Naughty Girls, Dirty Dogs and Faraway Trees: Our favourite childhood books
What were your favourite childhood reads? The books that formed and nurtured your childhood imagination?
In honour of the Children’s Book Festival this weekend, Wheeler Centre staff have shared their favourite books from childhood.
There are some you’ll recognise - Enid Blyton, Harry the Dirty Dog - and other more hidden gems that might send you on a journey of discovery, or make you reflect on your own forgotten favourites.
Donica Bettanin, programming coordinator
As picture books go, Harry the Dirty Dog is simply perfect. Harry is a scrap of a dog who hates baths (what kid wouldn’t identify with that?) When he buries his scrubbing brush and runs away for a day of messy adventures he goes from being a white dog with black spots, to a black dog with white spots. He arrives home to find that his own family don’t recognise him, oh no! I can still recall my relief – every single time – at the moment when they finally realise that the black dog with white spots is in fact a very dirty Harry.
To be completely honest though, the one book I ‘read’ more than any other was the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book. Year-round. No birthday necessary. Just, you know, research. How I would pore over it, imagining the thrill of cutting into the swimming pool cake filled with green jelly or of blowing out the candles on the Sweet Shop. Every home should have a copy!
Jenny Niven, associate director
Predictably I had hundreds of favourite books as a child but I think my absolute favourite was Emerald Enjoyed the Moonlight. It was about a lonely old lady who watched so much television her eyes were all funny (it was written in the early sixties I think).
She was quite sad. Her only companion was her cat, Emerald, who one evening was so bored with the television he went out into the woods and disappeared. Mrs Brocklethwaite, the old lady, became very concerned and eventually went out into the woods to find him. It was dark and she was unfamiliar with the woods, so she got extremely battered and scraped and I remember specifically that her tights got torn (she couldn’t see properly, because of the TV-watching, remember) and she was just about to give up hope … when finally, she entered a clearing and found Emerald sitting very peacefully by the side of a lake, quietly watching the moonlight.
To be honest, I’m really not sure why I loved it so much. The illustrations were definitely very of their time which appealed to me (the moon was a big psychedelic light globe), but I think I also just responded really well to the emotion in the book – it showed me that books could be sad and moving and you could feel genuine empathy for the characters again and again every time you read it. And Emerald and Mrs Brocklethwaite were just so peaceful at the end of the story, by the light of the moon! But who knows, I was only about five.
Shannon Hick, marketing coordinator
Looking back on it now most of my favourite books as a kid involved some kind of subversive or deviant behaviour. Whether it be the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Naughty Amelia Jane – the handmade toy that didn’t quite fit in and had a pyromania habit – or Madeline, the naughty little upstart at boarding school who gets appendicitis, needs an operation and everyone ends up being her BFF. (I always wanted an operation when I was a growing up too).
A few that stand out for me that were read to death in my house are Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. In Amelia Bedelia, Amelia is a maid who takes her chore list a little too literally but is redeemed by her pie-making skills. To this day I’m convinced she was very cleverly avoiding her life of domestic servitude in favour of doing something she was passionate about. Harry the Dirty Dog is about a dog called Harry who hated bath time so much he buried his scrubbing brush, ran away and got very dirty. I just adore the illustrations in this book by Margaret Bloy Graham. All I want to do now is rush out and buy these again to read to all the little people in my life!
Jo Case, senior writer/editor
My parents were both English teachers, so our house was full of books. My favourite picture book as a kid was probably Susanna Gretz’s The Bears Who Stayed Indoors, about a 1970s sharehouse of mismatched bears who stay inside on a rainy day and make a cardboard rocket to travel to the moon, eat piles of pancakes, swim in the bathtub and have other similarly cosy adventures. I read it so often that it fell apart and Mum had to buy me another. She laminated the old pages and stuck them to the walls of my bedroom. I also adored The Tiger Who Came to Tea, about what happens when a tiger knocks on the door of a proper English household and politely asks for tea - then eats and drinks everything in the household (even draining the taps).
And I still love the first novel I ever read, Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s The Secret Garden, about contrary orphan Mary, bedridden grouch Colin, kindly boy-gardener Dicken and the garden they bring to life. It’s closely followed in my affections by Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, about an explorer who collects objects for museums on his travels - including three orphan babies, who grow up to be ballerina Posy, actress Pauline and tomboy Petrova. In his absence, the children are brought up by his housekeeper, and attend a theatre and dance school, where they supplement their meagre allowance by the money they earn from performing. I guess I’m drawn to orphan stories?
Vikki Woods, events coordinator
Growing up, I was obsessed with books from a really young age, but the books that I remember first capturing my imagination were any and all by Enid Blyton. When I was really young, with all the innocence of childhood, I called my first cat Bimbo, after Blyton’s Bimbo and Topsy, ensuring years of fun for the whole family every time the cat wandered away.
From there I discovered the folks of The Magic Faraway Tree. How I longed to go on adventures with Moon-Face and Silky, and the rest of the gang and and feast on tins of pop cakes and have crazy adventures in whatever land the tree was in! I climbed on to the Wishing Chair and flew wherever it took me, I solved mysteries with The Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and secretly rejoiced with the misbehaviour of the Naughtiest Girl.
Thankfully, books have never lost that power for me, I can still open the pages of a book and be instantly whisked away to a whole new world!
Gemma Rayner, series producer
In early childhood, I was struck by two rather world-weary stories, Jenny Wagner’s John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Very different books, but both quietly powerful in their evocation of loneliness, friendship, the passage of time, and the give and take of love.
I also loved the two wordless picture books, Sunshine and Moonlight by Jan Ormerod, which depicted in gorgeous and often funny illustrations the first, and last, few hours of a typical day in family life. I liked to be spooked by the Berenstain’s Bears in the Night (‘Whoooo!’), and also Mary Rayner’s dark tale of ten piglets and their hairy-legged babysitter Mrs Wolf, in Mr & Mrs Pig’s Evening Out.
Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess in which Princess Elizabeth rescues the awful Prince Ronald from the dragon’s lair, was perfect fodder for the budding feminist, and Maurice Sendak’s weird and wonderful In the Night Kitchen never failed to capture my imagination (the nudity was of course quite a drawcard).
Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were on high rotation at bedtime. I have just read Wind in the Willows to my own small tribe, and am amazed that, despite the somewhat antiquated language and often lengthy descriptive passages (such a different pace to the books of today), it still packs a punch a century on. Nothing beats the world of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toadie as fuel for the imagination when roaming outdoors. Ah, to be a child again!
Oren Gerassi, technical coordinator
One of my favourite childhood books is The Soul Bird by Michal Snunit. I loved it it because it gave me a lesson about the nature of emotions. When I think about it, I can hear my mother reading it to me in her soft voice:
‘Deep down, inside our bodies, lives the soul. No one has ever seen it, but we all know it’s there. There is a 'soul bird’ who lives inside us all This special bird opens and closes the drawers of our soul, in which we keep all our feelings. There are drawers for our innermost secrets, but also places where we hide away our happiness, anger, joy, jealousy and sorrows. The soul bird has the keys to these drawers, and can open them when we ask. But sometimes the soul bird seems to disobey our wishes, and tolerance turns to fear, or calm turns to anger. Perhaps we don’t listen to our soul bird often enough. Indeed, some of us only hear it once in a lifetime. We should try, maybe late at night, or at another time of peace and quiet, to hear the voice of the soul bird, and listen to what it is telling us.'
Katherine Lynch, executive assistant
There are so many wonderful books to choose from but one which stands out from my childhood is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (the original as opposed to the Disney version). I was a ‘bookworm’ from a young age and vividly remember my mother reading this in the evenings before bedtime with my brother and I snuggled up on either side of her in our pyjamas. We were enthralled by the adventures of Mowgli, the wolves who raised him along with their cubs, Bagheera the panther, Shere Khan the tiger, Baloo the Sloth bear, Hathi the elephant, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose, the cheeky tribe of monkeys and of course the python Kaa.
Lucy De Kretser, project coordinator
A book that stands out from my childhood is The Whales' Song by Dyan Sheldon, illustrated by Gary Blythe. My Mum bought it for my sister, because the little girl in it looked just like her at the time, but I fancied the book as mine. It is a beautiful story about a grandma passing on secrets about the ocean, mesmerising her granddaughter, Lily, with stories about whales singing. Lily listens for the whales, and watches the ocean, and is eventually rewarded. My favourite page when I was little was this one:
I wanted that shell so badly!!!
But as an adult my favourite is this one:
I have a slightly spiritual, besotted love for whales to this day.