On my first day at primary school, I came home and told my mother that my teacher had a stammer. "She says a-a-a-apple, Mummy!" I said, my voice dripping with contempt, "and b-b-b-basket, and c-c-c-cat!" "Just wait and see," said my mother, and I did, and soon the hieroglyphics on the blackboard metamorphosed into apples and baskets and cats, and soon Janet was telling John to see the boats and John was replying that he could indeed see the boats.
And soon there was Noddy and Big Ears and there were faraway trees that gave you wishes, and there were bike rides and smugglers' coves and lashings of ginger beer and a dog called Timmy. Soon, too, there were midnight feasts in the dorm, and lacrosse games on windswept Cornish playing fields and embarrassing encounters with Mam'zelle in her curling papers. Not, alas, in real life. In real life, there was Boxgrove County Primary School, where you didn't have to wear a uniform, and you made dinosaurs out of loo rolls and maybe wrote a little story about the Romans.
Boarding school life in the 1940s was my magical, other world. So was Minnesota in the 1870s. Sometimes, I'd dream of a little house on a prairie. Sometimes, I'd dream of a gabled farmhouse in Prince Edward Island, and a Haunted Wood and a Lake of Shining Waters. Sometimes, I'd dream of secret gardens, or crumpets toasted over roaring fires, or penniless orphans taking revenge. What I didn't dream of was a housing estate in Guildford, and a sister who was pacing around the house at night, and slamming doors, and crying, and then being sent away because she'd had something called a nervous breakdown. I didn't dream of it, because I didn't need to.
Every family has its troubles. Every unhappy family, as Tolstoy pointed out, is unhappy in its own way, and every family will be unhappy at some point. Which you'll learn, if you're lucky, if you start with Noddy and the smugglers' coves and the dog called Timmy, and then let Anne of Green Gables lead you to Anna of St Petersburg. But you can't start with Anna, and the miserable marriage, and the knuckle-cracking husband, and the bewildered son. You need some magic first. You need some faraway trees, and some happy-ever-afters. You need some happy-ever-afters to know that there is an after, and, even when you can't imagine such a thing, a happy. Don't you?
Anne Fine, the former children's laureate, thinks so. "In the Fifties," she told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival this week, "when a child was dealing with difficult circumstances, there was always a rescue at the end of the book, and it was always a middle-class rescue. That was felt to be unrealistic and so there was a move away from that. Books for children became much more concerned with realism, or what was seen as realism. But where is the hope?"
She is right, of course, that children today are bombarded with reality. They dream not of fairy tales, or Lakes of Shining Water, or even Middle Earth (which I always hated), but of winning the lottery, or being on Big Brother. Sure, they want to know What Katie Did. Did she have another boob job? Or meet another pop star? Or do another interview for Piers? And when they're not watching telly, or flicking through magazines about WAG weight gain or celebrity cellulite – magazines that puncture their dreams even as they dream them – they're fed grim little books about teenage pregnancy and child abuse.
What they need, what all children need – what all human beings need – is a space, a buffer zone, a fairyland, if you like, a place to let the mind roam and dance and wander down flower-strewn pathways, and up mountains, and through rivers, and into castles and cottages and, yes, boarding schools, if necessary, anywhere that teaches you that where you are is not the only place you can be. And that if the world is frightening (which it is) and unfair (which it is) and full of pain (which it is) it is also a place of adventure and enchantment, and your mind can take the adventures, even if your body, or your circumstances, won't let you.
For this precious, necessary alchemy, you don't need a wizard – although even a workaday, mass-market one can be a start. What you need is something that lights the touch-paper, fires the neurons and sets the whole thing blazing. That could be set in an Oxford college, or an icy wasteland, but it could also (as Jacqueline Wilson shows so brilliantly) be set on a sink estate. A story doesn't have to be fantastical to be magical, and it doesn't have to be realistic to feel true.
Children don't need Pollyanna. They don't need to be told that everything is all for the best and they don't need to be told that the world is so awful that the only thing to do is escape. They need to know that sad stories are not necessarily grim stories, because, in the right hands, there's something in the story – call it beauty, call it catharsis – that takes you to a different place. And it's that spark, that charge, that beauty, that truth, that helps you, in the words of the poet, Nina Cassian, to "call yourself alive".