Best loved children’s book

At my writers’ group, YA author Claire Watts recently ran a workshop on writing for different age groups of children from tiny tots to young adults. We were asked to think about a book which had made an impact on us in our own childhood.whatkatydid

I thought immediately of What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. I loved that book. I remember once snapping it shut saying, “Thank goodness, I’ve finished it.”

My mother asked if I hadn’t enjoyed it. And when I assured her I had, asked, “So why are you pleased you’ve finished it?”

“So I can read it again,” I said. And I did, many times. The number 23 resonates but I couldn’t have read it 23 times, could I?

I did read many other books throughout my childhood – unlike my young sister who, having read a Hardy Boys novel declared it was the best book she’d ever read and refused to read another book for several years because, she insisted, “It won’t be as good as that one.”

Hearing others in the writing group talk about the book which had most made an impact on them, reminded me of the many other wonderful books I’d read. Like many of my fellow writers I enjoyed Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series and The Famous Five. More and more memories of happy reading flooded back: Josephine Pullein-Thompson had allowed me to live in a world of ponies while the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton (again) or The Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer let me enter a different world of boarding school, tuck boxes and midnight feasts in the dorm.

I longed to be sent to a boarding school (and/or own my own pony). The nearest I came to a midnight feast was when my friend who was visiting her grandparents next door agreed to meet in my garden shed at midnight. We climbed out of our respective windows – luckily we lived in bungalows – but she cut her finger trying to open a tin of corned beef and ran home, blood dripping down her granny’s nightdress. It was the kind of scrape Katy might have got into.jo chalet school

What was the allure of What Katy Did and, to a lesser extent, what she did at school and after? I decided to find out by re-reading. Rather than searching our freezing cold attic, where hundreds of boxes of books have been temporarily stashed, I took the easy way out and downloaded the trio of books from Amazon.

It’s been like bumping into an old, much-loved friend. As soon as I began reading I remembered the sequence of events and could almost recite parts of it. While there are some things with which my adult self takes issue – the message that disabled people should be good and kind and sweet-natured (a message found in other children’s books – think of Heidi for example) – I understand why as a child I loved Katy so much. She scribbled stories, she and her brothers and sisters played daft games -remember Kikeri? – and wreaked havoc. She was real. She tried to be good but, like most children, she usually failed. It’s full of humour, both in the things that happen and in the narrator’s voice.

And the narrator took Katy’s side most of the time, which I suspect was unusual. When Katy disobeyed Aunt Lizzie and used the swing in the barn the narrator points out that although she was wrong to ignore her aunt, it was also wrong of the aunt to expect unquestioning obedience. Had Aunt Lizzie explained the swing was not safe, Katy would not have swung on it with such disastrous results. As a young girl I must have relished a grown up person (as the narrator surely is) taking the side of the child.

I think I’m going off to join the girls at Malory Towers now. Which book made the most impact on you as a child?

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33 thoughts on “Best loved children’s book

  1. Reblogged this on portobellobookblog and commented:
    So many memories brought back by this post! I loved the What Katy Did books though can’t remember very much about it now. For me, it was Enid Blyton books which were read over and over again. The Famous Five series when I was younger (still have all my tatty copies in my attic which I read to my own girls when they were little) and the Adventure series – The Island of Adventure was a particular favourite. Then I moved on to the boarding school books – Malory Towers, St Clare’s, The Naughtiest Girl books all were well thumbed. Malory Towers was my favourite – I just loved Darrell and wanted to go there too. I’m sure I would have hated it! Although Blyton isn’t exactly pc these days, she was a great storyteller and captured the imaginations of generations of young readers setting up a love of books which would last a lifetime. What are your childhood favourites? I’d love to know, leave a comment.

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    • Thanks for commenting and for reblogging, Joanne. If I’d been running a poll to find out the favourite children’s author I’m sure Enid Blyton would win hands down! I’d actually forgotten The Island of Adventure series but loved the boarding school books. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed being at Malory Towers, either, but that didn’t stop me wanting to go.

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  2. The Chalet School books had a huge impact on my reading, even seeing the cover of ‘Jo of’ gives me a warm feeling! I enjoyed ‘Katy did’ but boviously not as much as you. Two or three re-readings at the most. I wonder what it is about these children’s books that made us want to re-read them? I do re-read adult books but only very rarely.

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    • Thanks for dropping by, Gill. I don’t know if our re-reading was entirely to do with the story content or if it’s something to do with development in children. I don’t really remember which books were read to me before I could read by myself but I do remember my son wanting to hear over and over again the books I read aloud to him – Chicken Little, Thomas the Tank Engine – and I didn’t dare skip bits. There were no videos in my childhood but my son watched and re-watched videos in the same way he’d asked for stories to be re-read. I’m wondering if it’s part of a process of understanding what makes a story/narrative.
      I occasionally re-read adult books but it’s usually by mistake because I’ve forgotten I’ve already read it!

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  3. What a lovely post, Mary. I was a huge fan of The Famous Five, but just prior to getting into that series, the book I spent absolutely hours and hours re-reading was Peter Pan and Wendy. The edition was a beautifully illustrated one that had originally belonged to my mum, and which she handed on to me, so that made it very special. And each time I read the story I relished the possibility that fantasy and adventure could be just around the corner…

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    • Thanks, Wendy, I’m pleased you enjoyed it. Ooh, yes, Peter Pan and Wendy was another favourite. Since the workshop I’ve been remembering more and more books I enjoyed as a child. As children we were probably able to suspend disbelief very easily so adventures were perfectly possible.
      I am near Dumfries where J M Barrie lived for a while and there’s a major project underway to restore Moat Brae house, the garden of which he said inspired Peter Pan. Here’s a link: http://www.peterpanmoatbrae.org/moat-brae/j-m-barrie/

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    • I was older when I read The Hobbit. Enid Blyton single-handedly enchanted generations of readers and nudged many of them into wanting to become writers. And wasn’t there a special magic about being able to read books by ourselves?

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  4. I read ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker when I was in the 3rd grade, & it was the unabridged version. It was then that I knew it, I wanted to be a writer…& now I am (9 books 23 awards & counting). I read ‘Dracula’ once every year since then, so that means I’ve read it 21 times & I’m 26 years old. 😀

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    • My goodness, Fiza, Dracula certainly had a major impact on you. Do you think you would still have wanted to be a writer if you hadn’t read it? You must be able to receite the book by now! To be honest, I’m not sure if I ever actually read the book. Thanks for joining in.

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    • Thanks so much to the reblog, Sally. I really appreciate it.
      I read Little Women several times but it couldn’t oust Katy from her number one favourite spot. I bet you liked Jo best.

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  5. I loved Pippi Longstocking. She wasn’t afraid of anything. Oh, and I wanted red braids that stuck straight out.

    Today I still try to emulate her fearlessness. Hence, my second job as a writer. Eeek!

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    • Thanks for joining in on this, Julia. I didn’t read the books but remember there was a television series. Good luck with your writing – I think it often requires stubborness as much as fearlessness! 🙂

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  6. I loved the Famous Five too – but my very favourite books were the Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell. They were Australian so may not have made it to the UK. The series followed a herd of wild horses living in the Snowy Mountains. I can remember many rears later when I went skiing for the first time, many of the places I visited were mentioned in those books. That was quite a thrill. I still have the books – sitting on my best books shelf.

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    • I don’t know the Silver Brumby books, Janet, though they would definitely have appealed to me if they were about horses. How lovely to be able to go and visit the places you’d read about. I must get into our loft and dig out my favourite books from childhood – it wasn’t the same re-reading Katy on a kindle.

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      • I missed them. I did read lots of horsey books and could never understand why my parents wouldn’t buy me a pony. I mean dad was always moaning about having to cut the grass 🙂

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  7. Oh gosh, this is bringing back memories. Just William was fabulous and I adored all the Enid Blyton books. I always wanted an apple tree just outside my window, so I could climb out and discover secret caves and lost princes. They were all amazing adventures.

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    • Enid Blyton was amazing in the way she could tap into what children (of varying age groups) wanted to read – all those adventures, with a surprising lack of adult supervision.
      I remember those books, read about 50 years ago, with so much more clarity than many books I’ve read – and enjoyed – much more recently.

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  8. We read so many of the same things, Mary! I LOVED Katy. It’s only recently that I’ve found out that there is an insect called a ‘Katydid’, which is where the opening and closing part comes from. That had long remained a mystery. 🙂

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    • H Sue, yes I just learned about the insect in the foreword to the copy I downloaded from Amazon. I’ve also just discovered there are two more books in the series, Clover and In the High Valley. I don’t think I ever read them – maybe I outgrew Katy in the same way my son outgrew Harry Potter by the second last book. I had to read it on my own.

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  9. I enjoyed all the books you have mentioned, although I preferred What Katy did at school to the original. My favourites were all the Anne of Green Gables Books and The Little Princess. Maybe it was because I was an only child.

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    • I had forgotten about Anne of Green Gables – enjoyed them, too. I don’t remember The Little Princess.
      I did enjoy What Katy Did at School (thugh preferred the first one) and loved the river game they played – and the bit when Katy started to look after the unpleasant teacher (forgotten her name now).

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  10. Ah, I remember! As a young child, I was hooked on CS Lewis’s Narnia books – which are still classics today. I read voraciously. Rosemary Sutcliffe, Eagle of the Ninth, comes to mind. Heidi, of course, and Little Women (and Jo’s Boys). Were they sweeter and more innocent than YA books now? I’m guessing they probably were – and many were inherently moral (or moralising?). Maybe Alice in Wonderland not so much? Thanks for bringing back these memories, Mary.

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    • Thanks, Jenny. I also read Little Women, which I remember well, so it must have been re-read a few times. I found it more saccharine and moralising than What Katy Did. On the other hand there was a lot of illness and disability and death and dying so perhaps not quite as sweet and innocent as we think.
      I think today’s YA books are for older readers than What Katy Did and Little Women, which I read when very much still a child – long before my teenage years.
      Strangely, despite being a voracious reader I was an adult before I read the Narnia books. I have no idea why.

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    • Oh, yes, I’d forgotten about the Just Wiiliam books – they were wonderful, weren’t they? Thanks for reminding me of William and the dreadful Violet Elizabeth Bott. I can’t remember when I read Lorna Doone but it didn’t have the same impact on me as What Katy Did.

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