Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan – Review

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By Rachael Popow

I don’t just have fond memories of my favourite children’s books, I still have a lot of the actual books – many of them were ‘temporarily’ stored in my parents’ loft when I went to university and are still there 20 years later.

So, I’m definitely in the target audience for Lucy Mangan’s warm, funny Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading. Although it’s partly about her experiences of growing up as a member of a northern family exiled in London, it is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with her love affair with books and the power of children’s literature.

It’s a journey that begins with picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came To Tea (although Mangan admits she was so fond of boundaries and domestic tranquillity that she found the idea of an animal inviting itself to tea more alarming than exciting – no wonder she couldn’t get on board with the anarchy of The Cat In The Hat) and progresses all the way to what we would now call young adult fiction.

“Open new worlds”

bookworm a memoir of childhood reading lucy mangan book review coverMangan is passionate about the writers she loves, but she isn’t uncritical. She’s particularly good on Enid Blyton, whose appeal to young readers she compares with being an adult and opting for an episode of Law & Order: SVU over a BBC Two political documentary – sometimes, you just want to know exactly what you’re getting and not have to think about it too hard.

But while she praises Blyton for showing that reading doesn’t have to be a slog, Mangan still addresses the accusations of snobbery, racism and sexism that have been levelled at the author, suggesting that it’s no bad thing that some of her more controversial works are no longer in print.

She also makes a convincing case for the importance of diversity in books and a child’s need to see their own experiences reflected, while also talking about the way that reading can open new worlds for you, expanding your mind – and vocabulary. Mangan may be all for quietly removing some of the more troubling adjectives from Blyton’s books, but she’s against updating the language to make it more ‘understandable’ to today’s readers. As she points out, even if a 21st-century youngster has never heard of a school tunic, they can usually work out what it means from the context without the publisher changing it to uniform.

“Nostalgic rush”

I have to say though that there were very few references I didn’t get in Bookworm. As well as sharing Mangan’s love of reading, I’m of a similar age and it seems, as a kid at least, very similar tastes. Unlike her, I never had a pony book phase, but otherwise my reading progression was along the same lines – Where the Wild Thing Are, Blyton, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, the classics such as The Secret Garden and What Katy Did, boarding school stories, books about nuclear Armageddon (even though I found those more worrying than Mangan found The Cat in the Hat) and then Judy Blume’s tales of puberty. Bookworm even jogged my memory about a few titles I’d forgotten, including Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister books and The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright.

Perhaps it wouldn’t strike such a chord with someone who wasn’t reading Puffin paperbacks in the 1980s or had never heard of The Chalet School. But if you have fond memories of losing yourself in a book as a child, then you are likely to get a nostalgic rush from this memoir.

And while Bookworm definitely made me want to raid my parents’ loft for some old favourites, it also made me want to go back and fill a few gaps in my own childhood reading – based on this book, I’ve downloaded The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. You’re never too old for a good children’s book.

‘Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading’ by Lucy Mangan is published by Square Peg, £14.99 hardback


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