Today is World Book Day, at the dawning of which parents across the land could be heard wailing as they discovered they’d have to cobble together a literary character costume for their child to wear to school. A Harry Potter cape in the cupboard under the stairs is an essential piece of kit for just such emergencies.
On a day like this, which encourages children to pick up more books, we grown-ups are inevitably taken back to our own childhoods and the stories that shaped us.
My childhood reading list was very Enid Blyton-heavy. I have a definite before and after moment where I was sitting in a car, opening a birthday present someone had given me. Inside was a Secret Seven adventure and I was disappointed that it wasn’t Lego or a Sindy doll. But I read it and that was that, I was hooked – on snooping children, on spiky Enid, on losing myself in another world.
I think Blyton’s writing has aged surprisingly badly, unfortunately. Despite her gloriously imaginative tales of magical trees and chairs, free-roaming gangs of investigative children, and midnight feasts at jolly boarding schools, her books demonstrate just how much the world, and childhood, has changed. This became clear to me as I started reading them to my own daughter, when she was five or six. She was horrified at how uncaring the parents seemed, often heartlessly calling their children stupid or asking if they’d learned their lesson after some misadventure instead of showing concern – when they weren’t letting their charges go off on unsupervised camping jaunts, that is. It showed me that not everything has timeless appeal.
From Enid Blyton, I expanded my horizons with Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys mysteries. My local library also gave me access to a lot of classics – The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, anything by Dickens. Christmas and birthday presents included Little Women, Robinson Crusoe and Lorna Doone. I can’t say I read everything with equal relish, but looking back, I can see that as kids we were encouraged to and expected to read pretty weighty tomes.
My daughter’s book tastes lean more towards the visual, and she wouldn’t be caught dead reading any of my old favourites, optimistically tucked away in her book case on the offchance that she’ll pick them up one day. The market caters very well for visual readers, and she adores the juggernaut that is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which combines an accessible cartoon style with writing that is, if not challenging, at least witty and observant. She also devours Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, both of which have very sophisticated vocabularies while satisfying her obsession with cats of any kind.
At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, though, it seems to me that children are less challenged in their reading these days. JK Rowling has done marvellous work in getting them to wade through 700-page Harry Potters, but it’s hard to imagine a modern child having the concentration skills to get through the density of Last of the Mohicans or The Hobbit. On the other hand, anything that appeals to a child and gets them on the road to loving reading has to be a good thing, hasn’t it?
For the day that’s in it, here’s a short story I wrote which was inspired by my own childhood fascination with sleuthing. Called ‘The Mystery of the Locked Doors’, it was longlisted for the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition 2015 and subsequently published in Love Sunday magazine for the Sunday People newspaper.