How has what you read as a child shaped you as a writer? This question was at the heart of an evening hosted by Riposte magazine and Sonder & Tell, which I was lucky enough to go along to earlier this month.
Their Stories That Shape Us series seeks to explore how reading has shaped the voices of women writers. The launch focused on the theme of childhood and invited three writers to read from their favourite childhood book, followed by a piece of their own writing, and culminating in a panel discussion about their chosen pieces of writing and early literary influences.
The idea that ‘childhood shapes who we become’ is something I think about on an almost daily basis. Working in-house at the NSPCC, it’s a theme that’s always front of my mind – a source of inspiration, drive and, at times, sadness. It often leads me to think about my own childhood, and how lucky I am to have grown up in a nurturing, safe environment. But, strangely enough, I’ve never quite extended this train of thought to how the books I devoured as a child might have shaped my voice as a writer. I was keen to hear from three people who have done just that:
A common theme for each writer was the importance of finding a book which felt like it was speaking directly to them. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, deputy editor of gal-dem magazine, found a sense of solidarity in the writing of Jackie Kay. Her experience of moving from a diverse London neighbourhood to an almost entirely white Edinburgh primary school chimed with Kay’s own experiences and observations. While the fantastic, magical worlds created by Margaret Mahy appealed to the young Rosalind Jana’s imagination.
For trans activist and author Charlie Craggs, Caroline Cossey’s autobiography – detailing her life before, during and after transitioning – was a lifeline which Charlie only wishes she’d discovered sooner. For Charlie, childhood reading was marred from high school onwards by the pressure to read ‘boy books’ rather than authors like Jacqueline Wilson who had been an early favourite. At one point she admitted, “I feel like a fraud, being here! I barely read as a kid.” Feeling like she wasn’t allowed to be who she wanted to be, led to feeling like she couldn’t read what she wanted to read.
That freedom and opportunity for children to read what they want is so important. As members of an organisation with a mission ‘to inspire a greater love of words’, I’m sure you’ll agree that the earlier that love starts, the better. But of course, childhood reading is about more than the words. The stories we read, and the storytellers we meet, shape us. Not only as writers, but as people.