Family legend has it that one of my biggest tantrums was about reading. My mother had suggested I go read a book, probably answering my “I’m bored” wail. She kindly meant for me to immerse myself in the pictures, or to recall an oft-shared story.
I raged back, “Mum, you know I can’t read!” In the years before starting school, aged five, the ability to read or not wasn’t discussed. But I knew – just knew – I was missing out on something. Something big and important, something I wanted. A lot.
Soon after, I stepped effortlessly into being able to read and the world opened up. Voracious? Yes. Cried when I thought I’d read all the books in our local library? Yes.
When I was eight years old, my mother became the teacher librarian at my school. Three days a week for the next four years, I’d go to the library after class finished and wait for mum to finish covering books, cataloguing books, shelving books. Sometimes I helped, but more often I read.
This is what publishers and booksellers describe as the golden age of reading: from eight to twelve when kids have the time, inclination and wonder to read anything they can get their hands on. And here I was; literally in a library. A library that was curated by a passionate children’s book lover, who purchased from a specialist children’s bookseller, and was backed up by an education budget sufficient for regular restocking. Heaven.
It was the 1980s; a time when full-colour printing was taking off, when Australian authors and illustrators were bursting onto the market, and when local favourite Possum Magic was overtaking US import the Berenstain Bears.
In other words, this answers the question: what did children read before Harry Potter?
Favourite Picture Books
I scribbled out mum’s carefully written maiden name in the hand-me-down Golden Books collection, re-placing it with “Tara”. This book belongs to… me, of course. And I wanted more.
My father remembers racing around every bookshop in town on his lunch break, desperately seeking A Teddy Bear’s Picnic for the demanding toddler version of me.
I remember Dr Seuss’ McElligot’s Pool, When the Wind Changed by Ruth Park and illustrated by Deborah Niland, and A Fish Out of Water by Helen Marion Palmer, illustrated by P.D. Eastman (in the Beginner Books range, edited by Thomas Geigel AKA Dr Seuss).
I adored the What-a-Mess series by Frank Muir, and before wombats wrote diaries, there was Sebastian Lives in a Hat by Thelma Catterwell and illustrated by Kerry Argent.
I’ll include The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs here, even though technically it’s not a picture book. But I pored over the illustrations and re-read it whenever I was home sick from school. I so wanted gumnut babies to be real.
I read picture books long after most kids leave them behind because of my connection to the school library. So I clearly remember loving new releases Where the Forest Meets the Sea by Jeannie Baker, Animalia by Graeme Base, Where’s Wally by Martin Handford and The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.
I sought out picture books by Tony Ross, Babette Cole and – my favourite – Anthony Browne and his gorillas, beginning with Willy the Wimp.
Surly teenhood couldn’t prevent me from discovering Greetings from Sandy Beach by Bob Graham, but when I received the debut Olivia by Ian Falconer for my 24th birthday (because I loved it), I had to draw a line: “Mum, no more picture books!”
Favourite Middle Grade Books
A more complex world of emotion waited at the next reading level. Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson, and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr both made me cry.
My life was reflected back in Robin Klein books, particularly Boss of the Pool as a friend of the family had Downs Syndrome. And who could go past Hating Alison Ashley?
I felt strangely sneaky reading Judy Blume, saving Forever till last as it was the most risqué.
I loooved Roald Dahl. Still do. I most remember The Witches, The BFG and The Twits – the latter read to my class by an expressive substitute teacher with an American accent.
I stepped inside my wardrobe more than once hoping to reach Narnia from CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, starting with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Playing Beattie Bow by Ruth Park seemed a valid time travel proposition, and I think of it every time I’m in The Rocks area of Sydney.
Alongside my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys phase, I also read the entire CBCA shortlists of the late 1980s: Isabelle Carmody’s debut Obernewtyn, Victor Kelleher, Gary Crew, Eleanor Elizabeth by Libby Gleeson, Thunderwith by Libby Hathorn, Allan Baille and Gillian Rubenstein.
I was struck by John Marsden’s So Much To Tell You years before Tomorrow, When the War Began became a ‘thing’. And as far as I’m concerned, that Tim Winton fellow has a very promising career after Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo.
It’s not just the stories I remember; it’s the places. My family had a bible of a different kind when I was eleven: Europe on $25 a Day. I read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and felt faint standing on the landing when we visited her Amsterdam hideaway. As our campervan trundled through the wintry French countryside, The Mountains Have a Secret by Arthur Upfield (an Inspector Bonaparte mystery), transported me back to the Australian heat. Desperate, with supplies exhausted, I read my aunt’s copy of Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer.
From primary school age, I knew that actual people wrote books. I travelled into town to see Roald Dahl a year before he died. Gillian Rubenstein visited our school, and I had books signed by Simon French and Allan Baille at a Book Week event.
But when grown-ups asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I only saw myself as a reader.
“What job could I have where I can read books all day?” I asked in response.
Someone said, “editor”.
I turned my nose up at the obligation to read the bad as well as the good (what I now know is the ‘slush pile’), and passed.
If only someone had said, “you know, you could write books too…”