I’m always surprised when people say they didn’t always love reading. Like, a lot of book bloggers say that Twilight got them into reading in their teenage years. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just find it baffling that they didn’t read before. I figured you’re born a reader rather than becoming one.
I have loved books for as long as I’ve been able to read. There have been times when I’ve not read as much, but books have always been a huge part of my life, so I thought it would be interesting to look back on the most important books throughout my life – the ones that moulded me, and stayed with me long after first discovering them.
This isn’t really a tag but I encourage any of you who want to do your own ‘life in books’ to go ahead and do so. I actually got quite emotional thinking about some of the books that have meant so much to me, especially as a child.
Tiny Emma’s Books.
Obviously we don’t remember much of our formative years so I can’t tell you the first book I ever read on my own, but there are a few books that I remember loving at a very young age. The first is Spot the Dog by Eric Hill, a series of books about – you guessed it – a dog named Spot. It’s more of an interactive series for kids because they’re encouraged to touch parts of the body – sometimes he had fur you could stroke – and there are things to lift or slide to reveal images underneath. I looked up the series on Wikipedia and it turns out Hill was one of the first, or possibly the first, children’s author to use this lift-the-flap element.
Another picture book I remember loving as a small child was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Actually, I don’t remember loving it – I remember thinking it was OK but it was just a book that teachers always read to us. I think it’s because the caterpillar turns into a butterfly at the end so teachers love it because it incorporates a bit of science.
I was also a big fan of David McKee’s Elmer. It was the colours that drew me, I think, but looking back as an adult it’s a great book to get your kids into because it teaches them about how it’s OK to be different, and how it’s not OK to treat others badly for being different – particularly when that difference has to do with colour. I don’t think there are enough children’s books with such a great message. A lot of the books we read at school taught us about things, but I think they could have made more of an effort to encourage tolerance and acceptance.
Slightly Bigger Emma’s Books.
I’ve had a look on Google but cannot for the life of me work out what these books were called or who they were by, but there were some books I would read at school about life in the Victorian ages for children. I think there were a few in this series, but one I remember in particular was the one about two children who were grabbed off the street and forced to sweep chimneys. I remember it well because I actually found it quite scary. They were very descriptive around the children choking on the smoke and nearly getting stuck in the chimney.
Outside of school, I was always reading. I absolutely LOVED our school library. We used to go every other Friday (I think – I know it was fairly regularly but I remember it being a bit of a treat so I don’t think it was once a week) and I would take out as many books as the librarian would let me. Usually, I would choose books from The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton.
I adored Enid Blyton. She was my bae. I carried her everywhere. The one phrase that really sticks out from my childhood is ‘She’s always got her nose stuck in a book’, because my parents would plonk me in the corner of the pub while they chatted with their mates and I would just sit and read for the entire time. If I was in the back of the car, I’d be reading. If I was at home (and my TV programmes had finished) I’d be hidden away in my bedroom reading. And it was nearly always an Enid Blyton book that I’d be engrossed in.
The Famous Five were my all-time favourites; I wanted to be one of them. (No, I haven’t read the modern-day Famous Five books such as Five Go Gluten Free and Five Give Up the Booze. I am very tempted, though.)
I also liked The Secret Seven, though I didn’t read nearly as many of those, and I liked the Adventure series and the Mystery series. Yeah, she wrote a lot of mysteries, but she did also have an actual series known as the Mystery series! They were the ones with Snubby and Barney and they had named like The Ring O Bells Mystery and The Rubadub Mystery. I reread one of them when I was older, in which Barney meets his estranged father for the first time, and it was actually really emotional and I properly cried.
When I wasn’t reading Enid Blyton, I might be reading Roald Dahl instead. I loved Matilda and The BFG best of all, but I also loved The Witches, which I would read and then have to crawl into my mum’s bed because it gave me nightmares, and George’s Marvellous Medicine because I loved the idea of making up my own potion like that (I never did – I’ve never been much of a scientist). I didn’t actually much like the book of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even though I love the film. There are quite a few of Dahl’s that I never read, like James and the Giant Peach, Esio Trot and Danny The Champion of the World. I feel like I’m missing out.
One that I really loved, that no one ever talks about? The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me. That was a great book!
I am definitely my mother’s daughter because not only do I love reading, but I also really love history, which she adores. As a child I absolutely loved the Horrible Histories books by Terry Deary. It is now a fantastic children’s TV series which is equally enjoyable for adults. It’s on Netflix so if you haven’t seen it I suggest you get on that now. I’ll wait.
I also loved Alice in Wonderland as a child. This was probably the most grown-up book that I read at that age, and I read Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass over and over again.
There was also a book of poetry that our teacher would read to us when we were in Year 4, which was the Please Mrs Butler collection by Allan Ahlberg. These were incredibly witty poems that didn’t talk down to the kids and which are just as fun to read and rediscover when you’re older.
Preteen Emma’s Books. (Still Only Slightly Bigger.)
Apart from my traumatic experiences with Roald Dahl’s The Witches, I never liked scary stories much. I watched the odd spooky TV show but they inevitably gave me nightmares. However, as I got older, I started getting into the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine. I only had a few, but I remember Say Cheese and Die!, The Phantom of the Auditorium and Cry of the Cat, which I think was my favourite but looking back it also appears to be the most sinister.
I moved on to R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series when I started going to the section of the library reserved for older kids. I thought these were great. They were like Goosebumps but had more grown-up themes such as romance.
One book my sister bought me when I was about 10 was Have You Started Yet? by Ruth Thomson. It was a good thing she did, because up until then I had never heard of periods and had no idea I would start bleeding from my vagina on a monthly basis. I’d recommend it for any preteen girl, because without this book I would probably have been really frightened on discovering my first period – my mum is a great mum but she’s quite ‘proper’ and I think she thought I was too young to know about periods. However I started not long after this so it’s definitely not too young to learn!
Speaking of periods, another big part of my life was Judy Blume. I actually started out on the Fudge series about a boy’s relationship with his annoying younger brother, which I think were meant for younger readers, but the book I remember most vividly is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which the title character is desperate to grow breasts and start her period. It sounds silly but it was really important to me as a kid. For a start, I was quite scared of getting my period when I first read about them in Have You Started Yet?, but in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, they treat periods as something exciting. So it’s a bit weird that I ended up wanting to start my period, but at the same time I think it’s good that Blume helped me to accept and look forward to the changes in my body rather than being afraid of them.
I was a big fan of Blume’s books in general, and think she and Stine were probably my favourite authors once I had grown a little too old for Enid Blyton.
The Harry Potter Years.
Well, the Harry Potter years never really ended. Obviously I still love Rowling’s world now, and always will. I came to it quite late, though, as I was a bit of a hipster as a kid – I decided that because everyone was reading Harry Potter, it must be rubbish and I wasn’t going to like it.
Then, one fateful night, I was around my friend Charlotte’s for a sleepover. It came to bedtime and I asked her if she had anything I could read. She ummed and ahhed and eventually passed me a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I probably rolled my eyes, shrugged, thought ‘Why not?’ and opened the book.
I remember laughing at the world ‘Muggle’ which is in the first paragraph of Prisoner of Azkaban. This third book in the series starts with an excerpt from one of Harry’s textbooks. The excerpt is about Wendelin the Weird, a witch who lived in the Middle Ages and allowed herself to be caught by witch-hunters several times over because, when they tried to burn her to death, she would cast a spell that caused her to feel a pleasant tickling sensation instead.
I mean, it’s a pretty good way to hook the reader. I don’t know how much I read before falling asleep but I borrowed the book from her and finished it a day later. I then sent my mum out to buy me the other three books that were out at the time, and an obsession was born.
Emma’s Books in Secondary School.
Probably the most grown-up book that I read before starting secondary school was The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I found the Lord of the Rings books too long and difficult (and have never retried them since) but I thought The Hobbit was great, especially the scene with Gollum and his riddles.
I was therefore very excited when we were told, on going into Year 7, that we would be studying The Hobbit that year!
The library again became very important to me in secondary school. I sat in there most break-times. Some of my friends would moan because it meant I was a geek, but I didn’t care: I was surrounded by books.
I was into Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the time so I remember I often took out the book adaptations, and I did this for Charmed too. I remember I could never get into the Buffy books but I did enjoy the Charmed ones, which is weird because I always much preferred the TV show of Buffy to Charmed. I also read a lot of Point Horror. I don’t think Point Horror is technically a series as they didn’t follow on from each other and I don’t think they were even by the same author, but I think they were a category under a certain publisher instead. They were like the next logical step from the Fear Street books.
I was never a huge Jacqueline Wilson fan like most girls my age (I was Judy Blume through and through) but I did read the odd Wilson book. One series that I grew to adore, and that I probably read around Year 8, was the Girls series. There was Girls Out Late, Girls In Love, Girls Under Pressure and eventually Girls in Tears. They were all excellent books but I think Girls Under Pressure is the most important one. It was the first time I’d ever heard about eating disorders and I think I read it at the right age, because in your teenage years it’s very easy to fall into the trap of worrying too much about your looks.
There were many books I discovered at school, mainly because we were always studying a particular book in English, and obviously we read Shakespeare from an early age, so I feel like I’ve always been reading books for adults in a way. But I think the first properly adult book that I read for pleasure was probably The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
This book was massive when it came out. It’s not really talked about now, so it’s easy to forget how big it was, but the hype was up there with Fifty Shades of Grey. (Probably not in terms of how many copies were sold, but definitely in terms of how many people were talking about it.)
If you don’t know, The Da Vinci Code is a not especially well-written book that takes the controversial view that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child with her. Obviously, religious critics were not so keen on this idea. I’ve written more on my own ideas around the subject here, but my main memory of this book is that it was just so darn good. Yes, the writing is not great. The characters are kind of silly. But it’s really interesting and thought-provoking and a bloody good read. It’s the epitome of a great page-turner.
My GCSEs were not my favourite time of my life, but something happened in Year 10 that changed me, and I have never been the same person since. I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
I will be forever grateful to my school for having this on the curriculum. I’m so happy that I was in my English class and not one of the other English classes, because they read Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men. I read both of these later in life (loved Lord of the Flies, wasn’t very keen on Of Mice and Men) but who’s to say I ever would’ve picked up To Kill a Mockingbird if I hadn’t studied it at GCSE?
To Kill a Mockingbird awakened a love for classics that I hadn’t known existed. I knew I quite liked Shakespeare, but that was about it. Once I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird (about twenty times before my exam) I started picking up the classics out of my mum’s collection at home. I read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Animal Farm by George Orwell, and I tried (twice) to read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist but absolutely could not do it because that book is bloody hard-going.
I did, however, discover Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This quickly became another firm favourite, and I remember getting on to the bus in sixth form and announcing dramatically to my friends that I’d finished it and they were like:
I also discovered a love for proper adult historical fiction at this age, not just the Horrible Histories books. I found out that Philippa Gregory was a person who existed and wrote amazing books, the first of which I read was The Boleyn Inheritance. This is still my favourite of her books and one that gets very little acknowledgement. I also read Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, which is an extremely long but extremely good multi-viewpoint novel about the life of Richard III, spanning from early childhood right up to his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
Emma’s Books at Uni. (If You’re Wondering, I’m Still Pretty Small at this Age.)
Obviously uni is a great place to discover books, particularly if you’re doing an English degree, which I was. We studied Hamlet in the first year, which I was sick of because I’d literally just finished studying it for my A Levels, but we also studied Jane Eyre (obviously I was pretty happy about that). We studied this alongside Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, as we were looking at sensationalist fiction. If you’re a fan of Jane Eyre and haven’t read Lady Audley’s Secret, I’d recommend it as they’re extremely alike.
Uni is also a great place to get drunk, and therefore my memories are quite hazy and I can’t remember how old I was or what year I was in when I studied / discovered the following books.
Most of the books I remember from uni are ones I had to study – I don’t think I read for pleasure as much because I already had a reading list to get through. However, I did read the odd book for fun. One such book was The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, which remains a firm favourite now. I actually read a small excerpt of it in a seminar and was so intrigued that I immediately ordered the whole book from Amazon.
I had to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and also The Monk by Matthew Lewis for our semester on gothic literature. I would probably have ended up giving Frankenstein a go at some point anyway, as I already liked the film, but I had never heard of The Monk before I saw it on our reading list. I think it is considered a classic, but it’s an extremely underrated one. It’s quite gory for its time and was slated for being immoral and immature, but I freaking loved it.
I’ve mentioned Maus by Art Spiegelman on this blog before. It’s another one that I would probably never have read if it weren’t for my university course, so I’m very happy it was on my reading list. It’s a graphic novel about World War II, with the Jewish population depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats.
I do remember a few that I read for pleasure. One that stands out is a story that has ended up being very important for me. I went to see a play called The Woman in Black in the West End halfway through uni, and had nightmares for two weeks. (Yes, as an adult.) It terrified me, but I became obsessed. I ordered the playscript and the novel and the film came out not longer after so of course I went to see that on release day. The novel is stunning: very descriptive and eerie, and classic Susan Hill.
There were two trips to the cinema during my university years that introduced me to two fabulous book series. One was a trip in the Easter holidays of my third year to see a little film called The Hunger Games with my friend Julie. I had absolutely no idea what we were going to see, but I thought it was great. Not long after, I read the entire trilogy on my Kindle. It’s now one of my favourite book series and I still think the films are really good too.
The second (not chronologically, although I could’ve sworn I got into The Hunger Games first) was Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. I went with my friend to see another film which was booked up, and it was a choice between Percy Jackson and some other film that I can’t remember. We decided on Percy, and again, I had no idea whatsoever what I was about to see. When I realised it was all about Greek mythology, I was so excited. I found the whole film completely enthralling.
I then wanted to read the book series, but I was reluctant to buy the books because there were five in the series and they were all pretty expensive. A year or so later, I got my Kindle for Christmas and found that the Percy Jackson books were all £2.99 each. I downloaded the Lightning Thief and quickly realised that actually the film is utter shit and doesn’t go into anywhere near as much detail as the book, missing out major plotpoints and important characters. I probably read the entire series in about a week (it was the week between Christmas and New Year when there’s nothing to do but eat, read and sleep, so that’s hardly a surprise).
There were obviously lots more books that I discovered at uni, but I’m going to leave you with one that has become my all-time favourite modern standalone. It was actually published in my first year of uni, but in my third year, everyone was reading this book. Through word-of-mouth, it travelled all around my friendship group. One day (no pun intended) I was reading it over my friend’s shoulder on the bus, and I downloaded the ebook later that evening.
This was the third time in my life that I fell in love with a book and then, not long after, I had to study it for school / uni. One Day by David Nicholls is a stunning read that follows a couple on the same day every year for about twenty years. I love books like this that are just about ordinary people who are extraordinary to each other.
Emma’s Books Now. (I’m Still Pretty Short.)
For a long time, One Day was so amazing that I couldn’t find anything to compare, and I just kept rereading it, along with Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird and Percy Jackson, thinking, ‘I am never going to find another book that I really, really LOVE.’
I think we all worry about this sometimes. We read a lot of books, which means a lot of the books we read are average. We’re never going to fall in love with all of them, and the more you read, the more discerning you get, so it becomes quite a rare thing to find a book you think is fabulous enough to tell people about.
Here’s a few books I’ve discovered since graduating from uni that I thought were pretty damn good, and which stayed with me long after reading:
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
- Room by Emma Donoghue
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio
- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
- Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Green
And what am I currently reading? Well, I have finally done what I should have done many years ago: I’ve been working my way through the A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket. I’m currently on the sixth book, The Ersatz Elevator, and am so happy because I’ve finally found another series that I love, and in which I love all of the books I’ve read so far. Not only are the books all as good as their predecessors, but they are getting better and better, and it’s been such a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book series as much as this.
Wow, that was a long post for me! Usually I’m short and sweet. Like I say, it’s not really a tag but I’d love to see some of your versions of this post. What are the books that shaped you as a child? Which ones did you love studying at school? What sort of thing are you reading now? Let me know and come back soon!