'The soothing power of uncomplicated pleasures': Why we should treasure comfort reading

Published on: 28 April 2019 Author: Claire Barker

There's nothing quite like snuggling up with a favourite read - it's a real tonic! Here, author Claire Barker explores the power of comfort reading...

Claire Barker and her book The Silver Phantom

When I was small, I noticed that other children slept with cuddly toys. My little sister, for example, had a team of bedtime companions to kiss goodnight, one by one.

Keen not to be outdone, I'd pick up a bear and park it awkwardly next to me in bed, only to boot it out onto the carpet a few minutes later. Surely I needed something to comfort me too? Goodness knows, I was an anxious enough child, my fevered brain whirring and clicking like a clockwork bird. Was it me? Or was this bear broken?

It turned out there was nothing wrong with either of us. It was just that it was books, not bears, that made me happy. Mary Poppins, Olga de Polga, The Secret Garden, Milly Molly Mandy, Beano annuals, even cat breed encyclopedias – all these simple, uncomplicated pleasures were shuffled in rotation.

Every night, I ritually thumbed my way through this blessed rosary of stories until I passed out on my pillow, my face roofed with a book kiss. My sister and I were more similar than I knew.

Curious to know what others thought about this I decided to do the 21st century thing and ask Twitter, 'What was your favourite comfort read as a child?' I wasn't after the cleverest or the most challenging or the one your mum wanted you to read - just the one book that sang to you.

The nostalgia for comfort reads

A boy sitting in a beanbag reading

Illustration: Fiona Lumbers

I expected a trickle of responses, but to my amazement, there was a flood. Over 700 replies poured into my inbox in the space of two days. This thread turned out to be a comfort in itself, and I was reminded of childhood favourites, as people reminisced between themselves.

The replies weren't intended to intellectually dazzle, these beloved book-soothers being rarely complex or dystopian. Instead, they were mostly sunshine on paper: full of humour and justice, hope, magic, simplicity, loyalty, bravery, kindness, honour, friendship and, most significantly of all, happy endings. Armageddon, as it turns out, is not remotely comforting when the light goes out. Who knew?

Then I noticed how many of them were part of a series. The same names kept coming up again and again: The Magic Faraway Tree, Asterix, Nancy Drew, Winnie the Pooh, Narnia, the Moomins, Mary Poppins, Ballet Shoes, Malory Towers, Harry Potter, The Worst Witch, Paddington and Just William.

There is something enormously reassuring about picking up a book and thinking, 'I know them, and they know me. I wonder what they are up to this time?'

Such old friendships are laced with joy and have far reaching consequences. As the author Michelle Harrison pointed out so succinctly recently, 'Reading for pleasure makes readers for life.'

Rediscovering the childhood joy of books

A boy reading in a chair

Illustration: Erika Meza

When I was about eight, I read Enid Blyton's Adventure series again and again. Ironically, I see now that the titles are far from adventurous - The Island of Adventure, The Castle of Adventure, The Sea of Adventure, The Circus of Adventure - but that didn't matter.

I needed an escape hatch and, for all her sins, Blyton had got the goods. I wasn't in the market for anguish - playground life in thick NHS specs was challenging enough, thanks! I wanted a predictable pattern of goodies and baddies all wrapped up in a shiny ribbon of mystery. And, boy, did Enid deliver. Even now, there is a sunny corner of my brain reserved for dear old Kiki the cockatoo.

I was reminded of this when I met a child the other day who, clutching at her school cardigan, was at great pains to tell me how 'very much' she loved the Daisy Meadows books. As an adult we rarely reach these peaks of book-loving ecstasy - this innocent devotion to those self-selected stories that prop the bedroom door open, squeezing our small hands as our parents depart.

These special comfort books - whether they be Anne of Green Gables, Wind in the Willows, Matilda, The Little White Horse, How To Train Your Dragon or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - teach us so much about the soothing power of uncomplicated pleasures.

Lessons for life

Illustration: Emily Rowland

Comfort reads tinker with our moral compasses, too, later helping us to navigate our way around the bumps of adult life. 'Remember when Pippi Longstocking lifted up a horse with only one hand? I find myself thinking. 'What about when Paddington was taken in by the Browns? Or when Aslan bore humiliation with such dignity? Do you remember when Danny really was the Champion of the World?'

These days, by some wonderous stroke of luck, I now write series fiction for children myself. I confess to grinning like a monkey when a sparkly-eyed child tells me they 'can't wait for the next one.'

But it's a serious business too. Every time I begin a new book in a series, I mentally meet up with the characters, as if we are a theatre company limbering up in rehearsal. 'Right everyone, what adventure are we going to have this time? Ideas anyone? Everyone knows the rules and what's at stake here. Very best work please.'

Because if a child takes a book to their heart, they will read it again and again.

It's quite different to an adult book in this respect. Children play versions of their favourites in the playground; they dress up as those characters for World Book Day; they even write fan fiction. All of these things have happened to me in my writing career and frankly, I am so proud I could burst.

But, as I release my new book, there's one thing of which I am certain: nothing beats a young reader simply saying, 'Your books make me happy.'

Claire Barker is the author of the Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog and Picklewitch and Jack series. Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog and The Silver Phantom, the fourth in the series, is out in shops on 4 April, 2019.

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