The Book That Made Me: Catherine Johnson

Published on: 17 September 2019 Author: Catherine Johnson

What's the childhood book that made you who you are today?

Author Catherine Johnson says an illustrated poetry collection captured her heart (and she learnt some of it off by heart, too). 

Catherine Johnson as a young girl and the book that made her: The Golden Treasury of Poetry

I’ve written this article nearly ten times. It’s a tricky one. What book, story, has insinuated itself so hard into your soul it sits there like a leaky cyst, informing your work?

When I first started this I thought about the novels I loved: the Moomins and Lloyd Alexanders’ Chronicles of Prydain, Noel Streatfeild and Magic By the Lake, and Emil and The Detectives. I had a spectacular teacher – Mrs Salter – at primary school and she read lots of these during long afternoon story times. Some of those titles still bring back the smell of wood floors and 30 fidgety 10-year-olds.

But I have to say, as a child of the 60s and 70s, I loved TV more. We didn’t get one at home until 1969 and the moon landings but still, I believe it’s those stories I have, hard wired, that first started me writing. And it’s those stories that gave me permission, I believe, to think about writing British history. A job I am, exam-wise, wildly under qualified for. Those Leon Garfield adaptations; the fantastic psychedelic/tarot themed Ace of Wands. The black and white marvellousness that is White Horses, which of course never matches the sublime theme tune. And the very first time I remember seeing a black kid on telly; The Double Deckers – another fantastic theme tune.

But how does any of this inform what I am doing today? What exactly am I doing today?

Would I ever have thought I’d be where I am right now? What would 8-year-old me think about the work I do know? How does any of this relate? Where am I now?

'A toe breaker of a book'

Well, I’m not doing too bad. I’m sitting in my kitchen before six o’clock in the morning on one of those dead-still summer days, which promises massive heat. I’m not in London anymore, and I am working across a load of mediums, some of which hadn’t been invented when I was eight. My brain is fizzing: going off on a million tangents thinking about this past, my present and any number of possible futures…

And the book I have chosen? It’s a toe breaker of a book, a large chunk of which I have never read. It’s one of those books which you don’t read in sequence, which can take you anywhere, and lead you into anything.

It’s a book of poetry that was a Christmas present when I was six or seven. It’s Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry.

The book is illustrated, in lots of different styles, by Joan Walsh Anglund. She’s amazing actually; she does cutesy, round-cheeked, almost Mabel Lucie Atwell-style children (I hated those), as well as this skeleton in armour, illustrating a Longfellow, that scared me so hard it took years not to turn the page quickly before getting nightmares.

Walsh Anglund does classic fairytale style knights and medieval style angels, brilliant mermaids, too. She can do pretty much anything. And given that the collection ranges from Rossetti to Keats to Frost to Carl Sandburg to Dickinson, she works very, very hard. She is flexible, reliable and she delivers; I hope a trait we both share.

From utter nonsense to Keats

There’s so much in the Golden Treasury of Poetry. Admittedly there is a massive slant towards American poets, and there is no hint of poets being anything other than lily white, but at home I had proof this was a lie (we didn’t have many novels but we did have poetry from the Caribbean and Wales), so I sailed into the book and took everything I wanted and left behind everything I didn’t.

I learned some poems off by heart – not just the short ones – and can still remember whole chunks of stuff, which has squirrelled it’s way into my brain as surely as the oeuvre of T. Rex, The Jackson 5 and The Ramones.

I loved the funnies, Ogden Nash and Edward Lear, the "grand guignol" (dying people, dogs, etc), and the galloping rhythms of epic verse. From utter nonsense to Keats on death, this is a mid-20th-century reflection of power and sensitivity.

'Raging, fizzing need for story'

While I don’t write poetry myself, I do think the book helped with that raging, fizzing need for story I had growing up and still have, in fact. For something else beyond my own experience and capabilities. For ideas, people and communication.

And that’s what I do now. I will try anything. I will write anything. A computer game? A sea shanty? A novel? A TV show? A non-fiction biography? A film?

My brain is non-stop. In fact, it’s hardest of all to turn it off. It’s like this book, full of rubbish with the occasional pearl. Come on, ask me anything, tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine, what is mine? Well, what would you like? A scary one? A happy one? One where the underdog comes out on top?

Sit down. Closer, I don’t bite. I’ve got something you might like…

Catherine Johnson on 8 amazing black history books 

See the other features in The Book That Made Me series

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