Until I was four, we lived near a big red brick library which was in the centre of a park; St George's Park in Bristol. My father was the one that would take me into the library, rather than just to the swings and duck pond, and I can recall the way the high bookcases loomed over my head, and the smell of the place, which I believed was the scent of bookworm. Dad would let me chose my own books from the children's section because he’d be busy picking his selection from the grown-up fiction. He loved authors like Howard Spring, Neville Shute, George Orwell and John Steinbeck. I liked Milly Molly Mandy, the tales of Little Grey Rabbit and anything by Beatrice Potter. When we got home, he’d read the books to me.
When I look back, the strangest, most obscure stories have left the biggest impression. One of the most loved books I actually owned was called Unicorn Island. My father read to me when I was little, but very soon I’d learned to read on my own and then I reread it a million times afterward. A coastal village of disparate animals are in fear of the offshore island, where white flashes of the dangerous unicorn can be seen circumnavigating the mountain.When the hero’s little brother falls dangerously ill, he and his friends take it upon themselves to brave the island and come back with a healing herb. They discover all manner of wonderful things there, and the unicorn turns out to be the most marvellous of all. There is a slightly sinister atmosphere to the story and a gravity you don’t often find in picture books now…a precursor (but with a far longer story) of Where the Wild things Are.
Not long after I’d started to read on my own, I realized I wanted to be a writer.
My first infant school teacher, Mrs Marsden, read a story to the class. It might have been the fable 'The Mouse and the Lion', but I can't really remember.
Mrs Marsden finished reading aloud and then asked the class to write a story themselves. It was then that I had my early epiphany. I was dumbfounded. For the first time, I realized that the books I loved had actually been written by real human beings. Before that, I thought they must have fallen from some sort of story heaven. It was a revelation. I haven't looked back.
It was Mrs Marsden that turned me onto full-length fiction. I was going to borrow yet another Milly Molly Mandy from the class bookshelf when she accosted me, grabbed a thick volume from the shelf above and said, “You’re past all these baby books. Try this that one, Nina.” She handed me Mary Poppins, which I can remember taking to bed because I could not put it down. Maybe I read it too young, though, for when I read it aloud to my children thirty years later, the only things that rang a bell was the marvellously flavoured medicine and a strange man on a ceiling.
I was often in bed with asthma, when I was small, and liked a stack of books beside my bed. There were books I’d return to time and again as a small child. The Adventures of Manly Mouse was one – Manly lived in a world where mice who went about their human-like endeavours in a little mousy town. Manly was a deliciously flawed character, often losing his job or breaking with good friends. He drove a dilapidated car and was easily duped by more suave mice. A phrase our family uses to this day came from the lips of one of Manly’s posh employers who had put Manly to work cleaning his posh car (he turned out to be a poor mouse in scam disguise)…and when I say shine, I don’t mean shine, I mean gleam. And when I say gleam, I don’t mean gleam, I mean glitter!
I can’t pretend I didn’t grow up on Enid Blyton, but the works that made the most impression were the magical Narnia stories, the weird adventures of Alice and the tiny world of The Borrowers. By the time I was twelve, I’d read all of the Anne of Green Gables series. I loved the way Anne hurtled through life. Her ‘modular’ way of learning (by making every mistake in the book – literally) suits me to this day. But, as the books watched her grow into a woman, I also (creep!) loved her commitment to duty and her attitude to life, which reminds me of that quote from Man for all Seasons
, when Richard Rich asks… 'If I was, (a teacher) who would know it?' And Thomas Moore replies…'You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that…’
I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen. Well, okay I started to write a novel which I never finished. I wrote it by longhand and asked my friend to type it out. She was doing exams in typing at the time, so she was quite pleased. Every evening, I wrote in one corner of the room, while she typed at the table. Blissful silence until Maggie looked up and said, 'it is a bit old-fashioned, but it's really nice.'
'Thanks,' I simpered. I'm hoping people will enjoy it.'
'Nina,' she said, 'I was talking about my new dress. I've been talking about my new dress for the last five minutes.'
I do believe I've got better since then, both at writing and listening to criticism! I can remember bursting with pride when I received the first copies of the first book I had published; a children's novel with HarperCollins (still available from Amazon).
As a children’s writer, I am bound to be influenced by the books I read as a child.I’ve even tried to rewrite some of their ideas into my own work, although that has rarely worked, and most of those early stories were never published. They were my apprenticeship, I guess, and although almost all of them are gone from my hands, I will never forget their stories and characters.
In some ways, the books I read made me the person I am. They were probably more influential than my textbooks or my teachers…or even my parents.
I think that’s true of a lot of people. Books are the things that make us, when we are young. Finding ourselves inside those marvellous adventures gives us hope, fires our dreams and helps us cope with the things life throws at us.