Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2019

Storytime, Growing Up with Books, by Jane Sullivan

Storytime is literary journalist Jane Sullivan’s answer to a slew of nostalgic memoirs of childhood reading, but it transcends the genre that began for me with Frances Spufford’s The Child that Books Built, a Life in Reading (2003).  I wrote pages and pages about that one in my journal, pleased by his analysis of the books he’d read but disappointed by his account of the way his reading diverged in adulthood.  It was more of a memoir about coming of age than about the books.

Sullivan takes a different tack, a little like David Denby’s Great Books in concept (though he tackled the Western canon via enrolling at Columbia University as a mature student)).  Sullivan revisits the books she had read, sharing her nostalgic memories and analysing why she liked them — and then reading them again as a mature adult with a lifetime of reading and life experience behind her.  It’s an interesting approach and, pleasingly, it includes an Australian children’s book, though only one…

Sullivan is a little younger older than me, but we read many of the same childhood books, and they were mostly British because that was the era.  So though she read Edith Nesbit and I didn’t (until The Railway Children in 2009), we both read (toned-down) British versions of Greek and Roman myths, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Enid Blyton and The Wind in the Willows.  Sullivan diverged a little into Europe with Finn Family Moomintroll while I read Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and Heidi.  From America, we both read Little Women and What Katy Did but she disliked them and I didn’t.  Sullivan also read books I didn’t discover until I went to Teachers’ College and studied Children’s Lit: the Narnia series by C S Lewis and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I never got round to reading The Magic Pudding until late in my career when I was a teacher-librarian so I don’t have childhood memories of these.  There were a few others that I had never heard of (The Silent Three by Horace Boyton and Stewart Pride; The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery; and Great Tales of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Wagner & Wise) so I shamelessly skipped those chapters.

The nostalgia component, that is, Sullivan’s memory of the book, is both intoxicating and illuminating.  Sullivan’s evocation of the feelings we shared as child readers enables us to rediscover our long-ago reading selves.  It’s a journey into those magical days beneath the bed covers or under the desk-lid at school. But—and this is what I liked in the case of Blyton and (yes, perversely) disliked in the case of Alice—there can be a darker side when she revisits these books in adulthood.  I know there are questions about Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell but I didn’t want them to spoil my love of his book.  OTOH I enjoyed reading Sullivan’s masterful analysis of everything that’s wrong with Blyton…

Like Sullivan, I read countless Blytons as a child and was quite taken aback by the criticism I learned about at Teachers’ College. Sullivan feels the same confusion.  When she reads the books with an adult sensibility she is appalled, just as I was.  Disconcertingly, it turns out that neither of us was the ‘fondly imagined’  child of impeccable literary taste. Blyton’s writing itself is terrible, the characters are stereotypes, the plots are predictable and the implicit values of sexism and racism are awful.  Why did we like these books so much that we spent months or years of our childhood lives reading this dross?

The answer to that is the most interesting part of this lively book.  In the final chapter, Sullivan sums up of what she needed from the books she read in childhood, and she also lists what may have been desirable but were not necessary.  These include the missing ingredients in Blyton, and the female heroes that made the goody-goody girls and heavy duty moralising in the American books so disappointing.  What she wanted, and mostly got (or she wouldn’t have been the bookworm she was), was to be transported into a different world; to have vicarious adventures; to use her imagination and ‘become’ the characters she admired, to feel emotions including a pleasurable sense of longing, and to confront [her] deepest fears and summon the trust and hope I could overcome them.

Are today’s children getting those needs satisfied from screens? There are plenty of adults old and young who grew up bookless, so I suppose one can get by without the magic of books, but it seems a shame to me.

PS It’s not why I pounced on this book at the library, but hey! it ticks two boxes in this busy reading month: Brona’s AusReadingMonth (though of course every month is AusReading Month here at ANZLitLovers) and NonFiction November.

Author: Jane Sullivan
Title: Storytime, Growing up with books
Publisher: Ventura Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781925384673
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Storytime

 


Responses

  1. I haven’t tried to reread my Blyton favourites as an adult for fear of said disappointment.
    It wasn’t only the escapism for me though. I loved the worlds without adults- kids in charge & in control – it appealed to me strongly.

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    • Yes, absent adults not bossing us around the most common feature of all children’s fiction…
      There’s quite a few adult books I don’t like to re-read for fear of disappointment. I went through a long phase of reading Neville Shute, week after week reading everything the library had, but I think I wouldn’t care much for them now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve wondered if I would have the same thing with Agatha Christie.

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  2. Some books can withstand many rereads (in my case ‘Wuthering Heights’, as well as Dorothy Dunnett’s excellent historical novels, and also some of Lian Hearn’s ‘Tales of the Otori’ series, but of those the one I read as a child was ‘Wuthering Heights’). I’ve revisited few of my childhood favourites, partly for fear of disappointment but partly because those books gave me what I needed at the time, and my needs have (mostly) changed. The Sullivan book is on my library list, the Francis Spufford book is on my bookshelf. It’s a keeper.

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    • Oh yes, I’d put nearly all my C19th classics in the re-read category: Zola, Austen, Bronte, Thackeray, Hardy and so on. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve re-read Middlemarch.
      But yes, tastes and needs change and I think some of the books I’ve found satisfying and/or entertaining in my 20s and 30s might not withstand re-reading now..

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating Lisa. As a person of a similar age, clearly, to you and Sullivan, I related to the reading you did, and what you say here. I don’t know those ones she named, but like you I read Heidi, and not Finn Family, like you too I didn’t discover Narnia until I did Kids Lit in my library studies … Over in the Americas, my very favourite was The girl of the Limberlost, although I did read Katy and Anne!

    And like you, I adored Enid Blyton and now wonder how ever I could have. When someone gave me The magic wishing chair (or was it The faraway tree), for our kids and I started to read it to them, I was absolutely horrified by the stereotypes and formula. I think we read that book to the end, and that was it for Enid Blyton in our house.

    But, she’s right, we read to be transported into other worlds, become different (spunkier!) characters, and to feel emotions. This latter was very important I see to remember. (I wasn’t so interested in adventures – I didn’t much like The Secret Seven or Famous Five.)

    I’m not sure I’ll read this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed your review.

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    • Thank you!
      I yearned for adventure, and gosh, when I look back at what that led me to get up in my childhood, I am just amazed at myself. We went haring through dense bush full of snakes and rabid monkeys; we slithered down a (working) quarry as a short cut to get home; and we once took a rowboat out on Port Phillip Bay at night, without even thinking about a weather forecast, though we wouldn’t have had any means of getting one if we’d wanted to. And I was only just into my teens when I went exploring in the #NotRespectable parts of St Kilda with my BFF Susie Arnold.
      Bizarrely, my favourite Blytons were the school stories, even though all my mother had to do when she’d had enough, was to threaten me with boarding school.

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      • Haha, Lisa, that’s interesting. They were my favourite Blytons too – the school stories (and her Bedtime Story Books – short stories!!) Perhaps it was because they were mostly about girls weren’t they? And maybe we felt the girls seemed to have some agency, without being influenced or teased by boys? Love the idea of fun with friends, I think, rather than adventure.

        I loved having a free childhood – climbing trees, playing in caves in the hills behind our home etc – but I don’t ever recollect yearning for adventure. I would never have been as adventurous as taking a rowboat out at night!!

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        • I don’t know, I think I related to the cattiness being dished out by the queen bees, though that’s not what we called them back then…

          Liked by 1 person

  4. “to have vicarious adventures; to use her imagination and ‘become’ the characters she admired”. Yes, that’s why I read (past & present tense). My reading was a little more skewed Australian than yours – Blinky Bill, Gumnut Twins, Magic Pudding – and then skewed towards Edwardian boys adventures: RM Ballantyne, GA Henty and so on. My favourites though were Black Beauty, and The Golden Age, both of which I’ve re-read and re-loved in the last ten years.

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    • That makes sense, you see, you’re a dinky-di Aussie, and I’m an import:)
      I read Black Beauty too, and even though I never through that girl-horse phase, I did like it a lot.
      (Yes, we are a #NupToTheCup family here.)

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      • Yes, I read horse and dog books too – like Black Beauty – but I didn’t do the girl-horse phase either. Far too adventurous! Haha.

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        • I thought those girl-in-love-with-her-horse books were soppy. Black Beauty was different, there was a moral issue and stake, and though of course I didn’t know it at the time, Sewell’s book was influential in the passing of the first animal welfare laws in the world.

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          • Yes I didn’t read many of the horse books. Black Beauty. Maybe My friend Flicka. And some dog books like Old yeller. I didn’t mind some soppiness… But it depended on my mood. Soppiness was good if I was feeling miserable!!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. One of the first books I remember reading was Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog. I loved it, but would probably now find it sentimental. But I suppose as children that’s what we like. The Secret Seven/Famous Five books I seem to recall didn’t appeal so much. I was too busy being a kid, I think, to read much. Made up for it later…

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    • I don’t remember any of hers that were for little kids, only the ones I could read myself:)

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      • My wife loved The Faraway Tree stories, and our grandchildren liked them when they were little. I can’t say I liked them that much – she always seems too saccharine to my adult taste

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        • Yes, I knew teachers who loved TFT and always read it to their classes, it used to amaze because, as you probably know, Australian picture story books are so very highly regarded around the world and I could never understand why anyone would spend their time reading Blyton when they could be introducing their classes to really wonderful books, and from our own culture and environment too…

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  6. I can’t really reread Enid Blyton either, best to stick to my fond memories of her books. And, surprisingly, my children weren’t too keen on them, so I never had to reread them with them! But Pippi Longstocking, Moomins, Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, Alice all bear rereading very well indeed!

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    • Oh yes, I loved Pippi! I’ve still got my copy of Pippi in the South Seas:)

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  7. It was definitely the escape and the adventure for me with the Blytons. I loved the idea of that world without adults where you could have big adventures but in a recognisable world. I don’t think modern day gamesters get that at all…

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    • Yes, I think you’re right. I’ve played computer games (strategy ones like Civilisation) and enjoyed them, but only until I’d achieved the top level,. And then, that was it, There was nothing to engage the imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This looks like a wonderful book, Lisa! Thanks for writing about it! I remember the first time I heard about this – how our childhood favourites may not be the great books that we thought they were – when I read an essay by Anne Fadiman about re-reading her childhood favourites and how she had problems with C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when she read it again as a grown-up. Then I read about how Enid Blyton’s books are problematic and so are Roald Dahl’s. Most of it sounded convincing and I wasn’t sure whether I would read these writers again. But then someone took a potshot at Mary Oliver, and then I stopped following that conversation and decided to continue reading what I wanted. I think no one has attacked Charles Dickens and Jane Austen yet, and I am waiting to see whether that will ever happen. It is sad though, that our childhood favourites don’t read so well, when we read them again as grown-ups. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    • Interesting what you say about Narnia, there is a chapter in Storytime about Book 5, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Sullivan talks about the religious symbolism which is so obvious to an adult but of course goes right over the children’s heads.
      That’s like The Water Babies: Charles Kingsley apparently wrote that in defence of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but when I read it as a child, I had no idea that it was about that!

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