First Impressions Last

By Val Hewson

White cards and pens on chairs can make an audience nervous. Will there be a test? No. What we want is to tap memories. What are the first books people remember? What was the first book that made them feel grown-up? What can they say about the libraries they visited as children?

We all seem to remember early books far better than the ones we read a couple of months ago. It’s something to do with firsts, with making discoveries, with new experiences. Our audience polls are unscientific, of course, but what turns up on the cards is always interesting. Some titles we see a lot, while others we have to look up. Then there are the not-quite-remembered ones, where we try to work out what the writers mean. All too often, we find our own memories stirred, and we slip back in time.

Here are our gleanings from a recent talk.

  • Among the very first: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Swallows and Amazons, Jennings at School [sic], Just William. Adult (12ish): Moby Dick, The Castle, A Hero of Our Time. Favourites: A la recherche du temps perdu, Ulysses, Wasteland [sic], Cold Comfort Farm, 1984, Brave New World.
  • First book: Crimson Book of Fairy Tales by Andrew Lang. First adult book: Marjorie Morgenstern [sic] by Herman Wouk
  • First book: Black Beauty. Favourite book: John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Favourite authors: Edith Wharton and Iris Murdoch.
  • First book: Not certain. Something Nancy Drew maybe. First children’s book: Wizard of Oz. Adult book: probably something for school report.
  • Black Beauty and Angelique.
  • First book: Bambi. Adult: Little Women.
  • The Chalet School by Eleanore [sic] Brent-Dyer
  • H Rider Haggard? The Devil Rides Out?
  • First children’s book – Enid Blyton. First adult book – Sir Gary by Trevor Bailey. Biography of Sir Gary Sobers, great cricket player.
  • Visited library every Sat as a child. Probably got Enid Blyton, Pamela Brown books. Had many books at home due to having an older sister eg, full set of Arthur Ransome. ‘Adult’ reading probably began with Georgette Heyer and similar.
  • First book from library I remember – biography of Everest explorers Mallory and [illegible]. A task for Booklovers Badge for Guides.
  • Rather forbidding building in my home town with scary rules re silence. Staying with my Grandma and going to much more modern library (this was 1960s) and she let my sister and me borrow children’s books on her ticket. This was [illegible] happy holidays.
  • A borrowed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an 11 year-old, getting severely chastised as a result!

Libraries seem, on this occasion at least, to make less of an impression than the books borrowed from them, with only two audience members sharing memories. For one, the library was clearly just part of the routine, as they went to get books every Saturday, their choice being Enid Blyton and Pamela Brown. Pamela Brown, if you don’t know here, wrote exciting stories, such as The Swish of the Curtain, about children and the theatre. The other memory is much more a vivid and speaks to the severity of municipal architecture and, perhaps hewn from the same stone, municipal staff: 

Rather forbidding building in my home town with scary rules re silence. Staying with my Grandma and going to much more modern library (this was 1960s) and she let my sister and me borrow children’s books on her ticket. This was [illegible] happy holidays.

Turning to the books, it’s striking how old most of them are, and were even when the members of the audience (who were mostly of a certain age) were discovering them. Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time was published in 1840 and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in 1857. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women appeared in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, not long after the Civil War which takes Mr March away from his family. Many of the 20th century authors, such as Georgette Heyer and Elinor M Brent-Dyer, started their careers well before World War II and, it has to be said, continued for many years.  

Most – perhaps all – of the books or authors listed, however, are still round, in new editions, as e-book or in second-hand bookshops. Some, like the Nancy Drew books, have regularly been re-worked in different formats, to suit the children of the day. If she were real, Nancy would now be well past her centenary. Many of the books are familiar too from adaptations. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film of Little Women, for example, is just the latest in a long line.

Tom Sawyer, from the frontispiece of the 1876 edition

Most of the childhood titles suggest the UK in the 1950s and ‘60s. Take this response: ‘Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Swallows and Amazons, Jennings at School, Just William’. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer probably appeared on more than one syllabus. When a teacher read Tom Sawyer to my class in junior school, it seemed to go on forever, and I have never wanted to read it or any Mark Twain novel since. Black Beauty, also listed, is another 19th century classic chosen by my teacher. Fifty years later Beauty’s ill-treatment is sharp in my memory, and I still avoid books about animals because I remain afraid of what might happen to them. This of course includes Bambi, remembered by someone else in the audience.    

Edition from 1953

I would bet that Swallows, Jennings and William were on the shelves of every children’s library in the UK in the middle of the 20th century. In their different ways, they represent those staples of 20th century children’s fiction: the adventure story and the school story. William and Swallows show that adventures are always better without adult interference. A little anarchy is a good thing. Jennings and the Chalet School, from another card, are about the ‘scrapes’ – evocative word! – boys and girls can get into in termtime. Boys and girls. Yes, Jennings was for boys and the Chalet School for girls. It was not unusual at the time to find ‘Books for Boys’ and ‘Books for Girls’ signs in libraries.

These books feature white, middle, or even upper middle, class – children. Their lives were quite unfamiliar to many of the children who read them. Here is Adele J, interviewed by Reading Sheffield a few years ago:

Adele: I loved them and even though [Just William] was right out of my milieu – as a middle-class boy – I didn’t really realise this till later of course. I absolutely adored them. … It was a different life, wasn’t it? I never read anything about MY life.

The ‘loveable’, middle-class scamp, William Brown

As she has been mentioned, let’s turn to Enid Blyton, whose appearance is inevitable. Although librarians and teachers criticised her work as pedestrian, dated, elitist, sexist, racist and more, her readers persisted in liking her. In fact, it’s curious that she appears just twice on this set of cards. Chance, perhaps, or some remembered disapproval?  

Then there’s Nancy Drew, Girl Detective. Bright, fearless and independent, Nancy inspires. In 2019 the Washington Post recorded Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Sandra Day O’Connor, Laura Bush, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton as fans. But rather than being a one-off, Nancy came off an assembly line. She was designed and produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which specialised in American children’s literature. The Hardy Boys, anyone? What about the Bobbsey Twins and the Dana Girls and Cherry Ames, the nurse who solves mysteries? (Cherry is my particular favourite, and I have written about her here.) An old house is haunted and Nancy or another young detective steps up, solves the mystery and brings the wrongdoers to justice. Stratemeyer was a hard-headed business, assigning its formulaic books to teams of writers, usually anonymous. Carolyn Keene, credited with the Nancy Drew books, never existed. The children reading them didn’t mind. They knew nothing of Stratemeyer, but when they picked up a Nancy Drew, they had every expectation of entertainment.       

An early Nancy Drew story

There are 12 Swallows and Amazon books, over 20 Jennings books, 28 Just William adventures, at least 60 Chalet School books and, Wikipedia says, ‘613 Nancy Drew books…published as of July 2021 over thirteen different series’. It seems that we always want more, however much it strains the original construct. Did Elinor M Brent-Dyer ever think, as she approached her 60th novel, of bankrupting the school and sending everyone home?

None of the books listed is associated with the earliest years of childhood. There are no picture-books, or story books that parents might have read at bedtime. The only collection of fairy tales – The Crimson Book by Andrew Lang – is not for the very young. This may just be chance, as we do meet people who remember curling up with books at a very young age: 

One of the very earliest memories I have … I was sitting in my little chair, which was really a miniature adult chair, by [my mother’s] knee while she read The House at Pooh Corner, which I still love. And we laughed, both of us, so much and I was helpless and rolled onto the floor with laughter at that point.

Reading Sheffield interviewee Shirley Ellins

At all events, it would seem that people do not remember non-fiction half so well as fiction. This is certainly the case with our 65 Reading Sheffield interviewees, at least when they are thinking about their childhoods, and the cards here bear this out. There are just two non-fiction books:

  • Sir Gary by Trevor Bailey. Biography of Sir Gary Sobers, great cricket player
  • First book from library I remember – biography of Everest explorers Mallory and [illegible – presumably Andrew Irvine, who climbed with Mallory]. A task for Booklovers Badge for Guides.

What book makes you feel grown-up? It is in the eye of the reader. For some it’s a matter of age, for others the nature of the book. Here we have a 12 year-old reading ‘Moby Dick, The Castle, A Hero of Our Time.’ Or there is Sergeanne Golon’s historical romances about Angélique and the black magic of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (both of which make for uncomfortable reading today). It is easy to understand why these books made their readers feel adult.

Paperback from 1969
A Pan paperback from 1966

This brings us, in a roundabout way, to the subject of ‘forbidden books’. For 30 years Lady Chatterley’s Lover was declared obscene by the state, and publishers were forbidden to print it. When Penguin Books defied the ban with an edition in 1960, they were taken to court and famously won their case. People rushed to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to see if it was as bad, or as good, or as thrilling, as it was said to be. (You can read the often under-whelmed reactions of Sheffielders here.) This was all fine for adults, but what about children getting hold of copies? Well, it got one member of our audience into trouble:

A borrowed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an 11 year-old, getting severely chastised as a result!

Penguin’s 1960 cover design. Notice that the book is ‘complete and unexpurgated’.

Our thanks to the people who shared their memories. Do tell us in the comments about the books and libraries you remember.  You can click here for details of the books listed.

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