“What was it exactly? Wonder, rapture, delight, surprised recognition, laughter – but also darker feelings that made my heart beat fast and my stomach turn over, and sometimes a frantic urge to close the book before whatever it was sucked me in and destroyed me. But always, I read on.”
A few years ago, when my sons were younger, I decided to revisit some of my favourite childhood books. I was an avid reader, the type of child who would clean her teeth with one hand and hold her book with the other. In the space of a week, I started three of my favourite childhood novels, devastated to find pages of less than average prose. In quick succession, I closed the covers of each, for good this time. I didn’t have the courage to ruin my memories of these books by re-reading them.
Author and literary journalist Jane Sullivan did have the courage. She returned to her favourite childhood reads, and her exquisite book Storytime is the result. She revisits fifteen of the books she loved, sharing with us her memories of that book, and then her experience of re-reading it. She takes us from Wonderland to Narnia; is enchanted by Winnie-the-Pooh and the Magic Pudding, amazed by Enid Blyton and frightened by the Tales of Terror. Then there is the one book Jane truly hated – Little Women. Why had she despised Jo March, a seemingly perfect role model for a young, aspiring writer?
This intimate, intense and emotional adventure is a surprising and sometimes disturbing journey of self-discovery. As Jane relives old joys and faces old fears, she finds that the books were not what she thought they were, and she was not the child she thought she was.
Her experience is familiar. More than familiar – she speaks for me, as she explores the reasons why children become immersed in some worlds, fall in love with some characters, and importantly, recognise themselves in others. When writing about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, she says, “If I had to find a word for the most persistent emotion I felt, and still feel, when reading these books, it would be longing.” And right there, she captures my experience of reading as a child. She captures my childhood. From The Faraway Tree, to the Secret Garden, to Narnia and more… I longed to be there. It’s why I couldn’t return to these books as an adult, in case they could no longer take me there.
Interwoven with experiences from prominent Australian writers, including Melina Marchetta and Trent Dalton, about their favourite childhood stories, Storytime is a bibliomemoir that lures us deep into the literary world. She provides information on the authors, and even the artwork. Through Jane’s explorations we understand how it is that the enchantment of books we read as children can shape the people we are today. Because we didn’t just want to read them – we needed to read them.
This is a beautiful book about why we read, and the absolute magic of losing yourself in books as a child. It’s an exploration into memory and imagination, and the fiction that shaped us. While the books I’d have on my own list of childhood favourites are mostly different, Sullivan’s descriptions of her reading experiences were achingly familiar. Storytime is a very personal journey back in time for both the author and the reader, and a wonderful celebration of bookworms everywhere.