Going Back to Where It All Begun

Sometimes my readers surprise me, and one of them did so a few years ago when she told me she read Agatha Christie and got echoes (reverse echoes?) of my voice.

Which is interesting of course, because you know, I first read Agatha Christie and probably memorized her books in Portuguese. But voice is a persistent thing, and I suppose it does come through.

So I thought to myself, I thought — what if I did a series of posts on the things I think formed me? Well, since I grew up in books, mostly the books that formed me. and the people who wrote them.

Now, if you go back far enough, where I think I first put together reading (which I was doing before entering school but didn’t tell my family, since that would mean no one would read to me) it was by remembering the words that went in the squares in comic books, and then kind of guessing the letter shapes to the word. (And sometimes making funny mistakes.)

I don’t know how long I was reading comics, before I picked up “real” books, but I was reading “real” — defined by no pictures. (well, some line drawings, black and white, but like 10 per book) — by six when we moved away from grandma’s house and to my parents “new” house.

I think I read a lot of beginning of stories, plus mom bought me tiny little books (no pictures, other than the cover, and I mean tiny. They were like the size of a matchbook, and maybe ten pages) with fairytales and traditional stories in the grocery store, as a prize for being good. (Kind of like you’d buy a candy bar. They were cheap. The equivalent of ten cents or so.) I remember my cousin bought me a picture book for my seventh birthday, about a young lady who had a dog and went for drives in her convertible, but by then I was more interested in the book for the drawings, which I tried to copy.

By then I’d found… Enid Blyton.

And before a bunch of you wise *sses go “Oh, yeah, Noddy.” I didn’t even know Noddy existed until I read a reference in an assigned book in my first year of college.

The story I started with was Valley of Adventure. Followed by Sea of Adventure, Circus of Adventure, Castle of Adventure. Then I fell headlong into the Famous Five, all 21 of them.

These were the real books before some *sshat (I suspect her older daughter — rolls eyes –) thought they needed to be updated and made accessible and relevant.

The setting was mostly WWII or just after England, and groups of kids who got to have freedom even we didn’t have in the sixties in Portugal.

I will confess right here that not only did I read and re-read Enid Blyton well into my pre-teens, I also — amid other things, like (strangely) a spate of biographies of western heroes, or far more grown up historical novels, and towards the end of that period Agatha Christie and Heinlein and Simak — when in despair read the Seven series. Which was, and I even knew it then, weak. But I had a voracious appetite for stories, books were expensive and hard to come by and not always particularly readable.

Later, between 12 and 13, because a friend got them as a gift, I read the boarding school books. Malory Towers, and the other one. It was fascinating, and probably one of the most girly things I’ve ever read. I’m 100% sure I’d have hated the experience of boarding school with my entire being, but it was fun to read about. It was also easier for me — odd duck that I was — to see girl-power-play on paper. It was easier to understand that way, as I was eternally bewildered by it in real life.

As I said I read a ton of other things in between and around, but Enid Blyton is the first writer I remember remembering the name of.

Also the one I wrote very bad imitations of by the time I was 7 or 8.

Before writing this I looked Enid Blyton up online. Blah Blah blah prescriptive morality. Blah, blah blah racist, sexist, etc. etc.

I want to point out I re-read her books in English yester– okay 20 years ago. (I am keeping them too, in case of grandkids.) and no racism, sexism or —

Well, you got me there. There was prescriptive morality of an early 20th century, stiff upper lip, fair play, deal kindly with inferiors and be open an honest type. If this is greatly objectionable, I really don’t want to have anything to do with the critics.

Was she immoral, or a British version of Mommy Dearest. Don’t know. The immoral I doubt, because the sources given credit range between stupid and hilarious. (Seriously. Her first husband’s second wife? REALLY?) and as for the second… well, that’s the opinion of one of her daughters, not the second.

The important thing here is that I couldn’t care less about her private opinions or life, I loved her work as a writer and that’s all that matters.

The part that amused me most is that of all the writers I’ve read, she seems to have had the process most similar to mine (currently mine, at least.) Sit down, tune in to the book. Let it flow out.

Also, in her last productive years (she died of Alzheimers) she wrote 50 novels a year. Okay. I doubt I can do that, but it’s aspirational, you know?

I am glad she lived and she wrote. And I’m very glad I got to read her and be touched by the wonder — particularly in Adventure — of her settings and situations.

You find echoes of her work in mine in the weirdest places. Like, say, people imprisoned in holes in the ground….

But mostly, Mrs. Blyton, I thank you for the hours of wonder, and for taking a sickly and often very unhappy little girl out of herself and into an entirely immersive world.

I’m not sure I should thank you for teaching me to play fair, not be a braggart, not be envious and treat others kindly. It probably negatively affected my career.

OTOH it means I can look myself in the eye in the morning, and that makes washing my face and combing my hair so much easier.

Wherever you are, know that you are still read and your work still loved, and that echoes of it will probably go on ad infinitum, in the weirdest places.

39 comments

  1. These critics never seem to think for an instant someday, people’s grandchildren ell br critiquing them. And that their self-righteous judgmentalism will be one of the things that get them judged.

    1. I think, given events in long-suffering Ontario Canada this week, that the Woke(TM) critics will be hearing from us all a lot sooner than the birth of our grandchildren.

      Evidence? Whoopi Goldberg just got kicked off The View for saying the Holocaust wasn’t about “race”. New Rules, you know. Even Dame Goldberg is not untouchable.

        1. Whoopie might get herself fired.

          Apparently, she’s screaming about her “time out”.

            1. It may take an almost lethal “lesson” for them to “learn” anything.

    2. Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, Tom Swift stories, Jack London, then… I found “Three by Heinlein in a pile of books in my English class… at 11 years old.

    3. The great-grandchildren will be admiring them for their perfectly perfect perfection, since no improvement past them is possible.

      If, of course, they bother to have children. Then, imaginary great-grandchildren are easiest of all to deal with.

  2. Never read any of the Blyth books, or Jane Austen, I think I read part of Wuthering Heights? I read Pollyanna, Little Women and Heidi, and Br’re Rabbit and Aesops Fables.. But, mostly I read horse books. ANY horse books, and dog books if there weren’t any horse books. My mother had me on tape reading Dick and Jane books at 21 months old with only one or two corrections (like I read rabbit instead of bunny). So I don’t remember NOT being able to read, and yes, there are many words that persisted into adulthood that I pronounced wrong, because I learned the by “sight”. I remember the Summer between first and second grade (so I turned 7 in the middle of it) was the library reading program and I read 326 books, I would take home the maximum because the library was a bit of a drive – 20-30 minutes – and so I would run out of books before we got back, and those were all non-picture books. (I was very unhappy that I only got 2nd in the 12 and under category, and that was because it was an older boy and he read a lot of picture books.) When I ran out of Horse books (there was a book of the month club that was only horse books and there were only a few that I didn’t like – Red Pony, A Sporting Proposition – I moved to Science Fiction, because my parents were in the Science Fiction Book club, so, Asmov, Anthony’s Sci-fi, Ben Bova, Heinlein, etc. And magazines, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and such. And of course scattered in there were the cereal boxes, instruction manuals and so on. I didn’t find fantasy until much later. In fact, I think I found Romances (old Harlequins) first (cause they were also around when I was a teen, both my parents read them.) But, they were more exotic locales, and unusual occupations, and they might kiss once before the end when they got married. I remember going to the movies with my mom to see Buck Rogers, and with my family to see the first Star Wars. So, I guess Sci-fi was my second influence after horses, but once I found fantasy (And I was writing about a flying horse who thought he was the last one on earth, but then he found another one who was a girl and they lived happily ever after, in second grade, so I guess I had run into fantasy somewhere along the way) in my late teens, (Narnia!, because horse!) That seems to be my preferred to write in and generally read. Never really read any mysteries and have only come by them by way of TV (The Mentalist, Lie to Me, Bones, Sherlock) but never read any of the books. I do remember comics in the teens I think, Veronica and Archie, Ritchie Rich, and the Twilight Zone, or Tales of the Crypt or something that were lite horror (don’t remember the exact name). Never liked horror movies, too vivid an imagination, friends would tell me little bits about what a movie was about and I would make up my own night terrors. (Sharks might be in the swimming pool in Phoenix, even though I can see the bottom.) Somewhere along the way of older adulthood (in the last 5-10 years, I basically stopped reading. Oh, I read blogs, and social media, and forums and an occasional book from a very favorite author, but pretty rare, maybe 1-3 books a year (and yes, I’m counting ebooks in there). Maybe it was the rise of preachy books and dystopian endings, maybe it was reading too much slush, maybe it was doing more writing and the back of my mind being worried about unintentional plagiarizing, maybe it was eyesight getting worse, or maybe it was being broke all the time, and no libraries nearby. (although that’s a poor excuse because there are lots of free books out there.) Maybe…I don’t know, maybe it’s the depression that comes from when you had a near perfect memory of every book or movie you’ve ever seen, and then you start not being able to remember if you’ve even read a particular book, much less what it was about, and so you don’t want to fill up any more of the buffer….I don’t know. But, I do miss them. They helped an odd girl with glasses, no sports ability and usually about 2 years younger than her peers, to escape to places where she was coordinated and respected and could have great adventures. I think to myself, that I SHOULD read more. But, that is just guilt, not really a desire to read more….Mostly, I think it’s because I feel like I don’t have time to “waste” on such things, as I did as a kid/young adult. Maybe once I get all of my stories written, I’ll sit back in my last few years and read again. I hope so.

      1. Same. Little Women always felt to me like it had much more of a “prescriptive morality” than the old Victorian kids stories: the March girls had a book of morality in Pilgrim’s Progress, and by gum, every chapter was going to conform to it. I also got really annoyed at the Professor for scolding Jo for writing stories that didn’t have a strict morality, as though anyone interested in reading about adventure or mystery or even horror couldn’t possibly be a good person. I feel a little guilty about this, because I know it’s such an influential book for so many people, but I loathed it.

        Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, I thought was fabulous as long as you didn’t mistake the obvious villains for romantic heroes.

        1. Have you seen the anime?

          It was… um… slightly more accurate than the Swiss Family Robinson anime adaptation (very low bar!), but enjoyable.

        2. Part of the problem is that, for a child audience, she toned down the luridness of the stories she actually wrote (since Jo is a fictionalized version of her).

      2. I only read Little Women because I had read everything else in the house except the Bible and the Book of Mormon (which I still have not read, BTW).

        1. I have read both (Strangely, granted.) The Bible several times, starting at 14. Keep meaning to do it again. The Book of Mormon for information, because our best friends at the time were Mormon.
          BUT then again, as a kid I read everything including these…. printed telenovelas (no, think aobut it, pictures. Like comics with pictures) my cousin read.

  3. Enid Blyton. There’s a name to conjure with, eh? I read a bunch of those. I suppose she might be an influence on me too. My characters certainly act like a bunch of unsupervised kids, restrained only by common sense and the bounds of good manners.

    “No dear, we do not punch the alien in the face right off the bat. We wait for him to take a swing first. -Then- we punch him in the face.”

  4. Narnia for me. I remember that some of my earliest stories were all Narnia imitations that totally weren’t direct copies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, because instead of a lion, I had a white panther that was the spirit of the moon, and instead of a wardrobe, you got to the magic land by jumping through a hollow in the stump of a tree, and instead of just four sequential siblings, it was two sets of twins (I may have been reading the Bobbsey Twins at the same time), and there were talking plants as well as talking animals…

    Yeah, you see. Totally different. I definitely wasn’t just copying Lewis.

  5. It was also easier for me — odd duck that I was — to see girl-power-play on paper. It was easier to understand that way, as I was eternally bewildered by it in real life.

    I know that’s an advantage of anime, and I suspect that’s why the hunger for the older “character driven” type books– it would SHOW YOU how things worked, and sometimes you can even apply it!

    ….

    Of course, by the time I came along, they were many many much years into “this happens because the story says so” type characterization, outside of fantasy and scifi. (only some of it, but there WAS some!)

    1. There was a series of books on how to draw manga that really helped me figure out certain things. There was one I wish I’d bought (I worked at a bookstore at the time, so this was lunchtime reading) that had “how to draw women from around the world.” And manga is just enough off of “realistic” that it was able to bring to the forefront certain country differences. Like Nigerians having this set of physical characteristics, while Ethiopians had these contrasting ones—and yes, they did have multiple African countries as examples in that book, which was pretty cool.

      IOW, sometimes you need an exaggerated or specified version of something to be able to see it in real life.

  6. Kipling, and the Little House books and other pioneer stories (Caddie Woodlawn), Lois Lenski’s Child books (Strawberry Girl, Cotton Girl, and so on), and WWII naval history books, and fairy tales, fairy tales, fairy tales, and dinosaur books. Then Anne McCaffrey, Azimov, Clark, the Space Cat stories, David Drake and Jerry Pournelle, the Horseclans books, and Talbot Mundy, and . . . And then I quit reading what was in bookstores, aside from mil-sci-fi, because the writing was sooo bad and the politics sooo dreadfully boring.

  7. I have lots of favorites, but apparently what stuck in my brain the most was Robin McKinley. As in, my writing may be nothing like hers plot-wise, or in terms of settings, but my authorial voice comes out a lot like hers.

    I’ll take it.

  8. I miss the Star Wars novels.

    There was that magical time in the 90s when the ONLY SW was the novels and the ONLY way to learn the further adventures of my favorite characters was to…read.

    Sure, some of it was pretty bad in retrospect, but there were some gems and it helped get me into reading.

      1. Those were fun, but I thought Corran Horn was a little too Mary Sue.

        I admit to liking a lot of the less-popular ones, like Hambley’s Children of the Jedi and Planet of Twilight. I was rooting for Luke and Calista, but Mara eventually won me over.

        I even sort of liked Crystal Star – as a fun space adventure with characters that just happened to share the names of the SW cast.

    1. Well, the 90s also had the Dark Horse comics. As with the novels, some were good, some not so much.

  9. The first book I remember as a Book of Gold (as opposed to “What is a Chicken” that I snagged from the school library in 2nd grade, or Born Free, or that fairy tale with Falada, the talking decapitated horse head) was the Lord of the Rings.

    That was a walk out of the world, and then some.

    I also had a grandma who gave me books for Christmas, birthday, Valentine’s, Arbor Day… So I got to go to Moominland, and Narnia, and the Frontier, and and Lippizza and Chincoteague, Pern, and all the colored fairylands…

    Then in 5th grade we moved to a town with a decent public library and a truly capable children’s librarian (Mrs. Young) and oh, the places I went, and the people I met, and the forever friends I made

    Good times.

  10. We had to read Wuthering Heights in Eighth Grade. It made absolutely positively no sense at the time.

    50 books a year…and I thought Chris Nuttall was amazing.

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