Let’s face it, we all have our favorite books from childhood. (I hesitate to call them “children’s books” because so many authors who write books children enjoy resist being ghettoized and too many children read books originally written for grown-up audiences). And let’s admit we are completely partisan about our golden oldies. I, for example, tend to evaluate any scholarly or reference work on children’s fiction by flipping to the index and discovering whether Arthur Ransome merits an entry. If not? You have to talk awfully fast if you want me to buy it. If Edward Eager is discussed your chances are upped, and Michelle Magorian is really required reading in anything purporting to discuss young adult lit.
Which brings me to this recent op-ed by Alison Flood @ The Guardian. The children of England recently voted Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, the first in a series featuring a young supergenius antihero. Flood disagrees. “With all due respect, small children,” she writes, “your choice of the admittedly excellent Artemis Fowl as the ‘Puffin of Puffins’ is deranged and wrong. It should clearly be MY choice: Goodnight Mister Tom.”
I also adored Magorian’s Back Home, another story of an evacuee. Rusty is sent to America, and the drama plays out around her return to England to a world and a family who feel like strangers. Anyone else remember that one? I loved the bit where Rusty escapes from boarding school to decorate her own little cabin in the woods.
But Goodnight Mister Tom is better. It should have been the Puffin of Puffins, and I think it has a good claim to be the children’s book of children’s books. (Now that’d be a fun vote, although we may have to exclude anything published after I graduated to grown-up books, else I’ll only get upset again.) I’m imagining that all you discerning adult readers will agree with me about Goodnight Mister Tom being the top Puffin – but please let me know either way. And I’ll try not to cry if you disagree.
I’m not going to weigh in on whether or not Goodnight Mr. Tom should or should not be the top Puffin — to me, book choices are personal, idiosyncratic things. My passion for particular books has (I suspect) less to do with any objective artistry — if any objective measure of artistry exists — than it is tangled up with where I was when I read the book (Our Arcadia) what questions I was asking about life (The Solace of Leaving Early), whom I read and shared the book with (The Blue Sword) and more often than not a single scene — a single passage — a single sentence — that seared itself into my psyche forever simply because it spoke to me. The rest of the book might be a shit book. I might never read it again except to open it up to that passage and remind myself once again why I fell in love so irrevocably with the text.
So here’s what I wanted to say about Michelle Magorian, ’cause I adore her too, and then I’ll open up the comment thread to any of you who feel like sharing your own well-worn favorites from childhood: I’d love to hear about the books you loved and why you loved them.
So: Magorian. Alison Flood leaves off Magorian’s third novel, Not a Swan which is difficult to find (unlike the other two) and, in the United State at least, out of print* (which accounts for, apologies, the sucky cover art image). But my public library had a copy in the young adult section, and I discovered it when I was about twelve. And promptly fell in love. Set during the waning days of the Second World War, in an English seaside town, it’s the story of a sheltered seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, Rose, who longs to be a writer.
There’s a whole long list of plot elements that combined to make this a story that enthralled me (I vividly remember, fifteen years later, the feeling of staying up until 3:00am to finish it because I could not put it down). It was an historical novel (1) set in England (2) during the Second World War (3). It was about an adolescent girl who rebelled against conventional expectations about what young ladies should be (4) and do (5), craved adult independence (6) and wanted to be a writer (6). There was the best friend, pregnant out of wedlock (7) whose birth scene — without giving too much away — was quite possibly what precipitated my adolescent interest in midwifery. There’s an historical mystery (8) involving archival documents (hidden diaries) and above all, there was Alec (9), the bookshop owner (10) who hires Rose as his shop assistant and encourages her in her writing.
And (11) there was sex. Gorgeous, glorious, enthusiastic sex. Tame, to be sure, by the standards of adult erotica, but still pretty damn steamy. Not a Swan, I would argue, is one of a slim, slim handful of novels written for young adults that embraces adolescent sexuality without shaming. Again, without giving details away, I will be forever grateful that one of the first genuinely “YA” novels I read was essentially a story about a young woman claiming her right to enjoy her sexuality on her own terms. (Actually, by my count, at least four women, all in very different circumstances, yet all asserting their independence and their right to happiness and sexual pleasure).
Depending on your perspective on human sexuality and the whole women-as-humans thing, you could say this was the beginning of my coming into myself as an adult woman who embraced feminism and the potential for joy in sexual relationships — or you could see it as the beginning of my long, slow decline into the life of a slutty teen-age bibliophile. Either way, there really was no turning back.
So take it away readers — what books do you enjoy championing and why?
*woodscolt in comments alerted me to the fact that in the UK Not a Swan has been republished under the title A Little Love Song. Thanks woodscolt!