Sunday, 11 May 2008

Hardback vs paperback revisited

It was pleasant to hear Jane from Books, Mud and Compost on the radio yesterday morning, extolling the virtues of hardback books, a subject dear to the heart of us book bloggers and always bound to provoke a range of opinion. Jane likes hardbacks for their durability, she says, as well as because those she bought as a child often contained their original illustrations. I can see her point, but she did say that she had access to good secondhand bookshops while growing up. This is something I didn't have, and jumble sales weren't a common feature, so my books had to be bought new, and we weren't well off. Not surprisingly, in the circumstances, I was a big fan of Puffin Books, and the name of Kaye Webb, their Editor from 1961, was familiar to me from the title page of most books on my shelf. Early Puffins cost a few shillings and, while I couldn't afford one every week, I could save up and get one every couple of months.

The earliest Puffins I have were bought for me, and one of the most precious of those is Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel, the story of Rosemary, who buys a witch's broom for sixpence and finds that it comes complete with cat. When Rosemary is holding the broom, she can hear the cat speak; of course, he is a Royal Cat, and persuades her not only to free him of the spell which binds him, but also to help restore him to his kingdom. Under Carbonel's somewhat irascible direction, Rosemary and her friend John gather the necessary items to break the spell and the book ends with a battle among the rooftops. Rosemary's genteel but impoverished world of make-do and mend was immediately familiar to the child of theatrical people, and I still read it, and the two books which followed, with a sense of being at home.

Another treasure was Finn Family Moomintroll, and I am fascinated by the recent "discovery" of Tove Jansson, a writer whose poignant stories have been with me most of my life. The Moomins and their extended family and friends live in a valley in Finland, and the first of a series of delightful books tells the story of the finding of the Hobgoblin's hat, which has all sorts of amusing – and scary – repercussions. Jansson wasn't afraid to bring more the more difficult emotions to her whimsical stories, and they address loneliness and disappointment, as well as the warmth and comfort of family life.

Sadly the box with my Puffin collection (and most of my other childhood books) seems to have disappeared somewhere between Scotland and Northumberland (perhaps a casualty of a removal van which broke down halfway!) and many precious books are gone. Clearing out my stepbrother's house after his death reinstated a few of the best, notably C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, and it was wonderful to see familiar covers again (I am particularly fond of the Pauline Baynes' illustrations for the Narnia Chronicles). I'm gradually replacing some of the others, and was delighted last year to find a copy of Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White. Like the Andrew Lang stories I wrote about recently, I can't imagine modern children taking instantly to the story of a little girl who finds a settlement of Lilliputians living on an island in the garden. The lonely Maria, convinced that such tiny people must be in need of advice and management, interferes with disastrous results, and the ensuing story is pure delight, and would be enjoyed by anyone who loved The Sword in the Stone, as Maria shares the Wart's qualities of curiosity and contrariness.

That last trait leads me straight to a pair of books: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, which everyone knows, and its lesser-known companion by Noel Streatfeild, The Painted Garden, in which an English child plays Mary in a Hollywood version of the classic. Jane, every bit as plain, disagreeable and contrary as the Mary she plays, and appalled to find herself uprooted from her English home and transported to the USA, makes life a misery for herself and everyone else on set, and her gradual redemption mirrors Mary's in a way I found very satisfying. My copy was enhanced by lovely illustrations by Shirley Hughes.

I can't leave the subject of my childhood paperback buying, without mentioning another publisher, Armada Books. They published the Chalet School Stories on which I was hooked, and, I think, many of the pony books I liked. Best of those was Riding with the Lyntons, by Diana Pullein-Thompson, and the Punchbowl Farm series by Monica Edwards. I don't know who published the latter, but I bought them in paperback, and my friend Anne and I devoured them – for anyone who needs a reminder, Jane lists them all her on website, to which I've added a link on the sidebar, because I quite often pop over their to remind myself about books long forgotten.

This is not the last of childhood reading, by any means: I'm in the middle of compiling a list of 50-children's-books-you-may-have-missed-but-ought-to-read-now. This will have a distinctly British bias, and an arbitrary cut-off date (1975, I think), and will probably be supplemented by a list of books since 1975 (for which I plan to shamelessly rely on recommendations from Ann at Table Talk, who reads far more widely than me!). Such a list is bound to prove controversial, I shall defend it merely by saying it will be my list and, while it may miss many books that are other people's favourites, I hope it will include some gems that people have forgotten. It's fun putting it together, at any rate.


  1. Wonderful post! I, too, am working on collecting puffins. I have such fond memories of them from childhood. Whenever I see one at a thrift store my heart skips a beat with glee.

    I am looking forward to seeing your list of 50 children's books!

  2. What fun for me to read this post. Not surprisingly, I hadn't heard of all of them. But Shirley Hughes I recogized because she wrote one of my favorite, favorite books that I read to my kids. I just pulled it off the shelf - Lucy & Tom's a.b.c.

  3. I look forward to that list! There are so many English books that I loved as a child. I wish I would have read "Carbonel", it looks great. :)

  4. Those Puffins have so much magic attached to them. When I first started teaching I cleared out the stale old volumes form the school library and filled it instead with the marvellous paperbacks. What if they didn't last as long, at least they were read.
    I love the idea of your 'may have missed list' and can't wait to see what's on it. I hope I can live up to expectations where the more recent books are concerned.

  5. I love those old Puffins too. Kaye Webb was an inspired chooser of books.

  6. Let us know when you have your list done! I'm curious what would be on it. and I love looking at your puffins. We have them over here too in Canada, so the old orange and cream covers bring back memories. I don't own many though, not sure why. I try to get my classics in the Penguin editions since they tend to hold together better and I love the feel of the pages and books in my hand. Great post!

  7. Sorry, I got your posts mixed up.....please do let us know when you have your list of children's books you may have missed, done! I got the penguins(orange and cream picture on a later post) mixed up with your children's puffin books in this post.....