The books that made me a reader – and a writer!
Published on: 10 April 2023
Our Writer-in-Residence, SF Said, shares the childhood books he loved, and which inspired him to write his own.
When I’m asked to talk about the books that shaped me, I almost always talk about novels. Yet I loved many different kinds of books as a child.
I don’t often talk about them all, because some of them came with a kind of cultural stigma; the sense that they weren’t ‘proper reading’. But I want to be honest about what I really read for pleasure; what actually made me a reader, and a writer. Because I think reading for pleasure is too important to be misunderstood.
So this is going to be a different kind of list. Some of these might surprise you, but they were all valid forms of reading. They were all crucial to my history as a reader. And without them, I could never have written books of my own.
1. A Picture Book: The Cat In The Hat, by Dr Seuss
My very first memory is a memory of my uncle reading me The Cat In The Hat, when I was 3 years old. I wanted the cat to come to my house and smash everything up! I think I knew at that moment that I would always love books, because anything you could imagine was allowed in a book. I’ve never forgotten that excitement, and I’ve never stopped loving picture books. You can never be too old for them!
2. A Short Chapter Book: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated by Katherine Woods
This is the first book I can remember reading on my own. It was my mum’s favourite, and we read it together so many times, every night, it felt natural when I realised I knew what those marks on the page meant. So it’s the book that taught me how to read, and how to think, because it urges its readers to take nothing for granted, be open to anything, and question everything – principles I still live by.
3. A Novel: Watership Down, by Richard Adams
I first read Watership Down at the age of 8, and thought it was the best book ever. I’ve re-read it many times since, and each time, it only gets better. It’s the book that made me want to be a writer; I can see its influence in everything I do. There would definitely be no Varjak Paw without Watership Down! And when children ask me what my own favourite book is, this is the one I always tell them about.
4. A Poem: The Tyger, by William Blake
Although I loved fiction as a child, I loved many other things too. I remember reading William Blake’s poetry at school. Tyger Tyger burning bright – I was mesmerised by those lines. You don’t need to know anything about Blake to enjoy my book Tyger, but that's where it began. That childhood reading was the spark that eventually led to me writing the book, so the story was growing inside me for almost half a century.
5. A Non-Fiction Book: Great Soccer Stars, by Jimmy Hill
I was obsessed with football as a child. Magazines like Shoot! and Match Weekly figured prominently in my reading. In terms of sheer word counts, I may have read more football coverage than any other kind of writing in my life! This book was about great footballers through the ages: a global history of the sport, told through biographies. I read and re-read it so often, I knew the whole thing off by heart!
6. Some Comics: Peanuts by Charles M Schulz, Asterix by Goscinny & Uderzo, and all sorts of Marvel Comics
I went through a period as a child when I read nothing but comics. Concerned adults told me I was too old for them; they would ‘rot my brain’, and I should go back to ‘proper reading’. Fortunately, I ignored this well-meaning advice, and comics like these taught me visual as well as verbal literacy. I can see their impact in the fact that all my books are highly illustrated – and by my favourite comics creator, the brilliant Dave McKean.
7. A TV Tie-in Book: Star Trek Fotonovel: City On The Edge Of Forever
Like most children of my generation, I was as interested in TV and films as I was in books; sometimes even more so. I particularly loved books connected to my favourite shows. Although many adults dismissed TV tie-ins as not being ‘proper reading’, my Star Trek books were among my most cherished childhood possessions. I even remember judging bookshops on how good their Star Trek selection was!
8. A Funny Book: The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah
I've always loved books that make me laugh. My favourites were the Mulla Nasurdin books: Sufi Muslim teaching stories which use surreal, absurdist humour. They can be read and enjoyed by young children while containing great wisdom for all ages. And back in the 1970s, when there seemed to be no children’s books about Muslim characters, it was exciting for me to read these, and see my identity as a Muslim reflected.
9. A Cookbook: A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden
Cookbooks are the only other places I can remember seeing my Middle Eastern background being celebrated. I was fascinated by my mum’s cookbooks. This one by the great Egyptian-British food writer Claudia Roden still fascinates me now. It’s packed with all sorts of interesting cultural and historical information, of the sort that I couldn’t get anywhere else as a child. And her recipes are fantastic!
10. And back to Novels: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin
I read this at the end of my childhood, as I emerged into adulthood, in university. I hadn’t read novels for pleasure for a long time, but I was given A Wizard of Earthsea as a gift, and fell in love with it. And as I read it, I realised that I wanted to try to write books like this. As a writer, I want to pass on the pleasure and excitement that my favourite reading has given me, whatever forms it might have taken. So all of my reading has inspired my writing!
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