Friday, April 1, 2011

B is for.... Books

As writers, we should all be huge readers. So here is a little piece about books and how important they have been in my life.


I grew up a diplo-brat - the daughter of a diplomat. Every two years or so, we would move to a new country. Every two years or so I had to make new friends, settle into a new house, a new school and often deal with a new language. Each time we moved, my mother would tell me to choose which toys we would take, which to leave behind.

Books were the one constant in my life. You can carry them with you wherever you go, and inside their pages live friends who can never be left behind.

I learned to read early – at three my mother tells me – and I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been in the middle of a book or three. While I don’t recall a time when I couldn’t read, I do remember vividly the day I realized you could read without saying the words aloud. I even remember the book: Dick Whittington and his Cat, a Ladybird edition. I was sitting in my room, reading the book to myself and suddenly felt self-conscious about how loud my voice sounded in there. I started whispering the words, then just mouthing them, and a moment later, I discovered I did not even need to do that to absorb them.

It was a monumental discovery. Reading silently meant I could do it anywhere, in any company. From that moment on, I rarely left the house without a book. My tastes and preferences changed over the years. I became obsessive about certain books, often for years at a time.

The first of these periods I call the Narnia years. I read those C S Lewis books voraciously, devouring each one in a matter of hours, then going back and re-reading them again. I believed in them, certain that if I could find the right wardrobe, I too could cross into that mythical land.

A few months later my father was posted again, this time to Samoa and Tokelau. In these island nations, seafaring tales seemed appropriate. I read my way through Arthur Ransome, often while aboard the rust-eaten ship that went between Samoa and Tokelau: the Frysna. Once I had exhausted that series, I turned to the classics and devoured Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and other tales of castaways on desert islands. I never liked The Swiss Family Robinson; their island seemed unrealistic to me, too lush and filled with convenient objects they could use to create an almost luxurious existence.

At the end of the beach we went to almost every weekend, I found my own desert island. Made primarily of black volcanic rock, it was not so much an island as a peninsula, but at high tide it was easy to pretend. Every Sunday I would take on a persona – usually Roger, the resourceful and underappreciated cabin boy – and live out my own versions of those castaway stories. On board the Frysna, I would roam the ship, playing Roger, cabin boy to the most vicious, evil pirates ever to sail the seven seas.

The Apia library was well stocked with children’s books. They were not new, but amongst the dusty tomes I discovered the books that would be my next obsession, one that lasted several years: Willard Price’s adventure novels. Once again there was a character called Roger for me to identify with, this time an impossibly mature thirteen-year-old who, along with his older brother, Hal, was sent around the globe on various adventures. The Apia library had only two of these books, the fourth and fifth in a series of thirteen books. I read Volcano Adventure and Whale Adventure over and over again, even going so far as to research and write my own book of volcano stories. Each time my father went on a business trip, he’d bring me back another in the series - Amazon Adventure this time, Safari Adventure the next - until I had the entire series lined up on the top shelf of my bookcase.

“You’ll outgrow them,” my mother warned. “You won’t want to read Willard Price forever.”

“Yes I will,” I promised. “I bet you that I will still love these books in ten years.” At the time I believed it, so impassioned was I.

My mother was right. Within three years Willard Price had been eclipsed, this time by Rosemary Sutcliffe. By the time I was ten, I’d read one copy of The Eagle of the Ninth to rags and had to buy another. My new persona was that of a Roman gladiator, Marcus. We were living in China by then, on the thirteenth floor of an ugly apartment building in a compound of identically ugly apartment buildings. Armed guards stood at the gates, keeping the foreign devils separated from the good Communists outside.

China was difficult for me. I was used to having a lot of space to run in, a lot of freedom to explore. Communist China of the early 1980s did not allow me the space I needed. Books became more essential than ever, opening up worlds beyond the walls of our compound, worlds where a small blonde child was not something to be stared at on the street. The library at the International School of Beijing was good, but small, and it was not long before I had read most of what it contained.

Without access to new books, I got into trouble. I had too much time on my hands and not enough places to go to expend my energy. I tortured my teachers, railed at my parents and tormented my sister more than ever. It didn’t help that my best friend at the time didn’t like to read and could not understand my need to escape into the pages of a book. She preferred to make up stories about her Barbie dolls than to play out my fantasies. The landscapes around Beijing lent themselves to my historical stories. Amidst the ruins of the Ming tombs it was easy to play gladiators. Along the crumbling sections of The Great Wall, Robin Hood could jump out at unsuspecting travelers, his merry men behind him.

Leaving my China friends was harder than any before them. I was twelve when we left Beijing, and not looking forward to moving on to yet another country, this one called home. I had no sense of home, had never lived there for more than a year at a time, and I did not want to go.

Unfortunately, I had no say in the matter.

It was difficult to slip back into my old school in Wellington, find my place with my old friends again. My experiences were so different to theirs. Most of them had never been out of New Zealand. Deciding that I was not ready for high school, my parents put me back a year, leaving me only one year ahead of Jane who was two years younger than me. Miserable and picked on by kids who could not understand that I wasn’t showing off when I measured time by where I‘d been living, I sought refuge in the only place I could: the library.

The Young Adult section of the Wellington Public Library was housed in the basement. The carpet was orange and beanbags were scattered across the floor. Above the shelves were narrow strips of window and I loved to lie across the beanbags, watching the feet of those above me marching past them. It was in here that I discovered the books that would obsess me for next few years.

When I read The Outsiders I realized I’d found something special. The book grabbed me and sucked me right in. I finished reading it and turned back to the beginning to start all over again. I felt as if I might never be able to read another book again. Nothing could live up to what I’d just discovered between those battered covers. I understood these people. Maybe they were street-toughs in 1960s America, but their feelings echoed my own. Within the pages I found a clan. I quickly read all S E Hinton’s other books, liking them, but not feeling the same passion for the characters that I did with The Outsiders.

I was fifteen when my family moved to London without me. I never had the chance to leave home - home left me.

To this day, my books and I keep moving.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, it was really interesting. I had a very different childhood to yours, but like you books were my constant when the real world got to tough. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post. Books are always going to be there, and they're a perfect means for escaping.

  3. Great post! The Outsiders was one of the first books that really spoke to me too. It's amazing the impact a book can have on so many people, from so many different situations.

  4. I loved the anecdote about discovering silent reading. And I thought I was a voracious reader! Never found the Willard Price books; will have to do a search on them....

    For me, it was all Narnia, Mary Poppins, the Moomintrolls, and Enid Blyton. And the Hobbit. And Heidi.

    Couldn't agree more about The Swiss Family Robinson. They seemed to be better supplied on their island than we were in our suburban home!

  5. Kate, thank you for this beautiful post. I can't imagine an author who doesn't like to read. Maybe one who writes non-fiction, but certainly not one who writes fiction!

    I love books and have also spent a lifetime surrounded by them. Unlike you, my childhood was spent battling an illness that, at the time, no one had heard of before. Books opened up new worlds for me and often convinced myself I was the protagonist. Through them, I was able to explore the world and go on adventures and pretend I wasn't always sick in bed while other kids were outside having fun.

    When I was young, I related mostly to Cinderella-type characters. I believed with all my heart that if I continued to be good, my fairy godmother would save me and then a handsome prince would whisk me away. Of course, I never did meet my fairy godmother, but help eventually came in the form a very smart female doctor from Minnesota (a long drive for us).

    Again, thanks for sharing. Beautiful post.