critics now write so enthusiastically, often represent the sort of literature they think they would once have enjoyed themselves, but could not.

Francis Spufford has no such problems. Still well under 40, he spent his formative reading years in the children's section of Newcastle-under-Lyme public library. His beautifully written account of this reading stretches from The Hobbit up to an adolescent plunge into the world of soft porn. Towards the end of his journey, he comes to feel that the children's books he once enjoyed now "seem to be set in a doll's house world, a small reserve where the imagination is arbitrarily prevented from engaging with more than a few small topics".

This is not an uncommon view, even now during the current adult craze for children's books; but it is still surprising to hear it from someone who writes so well about the different challenges implicit within the best children's writing. Even the image he uses of a doll's house is not as self-evidently dismissive as it might seem. Rumer Godden's story The Doll's House, for example, ends with a callous act of murder. There are other tales in the same genre where all is not what it seems, beyond the surface tranquillity.

Spufford's first chapter, "Confessions of an English fiction eater", is a brilliant account of the experience of compulsive reading. Looking for relief from a fraught family situation involving the fatal illness of a younger sister, he found a perfect bolt-hole in books. There were those fairy tales within which the dark, vast forest was always such an actuality, though the Domesday Book reveals that it was impossible even then to walk more than four miles though an English wood without coming out into open fields. After this, there were magical stories within which readers could pass from one land to another; the most exciting, for this author, were C S Lewis's Narnia books. Yet reading them was never a truly comfortable experience. The authorial voice always threatened to become a little over-insistent, just as his moral judgements were often harsh.

In some ways it was a relief to pass on to more realistic stories, and in particular to Laura Ingalls Wilder's magnificent Little House series. To read The Long Winter is to experience some of the tension of nearly starving to death without the attendant discomforts. But however threatening the weather outside, Ma and Pa continued to reign over domestic harmony within.

The time when parents in children's books became part of the problem, rather than the solution, had still to come when these books were written in the 1930s. An account of their subsequent history is also interesting, with the revelation that they were all part-written by the author's daughter Rose. She was someone of such extreme right-wing views that she, and her mother, always referred to President Roosevelt as "the dictator" and saw all taxes as government theft.

This is not an entirely autobiographical account. Spufford also includes contributions from psychologists from Piaget to Bettelheim, and has a go at explaining the essential processes of reading acquisition. He breaks off his story at the age of 13, just when he was ready for some of the brilliant novels that have since become available for older children, aka "young adults". If stories as good as Melvin Burgess's Junk, Margaret Mahy's The Changeover or Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming go on to receive an equally sensitive and stimulating chronicler one day, it will be nothing less than they deserve.

The reviewer is author of two new Rough Guides to children's books (distributed by Penguin)

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