Writing up our own reading journeys has long been the plan for the Reading Sheffield team (here is our web designer Lizz’s reading journey). The threat to libraries across the country brought the task into sharp focus for me. Libraries have been, and are, my regular staging posts along the road. It saddens me that so many of them are closing and so many of us will thus find the way harder.
Even before libraries, there were my parents. My father paused his reading about Newcastle Utd in the Evening Chronicle (well, the news was often bad) to help me spell out letters, then words, from the headlines. ‘Goal’ was probably one of my first words. My mother, keen to give me the education she missed, taught me the alphabet – in upper case, which later irritated my teachers. She helped me grasp narrative early on by telling me stories. One was about how much she enjoyed ‘reading time’ at school, with Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm her favourite books.
There was a scheme allowing very young children – I was about two years old – to borrow picture books from the local library. For us this was the Redheugh Branch in Gateshead, an Art Deco building with pale yellow doors, now a recording studio. We went there as often as I could persuade my mother. I remember a low table-cum-box, divided into four compartments for the picture books and known apparently as a ‘kinderbox’, with three-legged stools around it. Table and stools were painted yellow and red.
When I was four, we moved. It was around then that I started school, and found shelves of books in most classrooms. The Council was keen on school libraries. There were Ladybird books, Janet and John and two books which, perhaps because they were the first ‘proper’ stories I ever read, stay with me. First was Neighbours in the Park, about a girl who lived with her parents in a double-decker bus and made friends with a park-keeper’s daughter. The park, bus and girls were shown on the green, black and white cover. Then came The Bittern, which had a pale green or brown cover with, I think, a drawing of a rather mournful, long-haired girl. I have no idea what The Bittern was about, or who wrote either book, but between them they caught me, and I was never free again. (If anyone knows these books, I would love to hear of them.)
The nearest library was now Gateshead Central, a Carnegie library. I had no fear of it, or sense that time reading was time wasted. It was the first place I was allowed to go to by myself. In holidays I would go at least every other day and, in term time, on Saturdays and a couple of weekday evenings. Often my father was persuaded to give me a lift. ‘You won’t be long now, will you?’
To join, I had to read a passage aloud to the children’s librarian, stern in brown tweed suit and knitted jumper. Her hair was corrugated cardboard. But, frightening as she was, she had the power to make me free of the books on her shelves, so it was a worthwhile ordeal. The library was a large room, with high shelves and big, oak reading tables and chairs. It was perhaps not very child-friendly, though this never struck me then. It was just the library, where the books were, and I wanted to be.
Here I found Anne of Green Gables and loved it as much as my mother had. How I adored Gilbert Blythe, in common with Anne and many other readers. Anne herself was important because we both loved stories and hated geometry, and we shared red hair and the name Anne, although mine lacked the important final ‘e’. There were also Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth (how I cried!), Katy Carr, Rebecca and Pollyanna, who was too glad to be endured for long. And I found adventurous children like Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls and the Hardy Boys. My Reading Sheffield colleague Mary Grover points out that these are all from across the Atlantic, and wonders if the library had any American connection. Not that I know of.
School and ballet stories were important too. My favourites, which were plentiful in the library, were Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series – I can still name all of Joey Maynard’s eleven children – and Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells books. I begged for ballet lessons, to no avail, and was reduced to copying the ballet-trained glide of a luckier classmate. I didn’t read about horses, the other staple for young girls. A teacher had read Black Beauty aloud, and I was haunted by the cruelty.
What other books stay in my mind?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its brilliant opening, where Lucy meets Mr Tumnus under the lamp-post in the snow. But I found Aslan disturbing and never managed the other Narnia books.
Any book by E Nesbit. ‘You’re so funny!’ said the psammead. ‘Have your parents tried boiling you?’
The Changeling of Monte Lucio and other old-fashioned, Ruritanian novels by Violet Needham. Quests, rebellions, secret societies, castles, mountains – what more could anyone want?
A non-fiction series called The Young …, about the early lives of the famous. My favourite was The Young Mary Queen of Scots, by Jean Plaidy. Mary, with Marys Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston, escaped from Scotland to France, where she married the Dauphin. The book ended with her returning to Scotland, aged about 16 and wearing white mourning for her young husband.
‘Career novels’ like Margaret Becomes a Doctor, in which girls trained for a career but always met a nice young man and gave up their hard-won jobs. Linked with these for me were two series – American, again – about nurses Cherry Ames and Sue Barton, who had both adventures and principles. Cherry was unique in never settling for domesticity.
When I was around 13, I’d outgrown the children’s library but was too young for the adult. Ingeniously, I bullied my parents into joining and then used their tickets, always ready if challenged to say I was just collecting their books. But no-one ever asked.
Today I belong to Sheffield Library, and Newcastle and Leeds have also known me over the years. Libraries and I have been together for over 50 years, and we see no reason to split up now.
* The answer? ‘We have no past and no future.’ So said Ray Bradbury.