So it’s that time of year when we’re all planning on settling down for a long winter’s nap or rather a long holiday with lots of books by a warm fire! This time of year always seems tinged with nostalgia and having just published a collection of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde (Stories for Children), here at OBP we’ve been thinking about our childhood memories of reading and our favourite stories at Christmas …
Jamie O’Connell, sales administrator:
“Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943
I was the kind of child that read everything I could lay my hands on: the cereal boxes while eating breakfast, the shampoo bottle’s promises of glossy hair while having a bath, the labels on the cleaning products under the sink; the RTE Guide on the sofa; my mother’s Hello! magazine stuffed down the side of the couch.
Each week, my grandparents took my sisters and I to Fermoy and stuff us full of sweets: Refreshers, Stingers, Desperate Dans, and Sherbit Dips. This trip would always include a trip to the library. Roald Dahl’s books were a firm favourite, as were Enid Blyton’s. Later on, my appetite for Point Horrors was insatiable. Often, I’d have one of my six library books read before my grandparent’s Morris Minor pulled up outside our bungalow in Ballydeague.
However, though I loved contemporary authors, I had a great love of legends, myths and fairy tales also. Irish legends were a particular favourite, as were the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, notably the story of The Wild Swans and the poor sister who’s hands got stung as she sewed jumpers made out of nettles. The Wild Swans, like most of those fairy tales, had dark elements. Protagonists were not guaranteed to survive the stories unscathed. But this made the stories all the more thrilling, even if took a little longer to get to sleep at night!
Five years ago, I had the good fortune to study ‘Archive of the Imagination’ under the tutelage of Dr Éilís Ní Dhuibhne in Unversity College Dublin as part of my MA in Creative Writing. The module involved the examination of fairy tales, raising the question, why have they have survived over the millennia? It’s often theorised that they remain because they are not simply ‘stories for kids’, rather they tap into our unconscious on a deep level, challenging our fears and expectations of life. In fact, many of the great children’s fiction of the last one hundred years draws on these fairy tales, be it the tales of J. K. Rowling or Roald Dahl, where heroes and heroines are forced to face darkness and cruelty in a very real way.
This autumn I’ve had the chance to dip back into the fairy tales of my childhood as we published a new illustrated version of Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde. Like the Hans Christian Andersen tales, they contain all the bleakness and magic that I remember from the days when I ate sticky Refresher bars and read books in the back of my grandparent’s Morris Minor (while they warned me that I’d be as ‘sick as a dog’ from reading in a moving car).
Last September, I visited my eldest sister’s home and was woken up at dawn by my six and four-year-old nephews. As I made them breakfast, I watched my nephews fight over who could read the cereal boxes, proof that nothing changes. It makes me confident that the fairy tales that I once read and loved, and millenniums of children did before me, will find an audience in a whole new generation.
Helen Carr, Editor:
As a child I was an avid reader. Books always featured on my Christmas list, and I was delighted to unwrap books (alongside other less erudite, but equally memorable, presents like a large plastic unicorn we called ‘Mighty One’, ‘Cluedo’, My Little Pony, an ‘Irish’ Care Bear, ‘Operation!’ and other beloved toys of the 1980s). In truth, I remember my first introduction to some of my favourite childhood authors being connected to hospital visits rather than Christmas – a big haul of second-hand books bought for me when going in to hospital for an eye operation, aged six, included Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s The School at the Chalet and Noel Streatfeild’s White Boots and began a long relationship with both authors’ books. I discovered Antonia Forest, Meindert de Jong, Philippa Pearce and Nina Bawden in my classroom library at school, while my local library had lots of L.M. Montgomerys and Laura Ingalls Wilders.
Some authors, though, are really linked to Christmas in my mind – one Christmas when I was about nine or ten I got ‘A Box of Enchantment’ by Nina Beachcroft for Christmas. It might have been the novelty of the box, and the four books sitting so tidily inside it, that made me remember it so well, but I think it was also the stories – I’d never read Nina Beachcroft before then, and there was a real – and quite frightening – magic to her stories. Set in England in the eighties, they were about ordinary children stumbling into magical situations. Even today, I remember her description of the heavy air and oppressive silence in an English forest as the children find themselves transported back in time in Under the Enchanter. Another author who always seemed connected to Christmas is J.R.R. Tolkien. I can’t remember when I first read his books. I borrowed The Lord of the Rings from an older friend when I was in primary school, and read The Hobbit after, but it wasn’t until I was ten or eleven that I really grew to love Middle Earth, but from then until almost the end of secondary school my dad bought me a Tolkien calendar for Christmas every year.
Ironically, some of the books that I loved to re-read around Christmas as a child were about an American-Jewish family – Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. These stories about a big, New-York-Jewish family in the early part of the twentieth century really captured my imagination with their stories of apartment buildings and trips to the soda fountain and the big public library. Even though they were celebrating Hanukkah rather than Christmas, the descriptions of their big family celebration dinners always made me feel particularly festive. I used to reread The Snow Queen and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe quite often too – though as my sister recently reminded me, I only really liked the snowy section at the beginning of the book, with Mr Tumnus, and the iconic streetlight in the snow illustration; I never liked Aslan, and enjoyed the book less once he came on the scene.
By the time I was fifteen, I was godmother to my youngest cousin, and I continued the tradition of books as presents with her. Happily, her childhood and teenage birthdays often coincided with the release of a new Harry Potter book – the age gap between us melted away as we both read them for the first time and compared theories of what might happen next. I now have a twenty-month old niece and a one-year-old nephew, and they’ll both be receiving books (among other things!) this Christmas. (I don’t want to spoil their surprises, but Chris Judge and Dick Bruna will be featuring). Long may the Christmas-book tradition continue!
Jamie O’Connell is sales administrator at The O’Brien Press and Committee Member of Dublin Book Festival. He is the author of a short story collection, Some Sort of Beauty (Bradshaw Books, 2012). He was awarded an Artist’s Bursary from Dublin City Council in June 2013 and completing an MFA in University College Dublin. More information can be found on www.jamieoconnellwriter.com.
Helen Carr is an editor at The O’Brien Press and children’s books enthusiast.