Children’s books and books from my childhood

It is my other book club today; for the past month we have been reading ‘Lilith’ by George MacDonald… and I guess lots of people who consider themselves committed readers and diverse readers will never have heard of it, and many will never have heard of George MacDonald either. Well, I had never heard of it, but I do know George MacDonald.

The book he wrote which I knew from hearing it dramatised or serialised on the radio, when the was the exemplary Children’s Hour, and which I read several times when I was a child, is ‘At the Back of the North Wind’; I am not sure I could actually read it now, and it seems far removed from the sort of novel for young people these days. I only had vague notions of a small boy being spoken to by the North Wind whistling in through a knot hole in the door, or maybe window shutter… but apparently it is now classed as a fantasy novel about a boy called Diamond who has adventures with the North Wind.  I seem to remember enjoying it,, but finding it a little scary, and I really remember the radio production with the sound of the strong whistling wind – shivery stuff!! What i didn’t know or realise, and didn’t find out until MacDonald was chosen for our book of the month, that the North Wind story is based on philosophical and theological ideas, and sadly was based on the author’s young son Maurice who died while he was still a child.

So ‘Lilith’… well, I shall be interested to hear what my book club chums think of it… beautifully written but very strange – I hardly know how to describe it – a fantasy, a dream, a vision, a parable, a fairy-tale, a hallucination, a mystery,  a theological piece… The main character is a Mr Vane who lives in a vast and mysterious mansion in large grounds; he can’t remember how his father ides, and doesn’t mention his mother, and lives in total isolation, immersed in the books in the old library… until he meets a… a ghost? …a vision? … a magical being? who varies between being a huge black raven, to being an elderly man, all dressed in black called Mr Raven. By stepping through a variety of what might be called portals, for example a series of mirrors in a tower which can be arranged to access another world, Mr Vane goes on what might be called an adventure. He meets Mrs Raven, and is taken through a vast hall of silent sleepers including his own father and mother, who are apparently waiting for death (if I understand it correctly); he goes on a journey and meets bands of children, and terrifying giants… and that is as far as I have got. There is no sense of character, no feeling of engagement with Mr Vane, and actually, although it is beautifully written, it is, I fear, totally beyond me. It is, I think, a philosophical and theological fantasy… and I am glad I have ventured into it, and may return to venture a bit further, but I think it is a book to read over years rather than a month or two!

I lost most of my childhood books; I had them until I was an adult and then for various reasons,, the person who had them in storage for me distanced himself and I was never able to retrieve them. A lot of my childhood books I have found and reread, or looked at in second-hand shops with affection but resisted buying, but there are a couple which I really wish I could find and reread as they made a big impact on me.

One was a book with two stories in it. One was about a group of children who found an old abandoned caravan at the bottom of an orchard, and attached to it was an equally elderly car with the registration YAK 1… somehow, through some magic, YAK 1 became an actual yak, and the children went off in the yak-drawn caravan for various adventures. The other story was about the same children, I think, who went to stay with a relative on holiday, and the owner of the local sweet shop was a terrifying and hugely fat old woman; the sweets she sold included ‘widows and orphans’ – not sure what they were and little model rowing boats with sets of oars. At night these little boats came alive and scuttled around like spiders, and the huge woman turned into a terrifying octopus or squid.

The other book was about a girl who lived near a lighthouse. One of the light house keepers was a young man with red hair, and he became a bit of a hero to the girl (and to me) Later in the book it was discovered that Ben was a baddie (oh no!! Heartbreak!!) and I think he actually died falling from the cliffs. It was a shocking thing – the hero and most attractive character not only bad, but killed? As a writer, I often think of Ben when I am writing, and I think his character has had an influence on some of my stories.

The other book, or series of books were the Norman and Henry Bones mysteries – they were boy detectives, and one of their books was the first I read where a new chapter started in a new place with different characters; previously stories had one character and it was all told from their point of view. I was puzzled and a little alarmed, I remember , when suddenly we were in a different place with different people and we didn’t know what happened after the end of the previous chapter…

Maybe I will find the YAK 1 book and teh Ben book one day… I do hope so!!

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