Review by Liz Dexter
This is a truly delightful book which is a MUST if you’re a 35-55 year old British person and a great read for everyone else, too. Enjoy a lovely journey through children’s books as Mangan takes you through her reading childhood from the Very Hungry Caterpillar to Judy Blume, with stops along the way that are both classic and contemporary.
If you’re familiar with Mangan’s columns and other writing, you’ll know that she gives a gently comically exaggerated view of family life – here concentrating of course on her family growing up, but also talking about her son and her efforts hoping he’ll become a bookworm like her. There’s a real warmth as she describes, “those glorious days when reading was the thing and life was only a minor inconvenience,” and the family details add depth and tone while reading authentically. And she’s clear that once a bookworm, always a bookworm: “It’s just your good or bad luck that this is the only way you’re ever going to be happy”.
We get the books that were coming out as Mangan was growing up, in the great Puffin and other imprints, the ones that had been around a little while, and then the classic Nesbits and Streatfeilds, the Borrowers and Mrs Frisby. She describes the wondrous nature of the series and the comforting repetition therein, and the joy of pony books and the bewildering amount of those and school stories still washing around the libraries of her 1980s youth. The library is a big part of her reading journey, whether that’s the public library or two school libraries, although she does yearn to collect them for herself, aided by her father, who brings one home at week for her, sometimes shyly introducing a book he himself has loved. There’s lovely detail of the joy of graduating from the “wooden bins and small shelves of slim paperbacks” to “the courage to choose my first ‘proper’ book … and seat myself at the big boys’ and girls’ tables”.
Mangan brings in fascinating details of the authors’ lives and the publishing industry which make it more than “just” a memoir, and there were some great points throughout the book. Did you know that the “Charlotte’s Webb” E.B. White was the “Strunk and White” E.B. White? Well, I certainly didn’t. The background on the growth and development of children’s books is really well done and interesting and will certainly hold the interest of any reader who hasn’t had the almost exact same reading experience. The growth of actual children’s books in themselves is outlined with a spirited description of the moral tales that came before the purely fun books we mostly find today, and great little details like the fact that Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote for the Godey’s Lady’s Book which the Ingalls women read in the “Little House on the Prairie” books. All these details weave a lovely whole.
The book discusses the emotional growth that reading brings even the most shy and introverted reader, helping with the development of empathy and offering role models and different paths to those she sees around her. There’s also a good strand about how reading older books with unfamiliar vocabulary stretches the mind, although she is pro-expunging the racism from Blyton. Mangan also talks about how being thrilled to find northerners like her family in a book made her realise how much more important it is to be able to see yourself reflected in the books you read when you’re more obviously or deeply other than the straight white norm, and how important it therefore is for books to be inclusive. She also learns a lot about other people’s experiences from “issue” books, as we all do.
Mangan also describes her move away from true isolation in books, through lovely depictions of key friendships built around a love of books – particularly a fellow Lucy with different books and her first proper school friend. Sally, with whom she learns to love discussing reading. It’s a real celebration of these friendships, too.
One interesting point that came out was the difficulty, pre-Internet, of obtaining books you might have seen or had read to you, that might be published somewhere else or are out of print. Mangan has this experience with “The Phantom Tollbooth” when she encounters it being read to the class at school, and it’s clear that she’s gone back to search for books online as well as in second-hand shops now that there are more opportunities to find them. I have certainly done this myself but it’s interesting to remember that it wasn’t just records that were hard to find and had to be wished for and saved for and searched for, as we keep learning from musicians’ biographies. She also praises reprinting companies such as Girls Gone By, who have saved her favourite, Antonia Forest, from invisibility.
A book about not fitting in and coming to not really care when you’ve got the world of books to help you navigate the real world which is sure to strike a chord with anyone who was reading children’s and young adult books from the 1970s onwards.
Liz Dexter is an almost exact contemporary and reading twin of Lucy Mangan, it turns out, and will be pressing this book upon as many people as possible. She blogs about books and other bits and bobs at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.
Lucy Mangan, Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading (Random House, Vintage, 2018). 978-0224098854, 336 pp., Hardback
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