Anna James on the book characters from your childhood that never leave you
Published on: 04 November 2018 Author: Anna James
Anna James, children's author of Pages & Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers, talks us through the stories she loved growing up – and how they led to her being a reader and writer.
When I was a child, all I wanted was to be sucked inside the pages of my favourite books. The worlds and characters of the stories I read were vividly alive to me and I re-read my favourites over and over again.
I was also an avid writer of what was essentially what we would now call fan fiction. Enid Blyton was my main focus, in particular The Famous Five. These weren’t even my favourite Blyton books (more on what was, below), but I used to write reams and reams of pages imagining myself and my cousins adventuring in the Northumberland countryside where I grew up, and eating a lot of picnics along the way.
Bravery, curiosity and kindness
The stories we love when we’re growing up shape us in a special way. They can be formative in a fundamental way as we encounter characters that help us decide who we want to be ourselves.
In my debut children’s book, Pages & Co, my heroine Tilly is often told by her grandparents: 'Be brave, be curious, be kind.' This is inspired by three of the characters that she meets once she discovers that she’s a bookwanderer – which means she is able to physically travel inside books. This motto is inspired by three of the characters she meets along the way and what she learns from them: bravery from Anne Shirley, curiosity from Alice in Wonderland; and kindness from Sara Crewe.
I learned a lot from my favourite characters – about bravery, curiosity and kindness, but also about a world that was a lot bigger and full of a lot of different people compared to my fairly sheltered childhood. I learned about other people and countries and cultures, and that there was one more than one way to be. They also showed me what I loved about books, which hugely impacted me as a future writer. I learned that I loved stories about stories, magical realism, and fiercely independent girls.
Here are five of the books that had the biggest impact on me, as a reader and a writer:
1. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
No list of childhood favourites is complete without Anne, a book I have read many, many times over. Anne was a huge part of my childhood, and I never feel anyone can really say they know me unless they’ve read the book or watched the amazing 1985 TV version. Tilly has a similar relationship with Anne, and she’s the very first fictional character that emerges.
2. Momo by Michael Ende
I’ve always loved books about books and stories and Momo is a weird and wonderful tale of storytelling and how we choose to spend our time. It’s a love letter to dedicating time to creativity and stories, and that time we spend like that is never wasted, something Tilly and her grandparents believe in wholeheartedly.
3. Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
If I had to say my all-time favourite author, I would have to go for Diana Wynne Jones. Her backlist is a treasure trove of magical, playful stories, always with an edge and a sense of humour. My favourites are Archer’s Goon (being reissued by HarperCollins in January!) and the Chrestomanci series.
4. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
I loved Blyton as a child and my favourite of hers was the Faraway Tree series, one that subconsciously had a huge impact on me as a writer: the idea of somewhere where you can access different, magical worlds, as well as a community of eccentric characters to lead you there. This absolutely entranced me as a child, and I don’t think Pages & Co would have existed without it.
5. They Do Things Differently There by Jan Mark
A book that massively deserves a reissue and a new audience is this one: a YA book before YA was really a thing, and the book that taught me about magical realism. I love books where magic is just under the surface of real life, and this is all about that, as two friends bring to life a wild and wonderful world hidden in the cracks of their boring suburban town.