A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books, surrounded by grown-ups whose automatic reaction when they saw me finish a book was to put another one into my hand. The true list of the books that made me a reader, therefore, would probably crash this blog’s server. There are a few, though, that do stand out from the crowd – and for me, that list always has to begin with Diana Wynne Jones.
I have a very clear memory of being seven years old, sitting at our knobbly wooden kitchen table, tears pouring down my face as I read the ending of Dogsbody. Sirius the Dog Star was an alien, temporarily shaped like a dog. I had never met him. He was male. But all the same, I felt as though what was happening to him was happening to me at the same time. I don’t think I’d ever had that kind of deep emotional connection with a character in a book before, and it astonished me. The thing that catapulted her to the top of my favourite authors list that day, and has kept her there ever afterwards, isn’t her imagination, or the beautiful worlds she creates (although I love them) – it’s the way she writes characters. Her heroes can be rude, and mean, and petty, and her villains are just ordinary people who make bad decisions for selfish reasons. They’re real, and reading Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy always makes me feel closer to understanding what the people I know are like.
I discovered Terry Pratchett’s books a few years later. I had to go into the Big People Library to get Men at Arms, the first Discworld I read, and I remember stepping through the doorway and being horrified that everything was suddenly much higher up than it usually was. The Discworld books were about an alternate universe with dwarves and trolls and magic luggage, but all the same they were my first true look at the grown-up world I was going to have to live in. Most of what I know about farming, photography, gun crime, architecture, heraldry and the police force is lifted from Pratchett’s explanations of their Discworld equivalents, and they have served me surprisingly well over the years (with only a few awkward exceptions, most notably a long-standing misunderstanding about the proper use of a certain swearword, which I quite reasonably assumed related to insects).
Aged twelve, my godfather gave me a copy of The Woman in White for Christmas. I went to ground in my bedroom and read the whole thing in about two days. It was a revelation. The plot is an exciting mix of murder, madness, bigamy, fire and a moustache-twirling villain with pet mice, and it is set up as a series of documents, most of them diaries, that have apparently been gathered together to be used as evidence. Essentially, words – written documents – are used to solve a huge mystery, and I don’t think I’ve ever discovered a literary conceit I like more. Fat Victorian sensation novels are all about people telling the reader their secrets and learning about the world so they can put it in order.
I read my very favourite Victorian novel, Dracula, the year I was thirteen, and it’s a perfect case in point – the characters start out stupid and confused, then they read lots of words, find out everything there is to know about vampires and then use their knowledge to totally freaking slaughter Count Dracula. I’ve read that book approximately ten times, and I’m not bored of it yet.
What I realise, from putting these defining reader moments together, is that one of the big reasons I read fiction is to get at the truth, and the books that stick with me are the ones that felt, in some way, like someone whispering the solution to a puzzle in my ear. As a child, the world outside of books seemed to me very large and distressing. Literary problems, though, could always be solved – and as long as the characters behaved like real people, I could see how they dealt with the issues that were stacked up against them. I needed books to learn how to get good at being human.
Reading (and writing) is still how I put my head in order – and I suspect I’m not the only one. The books that made me a reader are also the books that made me the person I am. If you look hard enough at my DNA, you’ll probably find a bit of dog star in there . . .