The ability to read is a gift, and for children and young adults learning how to visualise people and situations outside your own experience is a vital step towards developing imagination, empathy, a sense of humour and many valuable life lessons. (Actually, the same goes for adults, too).
There are countless books that filled my childhood (in the 90s), and some that I haven’t added to this list include Mrs Wishy Washy by Joy Cowler, read to my kindergarten class by our infallibly kind teacher, Miss Hartman, the ‘tween’ rite of passage, The Babysitters Club series and my introduction to horror fiction with the popular R.L. Stine Goosebumps books. Of course there was the hilarious books of Morris Gleitzman and Paul Jennings, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series which became a part of my life in my early-to-mid teens – I could go on for, oh, about 18 years, but the ones listed here were particularly powerful.
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen (published 1836)
I was always a huge fan of Disney’s animated version of The Little Mermaid as a child and, recognising this, my mother read to me her copy of the original story – bought when she was a child visiting the real little mermaid (pictured) in Denmark. The idea seemed incredible to me at the time.
Thus, my memories of this story are a mix of a red-haired Ariel and Sebastian singing ‘Under the Sea’,and scenes from my imagination with a much more muted palette, involving difficult emotions like regret and the cruel, painful consequences of Ariel’s decision to walk on human feet (which felt like walking on knives) in the name of love.
While Disney movies were as much an enjoyable part of my childhood as many of these books, I am grateful to have been exposed to the original stories because I think so many modern children’s texts (books and movies) underestimate the ability of young people to take on real-life themes, like love and loss and regret.
The Silver Slippers by Elizabeth Koda-Callan (published 1989)
This book from Elizabeth Koda-Callan’s ‘Magic Charm’ series came, as the name suggests, with a little silver necklace with a charm of two little silver ballet slippers – just like the girl in the story wears. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. I’m not sure how old I was when I got this as a birthday present (although, being born in 1988, I’m going to guess I was around pre-school age).
It’s one of those stories with a ‘moral’ – the girl receives the silver slippers as a reminder to practice her ballet every day, until she is chosen to be the prima ballerina. I.e. you can achieve anything you set your heart to. And I honestly remember taking that on board like an epiphany at the time. And while the book has been misplaced or given away over the years, the necklace (which now seems so tiny!) lives on, stowed away in a little box of mementos.
Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski (published 1941)
This book took the position of my ‘favourite book’ for quite a few years at a time when I felt the need to have an answer to that oft-asked question (I no longer do – it’s just too hard). It is a fictionalised version of the story of Mary Jemison (1743–1833), who was kidnapped from her home as a teenager by the Seneca, who she bonded with and chose to remain with.
While I can’t remember the details of the plot (a good reason to re-read the book, I’d say), I do remember being enthralled with this book – and its central character – for a long time.
Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (published 1980)
This classic children’s book is one of two in this list by Australian author Ruth Park (and in fact I only just realised on this trip down memory lane that My Sister Sif is by the same author. It never occurred to me at the time).
This is definitely one that I’d like to read again as an adult. Like most of these books I can only recall a few scenes in mental pictures (not words) and the feelings I got from the book – a little spooked when she first travels back in time, and sad. In fact, this is how my memories of most books I’ve read are stored (like a film playing out, rather than a mass of text), which is why I have trouble quoting books off the top of my head. Just an observation.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (published 1977)
Now, here’s an interesting fact about this book that I only just discovered, years after reading it as a pre-teen. According to Wikipedia attempts are regularly made to censor its content, particularly in America. “The censorship attempts stem from death being a part of the plot;Jess’ frequent use of the word “lord” outside of prayer; concerns that the book promotes secular humanism, New Age religion, occultism, and Satanism, and for use of offensive language.”
I’ve gone over a decade and never thought of this book as anything other than a touching, tragic story of friendship and bravery. If it promotes secular humanism, I’m glad I was exposed to it at a young age. If it contains offensive language, it apparently didn’t offend or shock me, and as for Satanism, etc, I am intrigued enough by these accusations to want to read it again.
This all stems back to what I said before about giving young people a little more credit for being able to cope with complex themes, because that’s the world they are living in and that’s what makes life interesting.
My Sister Sif by Ruth Park (published 1986)
As a little girl who grew up in Sydney with a love for the ocean and an environmental conscience at an early age, this book had a huge impact on me. I can’t remember if it was before, after or during reading My Sister Sif, when I paddled my little foam board what seemed at the time a long way out to sea to retrieve a piece of floating rubbish. Was I trying to protect the sea people I’d been reading about? I also spent a lot of time staring hard at the horizon hoping to be summoned by a beautiful mermaid or merman to their secret world. Alas, it never happened, but my burgeoning imagination was no worse off because of it.