Like a lot of book lovers (and most daughters of English Literature teachers), my love of reading began very early in life. And after recently reading The Librarian, which follows a children’s librarian as she introduces sheltered village children to the exciting world of books, it got me thinking about the books I loved while growing up. However, listing all the books I loved as a child would take several days and spill over multiple posts (clearly I wasn’t a very social child), so instead I decided to pick out some key characters who became personal heroes because, realistically, you cannot have a great book if it doesn’t include great characters.
#1 – Pippi Longstocking
Okay so I’m cheating a little bit on this one because I never physically sat down and read any of this series, but I had the audio versions of all of them on cassette (showing my age slightly here), which I listened to until the tape wore out so the sound became grainy and the tape became knotted. I was in absolute awe of Pippi; how independent she is by living in her own house, as well as how confident and self assured she is in everything she does. I desperately wanted to live in my own house like her – I used to daydream about it all the time, to the point where I started using the decrepit, mouldy old Victorian outhouse of my parents’ home as my ‘house’, where I would sit and fantasise about what it would be like to sail the high seas with Pippi and her father.
All great book characters should be people we aspire to be like, and I wanted to be Pippi so much that I dressed up as her for three consecutive World Book Days – complete with pipe cleaners in my plaits and a soft monkey sewn to the shoulder of my dress. Her fierce courage, self confidence and independence is definitely something I hope has carried through to my adult life.
#2 Georgina Kirrin – The Famous Five
I adored Enid Blyton books when I was growing up: The Famous Five, Secret Seven, The Faraway Tree, Mallory Towers, The Twins at St Claire’s; if Blyton wrote it, then I was reading it. I personally think her work hasn’t aged at all, but in the age of iPads and Fortnite, it pains me to think that children probably don’t get gangs together and go around the countryside solving mysteries together any more. The youth of today, honestly.
George is a really interesting character to look back on, because from a 2019 perspective, there is clearly an underlying gender identity issue within her, which makes it incredibly relatable for today’s kids, but is ironic because I highly doubt Enid Blyton’s conservative 1940’s view would particularly match up with this. Nonetheless, as a total tomboy misfit myself, six or seven year old Esther really needed to know that it was okay to not be feminine all the time. I don’t know if it was life imitating art or vice versa, but my young self absolutely was the George of all my friendship groups – independent, bossy, a self-imposed ringleader with a fiery temper, but probably underneath quite insecure about herself and incredibly loyal to her friends. George’s relationship with Timmy the dog was also a key feature for me, because when I got my dog Tilly at eleven she became my most trusted friend, and still is to this day. I like to think Tilly is as loyal as Timmy and would defend me from rogue treasure hunters, but she is now thirteen and probably wouldn’t wake up from her nap long enough to notice, but in our youth we definitely made a great mystery-solving double act.
#3 – Tracy Beaker
‘Finally, an actual 1990’s reference which proves she didn’t grow up in the 1940’s’ I hear you cry. Yes, like all 90’s babies, I grew up totally obsessed with Jacqueline Wilson. I think I started reading Tracy Beaker a little bit younger than I should have, but my ignorance as to why she was in a children’s home and what social workers really were probably heightened my enjoyment of the story. As far as I was concerned, Tracy lived in a really fun boarding school like Mallory Towers, where there were no parents and the kids could run riot – my secure, middle-class upbringing seemed a bit rubbish in comparison really.
Obviously now I’m older I understand what the premise of the story was, and it was great to meet Tracy again last year when she returned in print for one last time as an adult. Jacqueline Wilson stories all featured some kind of trauma – poverty, abuse, addiction, bullying; maybe this is why my generation are in a mental health crisis and all seem to support left-wing politics. But, it’s hugely important to address these issues and make kids aware of the world in which they’re growing up – I went to a really deprived primary school and had no real understanding of what other kids were going through until I discovered Jacqueline Wilson. I digress, but Tracy was a relevant, present day version of Pippi Longstocking. Tracy was on her own – she had no allies, unlike George’s Famous Five, and she preferred it that way. Like most kids, I did have periods of my young life with few or no friends as a result of silly fall-outs, but whenever I found myself alone I would channel Tracy’s independence and bravery, and know that it would all work out okay in the end.
#4 Lyra Belacqua – His Dark Materials
I started reading His Dark Materials when I was about nine or ten, so a similar age to Lyra in Northern Lights. As with all the other characters in this list, her independence and courage is what initially hooked my attention, but unlike the others I don’t think I wanted to be Lyra so much as I wanted to be friends with her. Lyra and Roger’s friendship was something I really wanted to be a part of; although I did have my own friends I hadn’t experienced that kind of deep bond – probably because I didn’t live in a magical world where most of the adults were trying to kill me. But nevertheless, I wanted in.
I have never seen the film version which came out in my early teens, and I don’t have any desire to. It’s been so long since I read this trilogy that I struggle to remember the plot, but I didn’t want to see the film and have the version of the characters I have kept in my mind all these years, replaced by someone else’s interpretation. In short, I wanted to keep my Lyra and Roger for me. It’s crazy that I can’t really remember what happens in the books, but I remember Lyra, Roger, Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter like they’re friends I’ve had for years. I still have a very clear image in my head of all four of them (especially Mrs Coulter who gave me nightmares), which to me is a sign of excellent writing.
#5 Matilda Wormwood
I am ashamed to confess – I saw the film version first. As a rule of thumb, I ALWAYS read the book first. But, Matilda was released in cinemas when I was two, so my family had it on video by the time I was three or four, and my sister and I watched it daily. I did go on to read the book, and all of the other Roald Dahl books – George’s Marvellous Medicine has to be my all time favourite, my sister and I used to make our own concoctions of it to try and make our parents grow bigger than the house. I watched Matilda again recently as an adult, and it has aged to perfection. All children feel at some stage like they don’t fit in with their family, and all younger siblings like myself can relate to feeling like the black sheep under the older one’s shadow for one reason or another. For some reason, I interpreted the story of Matilda as her gaining her super powers as a result of her reading so much at the library. And so began my ability to binge read books for hours on end – is reading something I enjoy, or is it an addiction I developed from a deep desire to gain super powers? Who will ever know? But I’m glad I became a reader nonetheless.
Although this is a post about my main literary heroes, I wouldn’t feel right mentioning Matilda without mentioning the secondary hero – Miss Honey. My reception teacher, whose name I won’t mention, was Miss Honey. Her name was different, she was from Liverpool and looked different, but I was utterly convinced, to the point where I used to call her Miss Honey and she would respond. I was already able to read before starting school (thanks to my older sister who somehow at eight years old managed to teach me), and this teacher saw my love of reading and nourished it into what it is today. She let me read through other lessons and break times – something you would never get away with now in the days of the National Curriculum, and I know teachers don’t have favourites but I like to think I was hers. I cried real tears, which came out in really loud ugly sobs on the last day of reception because she wasn’t my teacher any more. Perhaps the fact that I was the child who was crying about leaving school while all the other kids were bouncing off the walls to be free for the summer is the reason I had so few friends and spent my childhood immersed in books, but I digress. For various reasons which I won’t go into, our families stayed loosely in touch after this and I attended Miss Honey’s funeral when I was seventeen. I hadn’t spoken to her since I leaving infants’ school, but I don’t mind admitting that I was completely crushed to hear that she had died, and I remember looking at her photo on the coffin and feeling like no time had passed. Great teachers, like great books, stay with you for a lifetime – my love of Matilda, and consequential obsession with my Miss Honey, shaped my lifelong love of reading, which feels like a very fitting note on which to end this post.