The Child that Books Built is the title of a memoir by Francis Spufford which explores the impact of books read in childhood by interspersing an account of Spufford’s own reading with excursions into history, philosophy and psychology. It beautifully articulates the formative nature of childhood literary exploration. ‘The words we take into ourselves help to shape us,’ Spufford writes. ‘They help form the questions we think are worth asking; they shift around the boundaries of the sayable inside us . . . They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination.’
Kaye Webb, the legendary editor of Puffin books between 1961 and 1979, addressed the same question slightly differently. Asked what she would say to a child reluctant to read she replied, ‘If you don’t read you won’t get to learn a lot of words, and if you don’t have a good vocabulary, you’re never going to be able to say what you really think or feel about anything. So as well as all the fun of having adventures by yourself . . . you will learn to say exactly what you feel and what you want, and that will be very useful as you grow up.
I’m struck by the words of both Spufford and Webb, since I’ve been thinking recently about what kind of child my reading made me. Two related developments have sparked this train of thought: impending motherhood, and a move to a larger house. My own mother has seized on the prospect of a grandchild and the fact that we no longer live in a full-to-bursting flat as two perfect excuses to hand over my extensive collection of Puffin books. Flicking through these battered paperbacks while pretending to shelve them, I’ve been contemplating the impact they had on my expanding literary horizons, and the extent to which my tastes were shaped by Puffin, and by Kaye Webb herself.
The imprint was seventy years old last year, and from its very beginning it revolutionized the world of children’s publishing. Webb was the driving force behind it for two crucial decades, and generations of children became readers because of her. Her mission, according to her biographer Valerie Grove, was to create ‘a lasting children’s library of high-quality writing, much of it written in a completely different era’, and it was this that made me such a devoted Puffin reader.
Most of my favourite books were published as Puffin Classics, the series through which Webb and her successors reissued many of the ‘Golden Age’ titles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In opening a Puffin Classic, you could be reasonably sure of finding a nursery, a fireside, a little girl in pinafore and buttoned boots, and a starched maid or two. I approved of this, since I was both a conservative child and a scaredy-cat, and I did my best to avoid too much gritty contemporary realism. In one edition of Puffin Post John Rowe Townsend articulated his disapproval of Webb’s philosophy, arguing that ‘children can face the realities of life without suffering fearful damage’, but this was a theory I preferred to leave untested. What drew me to my favourite authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott, was that they wrote about worlds where virtue inevitably trumped badness and uncertainty; where order could alternatively tame a prairie wilderness and help a family survive the maelstrom of the American Civil War.
I was a stickler for order as a child, so I relished books about houses where everything had its place, like the log cabin inhabited by the Ingalls girls, with its cleverly made nooks and crannies for food, clothes and cherished china shepherdesses. I did my best to replicate such domestic systems in my own house, although my efforts were thwarted by a shambolic little sister and by parents who looked on with bemusement as I catalogued my books and sellotaped annotated index cards to my bookshelves. Of course, I identified very strongly with Laura Ingalls and Jo March, but I have a lowering suspicion that reading about them may have made me more like their prim elder sisters, Mary and Meg.
It was nevertheless incredibly exciting to read about Laura and Jo, both of whom run around, get messy and go looking for adventure. Both are dreamers with powerful imaginations, and both aspire to sort out the sometimes disordered adult world around them. Even if neither would ever have done anything as geeky as catalogue books, it was still relatively easy for me to decide, aged 10, that I was them. Jo triumphs because she is bookish and imaginative and impulsive: I was convinced I also had these characteristics so it made perfect sense that, eventually, I would triumph too. Laura, meanwhile, reveals her heroism by taking on adult responsibilities at an early age and, since I desperately wanted to be a grown-up myself (preferably with my own immaculate log cabin, uncontaminated by my untidy family), her example held a powerful appeal.
Laura and Jo inhabit unfamiliar, exotic worlds, which fascinated me from the moment I first read about them. I knew almost nothing about the historical context of these worlds, but that was part of their charm. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand why the Ingalls family had to leave their little house on the prairie, since I could still tell that their threatened eviction by government soldiers was dramatic and emotionally significant. And I didn’t need to know about the war that took Mr March away from his family in Little Women to grasp – although I wouldn’t have put it like this – that his absence was somehow liberating, in that it allowed a strong female community, incorporating mother, daughters and servant, to thrive.
Writing about long-forgotten favourites is a tricky business, since it involves reading the objects of one’s childhood enthusiasm through the lens of recollection, and through the fog of subsequent re-reading. But as I’ve delved into the boxes of Puffins dumped so unceremoniously by my mother on our sitting-room floor and begun to read them again, I’ve come to believe that there is a link between the things with which I identified as a child and the ideas which intrigue me now. Alcott and Wilder may write about societies in which girls are expected to behave in certain ways, but they celebrate the achievements of those girls, and centre their stories on heroines, not heroes. Like many children I expended a great deal of imaginative energy on positioning myself as the heroine of my own life, so I instinctively sympathized with this perspective.
Returning to Wilder’s Little House books now, however, a different kind of female heroism leaps out: staunch stoicism in the face of male failure. The Laura of the stories adores her gallant, ambitious father, from whom she inherits her restless energy and her love of wild open spaces, but the narrative rhythm of her series hinges on her father’s misjudgements. These lead him first to build his house on Indian territory, and then to plant his crops in an area known to be plagued by grasshoppers, which drives his family into poverty and serious illness. All the novels centre on a tension at the heart of the Ingalls family, between Pa’s urge to speculate and Ma’s determination to achieve stability for her children.
Re-reading the books, I’m now certain that it is Ma who is the real heroine of the series, because it is she who makes prairie life work for the family, who transforms it from a basic battle for survival into a quest for a civilized, secure existence. This new conclusion may stem from my own altered perspective, but it is also rooted in the books themselves. The authorial voice of the series is seductively straightforward: a third-person narrator relates events and their impact on Laura’s emotions in pared-down, simple prose, ideal for a child reader.
For a long time this voice was thought to be purely the result of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s untutored literary genius, but research into her work in recent decades has made matters more complicated. It now appears that the books were written by Laura in collaboration with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a crusading journalist and a prominent figure in the literary world of mid-twentieth-century America. Rose had strong views about the role of the state and individual responsibility, as well as a keen sense of the qualities a book needed to make it marketable. Debate continues to rage about the extent of her involvement with the Little House books, but it seems likely that she, as much as Laura, was responsible for their distinctive narrative voice.
This suggestion has provoked outrage from some of Laura’s many fans, but it does go part of the way to explaining the layered nature of the series’ gender politics. On the one hand, the novels celebrate male strength, and conservatively position home-building (as opposed to house-building, at which Pa excels) as a key female virtue. Simultaneously, Laura and Rose present the women of Laura’s childhood as independent, strong-minded individuals who are really the unsung saviours of their communities. This idea only grows stronger as the Little House Laura grows up and is forced to confront the limitations of her menfolk. It is certainly a concept which I think made perfect sense to me as a child, even if I couldn’t quite identify it at the time.
For me the experience of returning to the Little House books has been delightful and fascinating, as has re-reading Little Women. Revisiting some of Louisa May Alcott’s lesser-known novels, on the other hand, has been rather more troubling, since although Little Women tends towards the didactic, it has none of the vindictive morality of stories such as Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom. These books tell the story of Rose Campbell and her clan of boy cousins, all of whom are badly served by their silly parents. In Eight Cousins Cousin Mac almost loses his sight because he is ignored and pores over books at all hours, and in Rose in Bloom handsome, ne’erdo- well Cousin Charlie dies broken and repentant, having been allowed to succumb to the temptations of cards and liquor by his over-indulgent mother. Like Jo March, Rose herself comes repeatedly to the rescue and corrects the mistakes of her elders, which must have been one of the reasons I adored reading about her.
However, I have a horrible feeling that I also loved Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom precisely because of their nasty Puritan streak, and I hope it’s the case that I wasn’t alone in this: that many children actually rather like the clarity of such uncompromising value systems. If not, I fear that the child built by a diet of Alcott and Wilder must really have been something of a prig. Yet at no stage – as my parents can testify – did I internalize the lesson that children should be seen and not heard, and ultimately I’d prefer to believe that my childhood reading made me a curious rather than a censorious reader.
All I know is that I never actually learnt to be a good little girl, despite the number of times I devoured Eight Cousins, and that in the end even multiple re-readings of Little House on the Prairie didn’t teach me to build and furnish a log cabin, something Laura could probably do without any trouble at all. I can’t help feeling now that this is rather a shame: we could do with the extra space a cabin would provide, since all these Puffins have got to go somewhere. Perhaps, in order to equip myself for the future, I should curl up and re-read the Little House books just one more time.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 32 © Daisy Hay 2011