The habit of reading a book at bedtime was one that I formed early. I’ve memories of getting stiff arms holding up books above my face as I lay in bed as a child, delaying sleep to escape into another world or another person’s life for a change.
When choosing stories for Toby, I can’t help but gravitate towards the classics or familiar authors from decades ago, and it’s prompted me to ponder over the books I enjoyed as a child, particularly the titles I chose and read by myself, identifying my taste as an independent reader.
So, I thought I’d revisit and share the books that stand out from my 1980s childhood, and maybe in the process find some fresh inspiration for book ideas for Toby.
- Ladybird books
The first book I remember reading by myself was a Ladybird publication of The Enormous Turnip; I was four I think and I was walking round a supermarket at the time (although the years may have distorted that memory somewhat). These iconic slim line hardbacks celebrate their 100th anniversary this year, and have certainly taken up space in many a kid’s bookshelves over the years, playing a substantial role in helping children learn to read I imagine. Sadly, you don’t see them much anymore, so I wonder if they’ll be around for another 100 years.
- Richard Scarry
I have quite clear early memories of owning large hardback books full of little cat people driving cars and vehicles and doing regular jobs and living in cities and towns. I’m pretty sure these were books by American author and illustrator Richard Scarry, who has been creating children’s books since the 1950s. It may have been Cars and Trucks and Things that Go or What do People Do All Day? – which is a question I still ask. I really wished I’d hung on to these. I can still picture clearly the distinctive illustrations.
- The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton’s books were still going strong in the 1980s, and I absolutely loved the Folk of the Faraway Tree. I may have read it more than once because I remember it quite vividly. I can still picture spoilt brat Connie with her perfect hair and pristine dress and, of course, Moonface. This was the very definition of a page turner for me, I was utterly entranced. This is definitely a story I’ll revisit with Toby, just so I have an excuse to read it again.
- Famous Five Adventure Books
We didn’t have very sophisticated video games in the 1980s so had to make do with these choose-your-own-adventure style versions of the Famous Five. I wasn’t generally a major fan of the Famous Five stories. I never really related to the way the characters spoke or the sorts of food and drink they enjoyed (we didn’t really do ginger beer in 1980s Scotland) and their fairly middle class lifestyles all seemed a bit alien. However, these interactive versions of the stories, complete with props and a dice, were utterly addictive. These books, of course, allowed you to influence the outcome of the story. I worked my way through them all.
- Pretty much everything by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl was the JK Rowling of the 1980s. Everyone read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even people who didn’t like books. No 1980s childhood would be complete without a Roald Dahl book in it and I was no exception. I got through most of them. I remember being so influenced by George’s Marvellous Medicine that I made a potion at my friend’s house using everything we could lay our hands on to create it – expensive perfumes, luxury face creams, anything and everything we shouldn’t have been using. Fortunately no grandmas were hurt in the making of it.
My ultimate favourite, though, was The BFG. I also enjoyed The Witches, even though I found it slightly terrifying. Dahl’s appeal has spanned the generations and I’ve observed Toby gaining as much pleasure from these books as I did.
- Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Margorian
Michelle Margorian’s 1981 novel tells the story of a wartime evacuee’s relationship with a grumpy old man. Beneath the surface, both these characters carry painful secrets and once they understand each other a bond inevitably emerges. The story has a reputation as a bit of a tearjerker and I think it was one of the first books to have a serious emotional impact upon me. The film adaptation in 1998 brought my childhood memories of reading the book flooding back. It tackles some difficult issues with careful handling, and I’d certainly like to read it again.
- The Borribles go for Broke by Michael de Larrabeiti
It flies under the radar, never makes children’s fiction lists and to this day I don’t know anyone else who read this as a child but The Borribles Go For Broke is a strong contender for one of my top five children’s books. Part of a trilogy, The Borribles go for Broke tells the story of runaway teenagers who live where they can find space in London. This was a high-quality adventure fantasy tale – dark in places, sombre in others, and addressed difficult themes. It felt like my first grown-up read. I remember being quite excited to discover the word “Bastard” in it. I can still visualise the pointy ears of the Borribles and can remember strongly that heady mix of danger, excitement and trepidation I felt reading it.
- Judy Blume
Like Dahl, Judy Blume was another author who united a generation of children. I was in Primary Seven when I discovered these books and my friends and I passed the copies between us: Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret?; Superfudge; Blubber; Just as Long as We’re Together, and of course Forever.
These books addressed all our anxieties about the growing up that was just around the corner: periods, boyfriends, changing bodies, changing friendships, and that elephant in the room: sex. We hadn’t yet matured enough to know how to talk to our friends about this stuff without breaking out into giggles, while the adults in our lives quite often tiptoed around the emotional crux of these sensitive issues, still in denial that we were ready for the next stage of our lives.
So Judy Blume took on the responsibility as our own private agony aunt. And she rose to the challenge with aplomb, capturing our insecurities and working through solutions with a rare honesty absent from other areas of our young lives. After the nonsense humour of Dahl or the civilised escapades of the Famous Five, Blume presented real life, and we were ready for it.