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Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan

What is this strange pleasure of reading about people’s reading habits? It’s as good as talking with people about books and reading, and yet it has its own pleasures. In writing about her childhood reading obsession, Lucy Mangan has captured much of what I felt as a child as I escaped again and again into books. She has also given me some new books to read and so provided some new pleasures in anticipation.


Lucy Mangan describes the pleasures of discovering books and being read to, and takes us all the way through her reading historyto her late teenage years. She focuses on book for children, but I am sure she would be as interesting on the subject of adult reading. I hope she will write more.

From the very first, reading was her chief pleasure, shared with her father and indulged in in the public and school libraries of her childhood. Brought up in Catford in the 1980s, she read all the books I read plus those that my daughter read.

She too had an Enid Blyton binge and loved Noel Streatfield and noticed the large output of the Pulleins. My own Enid Blyton binge lasted about two months. I had been sent away to boarding school when I discovered a huge collection of her stories on the shelves of Judy Lovell who had not yet joined us after the holidays because she was ill. Her absence allowed me to wallow. We had a theory about how these books were churned out, and it turns out we were not far off the idea of the Sweet Valley High production line.

She [Francine Pascal] is named as author of the first two of what would become a 143-strong core series plus innumerable spin-offs. The rest were entirely produced by a host of freelance ghostwriters.  … They used a bible (notes on themes, character, settings, and so on, compiled by Pascal) to ensure consistency, and worked to outlines she provided. They were a band of typing postgrad monkeys stretching from sea to shining sea, producing for a fixed fee 140 pages every six to eight weeks. (284)

We believed that that was exactly how Enid Blyton produced so many repetitive books, only I think we believed her writers were elves.

She found some books that I have not read: for example The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – and spurred on by her I believe it should be read. It was only published in 1961 and I might have thought I was too old for it.

Other delights she refers to I only discovered in my 30s. I came across MacDonalds, Charlotte’s Web and The BFG. My pleasure in finding the chips and the milkshakes has not endured, but my delight in EB White’s classic spider/pig story and all of Roald Dahl has lasted well. Not only did I share it with my daughter but Roald Dahl’s books are a favourite with my grandchildren.

In her assessment of her reading material and habits she explores the importance of reading to children, to develop a sense of change, otherness and other worlds. And, of course, the importance of libraries to support these.

Once a bookworm …

There is so much pleasure to revisit here and with such an accomplished and amusing writer. I’ve wanted to read this since I first saw it announced.

It has reminded me how I want to reread books, many from my childhood. And to reclaim others, such as At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, a book that frightened and enthralled me at the same time. The illustrations (I think they were by Arthur Rackham) terrified me. It was a gift from my grandfather and I treasured it through the first months of my life at boarding school.

And, unlike Lucy Mangan, I loved historical fiction, especially Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece before moving on to Georgette Heyer. Like her, I read every moment I could, especially with a torch under the bedclothes at night, or in the toilet. It was there that I consumed most of Oliver Twist and even today can never contemplate Dickens without thinking of the cold floor and the ridge on my cold bottom.

Perhaps I’ll institute a new series on Bookword: rereading childhood favourites. What do you think? And what would you recommend?

Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan. Published in 2018 as a hardback by Square Peg 322pp

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Libraries, Reading