Did I feel a little weird stood in the children’s section of Waterstones scouring the shelves for my old familiar favourites? Of course. But I’ve been having a bit of an existential crisis lately: just two seconds ago I was a kid, with no worries or cares except finding the willpower to wake up for my alarm to get to school. Now, in the blink of an eye, I’m not a kid. I have to pay rent and bills, every waking minute centres around financial audits, and – perhaps worst of all – I have to think about what to make for dinner every godforsaken night. Dramatically nostalgic and a bit of a cry-baby, the whole growing up thing can really get to – especially if the Carpenters are playing (thankfully, my boyfriend knows the Carpenters can only mean an imminent meltdown is on the horizon, and snacks should be thrown from a safe distance). Trying not to get bitter at the fact I can’t rewind time and stay a child forever, I decided to relive my youth with my favourite childhood books, and play pretend for a while.
Ignoring the strange side-eyeing I got from actual legitimate children in the kids’ section of Waterstone’s, I picked up the first book of The Famous Five, a series I adored growing up, reading them first at around 9 or 10. Those stories bring back so many happy memories, and I’m sure as I get around to reading them all again, I’ll remember each one vividly. But for now, I started with just the first one: Five On a Treasure Island. All in all, it took me one night and one morning to finish. Curled up in bed reading about Kirrin Island, hidden treasure – secrets etched onto an old map – and a thrilling ship wreck churned up onto the shore in a freak storm, I almost felt transported back onto my primary school playground, sat cross-legged on the concrete or sprawled out on the field, absorbed in the adventure. I used to read each one typically in one or two days, with my Dad fruitlessly telling me to slow down. He too read them when he was little, and after I finished each one I would re-tell him the story before bedtime from start to finish (with a million detours, rewinds and gaps, I’m sure). Our favourite character was Timmy the dog, and it still is after reading it again!
Even though I’m not a child anymore and the book is meant for children, I still really enjoyed it, and not just because of the happy memories (although they inevitably played their part). The Famous Five world seems to deliciously simplistic: Anne, Dick, Julian, George, and Timmy. No phones, social media, modern day issues, vanity, or anything like that. Just long summer holidays, bathing suits, adventures, mysteries, and food. Lot’s of food actually. In fact, the constant reference to picnics and lunches and suppers – packed meals of bread, butter, biscuits, plums, sandwiches, and, of course, ginger beer – made for a comforting scene for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s the way in which Enid Blyton made everything seem so scrummy, and everything they did so satisfying and optimistic: they weren’t just hungry, they were starving. They didn’t just eat their packed lunches, they feasted, always delightfully full and energised afterwards. The five were never tired, they were exhausted, falling asleep while still talking about how amazing their day was and what a grand time they’re having at their cousin’s house in Kirrin Bay. On every page, the emotions of the children are emphasised, and those emotions are always happy, excited, thrilled – all simple to follow, I presume because it’s intended for kids, but it makes for very comforting reading either way. The Famous Five does not harbour any complex, dark or distressing themes; it’s four kids and a dog on a series of exciting adventures. And that’s all it needs to be.
The other book I picked up was actually the one I went in there for in the first place. My sister and I were both huge Jacqueline Wilson fans, with many strewn across either of our bedrooms at any given time. As a kid, I remember loving them, reading them in one day, and then over and over again, keeping my favourites wedged in the crevice between my bed and pink wall to read when I was meant to be sleeping. Only now when I think back to some of those stories do I realise that – in jarring contrast to the sunny tales of The Famous Five – Jacqueline Wilson books were pretty disturbing. I remember one of them – “Vicky Angel” – was about a girl whose best friend was killed by getting hit by a car. Pretty intense stuff for kids. But they were irrefutably brilliant; I won’t have anyone say a bad word about Jacqueline Wilson. My favourite of hers was “Lola Rose” – the one I picked up from the shelf in Waterstones. Even before reading it again all these years later, I could have told you the exact storyline, even down to the little brother’s favourite flavour ice lolly. I must have read it easily around 20 times. Which is why I wanted to reread it and rake up my youthful memories. I figured it would be interesting to see if it were any different from an adult-perspective as opposed to a kid’s. I remembered the themes were equally intense: an abusive father, the mother and kids being running away and changing their names, and the constant fear of him finding them…
Reading this again in just one afternoon, I can confirm that it was just as dark as I remembered it being. Weirdly enough through, in my memories I don’t remember the Mum in the story as villainous. The Dad was the antagonist – obviously – but as a kid, I didn’t see any issues with the Mother’s behaviour in the book. Which is concerning – because she was an awful Mother. I have a feeling her character was meant to be multifaceted; a nod to the fact that Mother’s aren’t all angels, saints, and superheroes. They’re human after all. But, honestly, even knowing that, and knowing the effect domestic abuse can have on someone – I just couldn’t empathise with the Mother at all. It was clear that Jayni – or Lola Rose as she later became known – was the real Mother-figure in the book, having to step up to take care of both her Mum and little brother, while her Mother was irresponsible with money, careless with men, reckless with safety and parenting, and unreliable always. To my surprise, I had completely forgotten a whole character in the many years since I last read it: Auntie Barbara, who actually became my favourite character, swooping in to save the day; responsible, stable, and strong, taking the heavy baton from poor Lola Rose, who had obviously had to grow up too fast to substitute for the weaknesses of her Mum.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading some of my old favourites. They gave me the comforting nostalgia of reading familiar stories I knew so well, but – since I was reading from a new, older perspective – they also provided an echo of a brand new tale as I read with different viewpoints, thoughts, and opinions on the same loved books. I will definitely be reading more of my past favourites, and I would recommend it to others as well!
It’s a lovely escape from the horrors of adult-ing!