Children’s Book Council of Australia Book Week: Books which shaped me

Cover image from Kate Seredys The Good Master: A boy and girl on horses gallop up to a gate. The girl gets there first and opens the gate without dismounting.

Here’s the brief: “Write some posts about my childhood reading, not only favourite books, but how I read them and why I still remember them.”

(Seems I’ve missed the deadline already. Blogging Occupational hazard – sorry!)

When I think of the books I read and re-read as a child, the ones which changed me and which fed my developing feminism, there are two things which they have in common.

One is that as a child growing up in a suburb in a coastal city in the most urbanised country on the planet, I craved books about people who didn’t live in cities – the Billabong books of Mary Grant Bruce, Swallows and Amazons and its sequel We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea; Jean Craighead George’s extraordinary My Side of the Mountain; Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding; Colin Thiele’s February Dragon; Nan Chauncy’s and Ethel Turner’s everything. Some books I loved might have been ostensibly urban, but featured animals and/or a desire for an escape from the city: Barry Hines’ Kes and Paul Gallico’s Thomasina for instance. (Paul Gallico was huge back then but you hardly hear about him now. If any of you cat people haven’t read Thomasina, get you to Book Depository stat.)

Another common thread in my childhood reading is that I gravitated with some powerful inner magnetism towards books which featured horses. The Billabong series again, Kate Seredy’s The Good Master, all the Pullein-Thompson books (if you weren’t a lover of pony books in your childhood, there were three Pullein-Thomson sisters, plus their mother Joanna Cannan, and they all wrote with the same signature style so as to be almost indistinguishable). Mary O’Hara’s Thunderhead series. I’m thinking of this today as I finish Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which is a book about horse people, unusual today. It was more than the love of horses themselves, their beauty and power and personalities. It was the underlying theme in all these books that women can do difficult things, they can be brave, competent and independent. They can spend a whole novel being concerned with facing problems, not their appearance – in fact there’s often a sense of glee in descriptions of a girl’s muddy or otherwise mussed-up state, where the author conspires with the reader in rejecting the norms of twentieth-century clean and “dainty” womanhood. (Ugh. Aren’t you glad that that word, at least, has well and truly sunk into disuse?) The Good Master and the Billabong series are a paradigm of the role of horses in writing about female emancipation in a pre-war world and the threats to that fragile sense of liberation. The Mary Grant Bruces and Pullein-Thompsons wrote about cracking hardy and not falling into the paradigm of domesticated womanhood, although these writers – products of their time – assumed that it would get you in the end.

“Pony books”, despite being at the slighter end of the scale, nevertheless had a strong ethical message – people who were cruel to their horses and rude to other people invariably lost while those who were kind and straight with others won the blue ribbons at the gymknana in the end, or had some other kind of personal victory. This was commendable, though perhaps not the best preparation for real life.

Honourable mention for some books which don’t quite fit here: Geoffrey Willans’ Down with Skool!, whose characters survive on Twitter, and Finn Family Moomintroll. I wasn’t much of a fantasy reader but loved ghosts and horror, scaring the wits out of myself with Edgar Allen Poe and M.R. James.

You’ll notice there is a generational element there. I grew up in the twentieth century, just as the baby boom was petering out, to older parents. I read a lot of older writing, some of it from Edwardian times, most of which isn’t in circulation now. Edith Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It, What Katy Did, and many of the titles I’ve mentioned above. I’ve re read a few of them lately, and as you’d expect, some hold up better than others. It’s saddening to read A Little Bush Maid and see how Grant Bruce accepted, uncritically, white attitudes to indigenous people before WW1. It’s not a book I’d buy for a grandchild, although you could use it in schools as a set text, in context.

Another common thread of the books of these older times is that the narratives went on without parents present very often, if at all. I didn’t see that as unusual at the time. I can’t help comparing my own childhood – spending whole days playing in a disused quarry in a patch of scrub pretending to be the equivalent of My Side of the Mountain, exploring creeks with insufficient thought of snakes and footwear, riding horses with friends over huge areas of paddock and back road without telling anyone where we were going, or even knowing in advance where we were going… in the light of today’s helicopter parenting it seems so dangerous, even without the more dramatic adventures of the kids in the books. But it was inspiring.

Even today, the lessons of my childhood reading remain. Don’t be a wimp. Be nice to other people. Even if you’re a bookish nerdy type, you can love the bush and the outdoors. Be resourceful. And be good to your animals.

What were the books which shaped you?

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

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9 replies

  1. I’ve been halfway through drafting a post for most of this week about my own childhood love for books about girls doing things in the bush or at least rural areas, so I’m going to kibitz on your post instead – Heidi in the Swiss Alps, Laura Ingalls in her Little Houses, Anne of Green Gables in a small farming town, and a title I can’t remember (and Google is not helping) about an indigenous Australian girl traveling with her tribe around the Snowy and Bogong mountains, living off the land (which I may well find quite problematic if I reread it now – I seem to remember some sentimentalising of the appropriative kind). I read a lot of pony books too, as well as All The Girl Detective Stories – all these girls and young women able to freely move around and find out things, make things, get grubby and achieve stuff, with potential romance hovering in the background but firmly stuffed into the later-when-I’ve-got-the-time basket. The Big Outdoors was also part of why I loved The Call Of The Wild and White Fang and The Silver Brumby and even the Hornblower novels.
    Then there was my other side which just loved books with characters who spoke beautiful words, but that’s a different thing.

  2. The Silver Brumby series was one I forgot. Munched all of those up.
    Curiously, my son, who has a prejudice against older literature (which I’ve been trying to cure) enjoyed White Fang.
    I forgot a compendium of poetry about animals called “Four Feet and Two” which I reread for years. It has a poem called “Those Who Love Cats Who Do no Even Purr” about cats at the end of their lives, which is so beautiful.
    What were some of the books with characters who spoke beautiful words?

  3. Helen, it started with all those Regency romances on my great-uncle’s bookcase – Georgette Heyer especially. The deliciously elegant banter!
    Then I became a young Janeite, and all was lost.

  4. I loved Heidi and Little Women, but the books I loved most were the ‘He went with..'(insert adventurer here e.g. Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus) series inherited from my mum. It focused on young boys who went along on some of those great voyages and fueled a desire for travel and exploration that will never be satiated.
    As a seven year old I reread the books, kept cargo lists and begged my mum to let me learn Portuguese. As an adult I was horrified to realise how devastating those voyages were.

  5. Welcome to Hoyden about Town Caroline!

  6. I am now incredibly excited, because having read all the Pullein-Thompsons, I did not realise they had a mother who also wrote and am off to google.
    Also, in addition to all of the above, Black Beauty, which used to make me weep buckets of tears every time I read it! Ditto Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight.
    All the Mary Elwyn Patchett books – I loved those, particularly Tam the Untamed.
    And the Enid Blyton ones set on farms – The Children of Willow Farm and The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.
    Basically, anything set on a farm/in the bush/involving horses/dogs.

  7. So glad to see your take on the Mary Grant Bruce books – I loved them and read them repeatedly. I have found re-reading a bit conflicting – the racism is jarring (the ‘boys’ are mugged by evil kaffirs in Cape Town!) but the resistance of the worst of the ‘women’s role’ imposed on Norah is quite explicit. And I like that she does get to be domestic occasionally – it’s true – you can be a ‘liberated woman’ and still enjoy baking!

  8. Books by Enid Blyton. She taught me English. As a 10 year old in the early 70’s desperate to read something (being a compulsive reader) my father brought back a few Enid Blyton books when he had to go to the city. I read and reread with a dictionary in one hand. I lived in an English speaking country, so could practice my new found skills. The weird pronounciation of written English of course made little sense to this logical 10 year old! It made for some interesting blank looks when I flexed my new skills. Generaly English speaking people do not recognize their own language when spoken phonetically. It is my humble opinion that this why on the whole atrocious spelling seems to be a largely uniquely English problem. Within a year I was devouring about everything, from Black Beauty, White Fang, Treasure Island, Nancy Drew, etc. No Australian stories sadly.

  9. Yes, that thing of mispronouncing words because you’ve read them often (and feel quite familiar with them) but have never heard them spoken!

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