The Book That Made Me: Jeremy Strong

Published on: 13 July 2020

Armadillo and Hare author Jeremy Strong didn't like reading as a child - but he found inspiration in the gentle world of Pooh and Piglet, and the discovery that books could be silly and fun.

How does one choose a book 'that made me'? Is it possible for a single book to achieve this? Writers tend to read avidly, in much the same way that chefs eat widely and oenophiles drink - um, a lot? However, it's possible that for most writers childhood is the key, the starting point for wordsmithery and fortunately my bedtimes as a child were full of stories. My older brother and I, with just 22 months separating our birth dates, would snuggle up in his bed and our South African grandmother would read to us. In particular she read us Jock of the Bushveld by the South African author Sir James Percy FitzPatrick, written at the beginning of the 19th century. It was true a story and my brother and I were gripped. I was interested to see that in much more recent years David Attenborough named it as one of his favourite books. Was it that book? It certainly made a bit of me. I was around 5 or 6 at that time.

But at that same period I was writing stories of my own. I still have some of them. One, written aged six and a quarter, consists of several pages re-telling the story of Jason and the Argonauts, bespattered with well over a hundred spelling mistakes and no capitals or punctuation. Our house was full of books. My father had wanted to be an author. He wrote four unpublished novels but he had to earn a living and support four children and became, instead, a high street pharmacist with crumbling dreams that turned into depression and a sense of failure.

Meantime I was devouring fiction. My main feeding area seemed to be stories about animals and so time passed with frequent visits to our local library. Then, aged about ten I turned away. I almost stopped reading. Much later, as a primary school teacher I learned that this is fairly common amongst boys of that age, but in my case there was an added factor. My final two years at primary school as a child were spent with Mrs C. There was no love lost between us. I thought she was a ghastly harridan and she thought I was a horrible, sneaky, mendacious little oik. We were both right.

As far as boys in the class were concerned Mrs C did nothing to encourage the enjoyment of reading or even the act of reading. We had to learn 'girly' poems like Wordsworth's Daffodils and Clare's Little Trotty Wagtail (poems and poets I later 'discovered' aged 19 and fell in love with!) Our class reading book at age 10 was Black Beauty. Worse still, at age 11 it was Little Women. The girls were happy. The boys were hurling themselves out of the third floor classroom windows of our Victorian school building. I stopped reading altogether.

Meanwhile, on my last school report from primary school Mrs C wrote: 'It is about time this boy grew up.'
I was stunned. I remember thinking 'but I'm only eleven!' Of course I understand now that she meant it was time to put childish things aside and start addressing the real world. But I wasn't ready for that. What I was ready for (aged 11!) was The House at Pooh Corner. I had never read the Pooh stories before and now I read them as a child and strange to say they helped me become an adult, because the best books for children can always be read and enjoyed by adults. I absorbed the comfort. I laughed until I cried at Tigger stuck up the tree and Pooh in the pit for Heffalumps. Most importantly I saw the way it was written, smiled at Pooh's spelling mistakes (feeling superior of course), and enjoyed Milne's capitalisation of Certain Words.

For the first time in my life I became aware of something more than the story itself. I understood how it had been written, and why. My own creative juices were beginning stir. I wanted to write!

Not long after that, deeply bored, I picked up a book of poems that belonged to my brother and leafed through it. They seemed rather long and tedious but my eye was caught by a short one. It was called Further Reflections on Parsley, by Ogden Nash. Here it is.

Parsley
Is gharsley.

I was blown away. If I needed any further proof that both reading and writing was fun here it was. Three words, just three words that demonstrated a whole way of 'seeing' reading and indeed, writing. I began to write. I played with words. I deliberately mispelled. I had fun and broke the rules. Such joy! Freedom! And what did I try to write? Pooh-type stories of course, about a badger and weasel. They were part of my apprenticeship.

Fumblegruddle the badger and Gretchweed the weasel were my first real steps towards my dream of becoming a writer. I was always drawn to writing for children. Perhaps it was because I still needed 'to grow up', in Mrs C's immortal words. So for several years I wrote for children whilst I was teaching at primary level. In the 70s and 80s stories about animals were out of fashion in the publishing world so I wrote about the children I saw and chatted with every day in school. They quickly got published but I always wanted to write about animals. Forty years later, when I started to feel a bit exhausted by Famous Bottoms and 100 MPH Dogs I went back to my beginnings and wrote the first collection of stories about Armadillo and Hare. The House at Pooh Corner is there in spirit. Milne has cast a long shadow, but Armadillo and Hare throw out their own comfort blanket and I hope they honour the spirit of Pooh and leave the reader or listener with a broad smile and a spring in their step.

Armadillo and Hare and the Very Noisy Bear was published in April this year and Jeremy is now working on the third collection: Armadillo and Hare and the Flamingo Affair.

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Armadillo and Hare

Author: Jeremy Strong Illustrator: Rebecca Bagley

In this adorable collection of ten short stories, friends Armadillo and Hare meet other animals in a variety of encounters that centre on the importance of small things. Full of gentle humour and philosophy, reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh.

Read more about Armadillo and Hare


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