Thursday, 27 May 2010

Treasured memories

WHEN I was small, my late grandfather bought me a book he insisted I read. It was a book he'd loved all his life and he wanted to share it with his young grandson. He was nearing 80 when he gave me it as a present one Christmas. I don't think he was much of a reader but clearly this book had made enough of an impression on him to want to pass it on to another generation.

That Christmas morning - I think it was 1975, so I would have been seven - I eagerly tore off the wrapping paper to reveal the book in its glossy dust jacket showing a pirate and a ship in the distance.

The book was Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

Is it a children's book? I don't know, but what I do know is that I devoured it, swept away on Stevenson's magical storytelling. I was scared witless by Blind Pugh, the Black Spot and the sense of anxiety created in anticipation of Long John Silver. For those few hours I was reading, I was Jim Hawkins.

My admiration for Stevenson's storytelling genius and my love of that book have not dimmed over the years and I've re-read it at least twice. I still have that copy, now minus its dust jacket and looking as if it's been stuck for years at the bottom of a long-forgotten treasure chest, but it is still one of my most prized possessions.
It's a lovely connection with my grandfather, who died in 1978 aged 82, and one day I intend introducing it to my own children.

My daughter and I are working our way through the works of Michael Morpurgo (our current favourite author) and I was thrilled to discover that he was influenced at an early age by Stevenson and Treasure Island.

What an amazing book that it still continues to weave its magic.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

BBC1's talent show Over The Rainbow largely overlooks the fact the musical was based on a children's book by L Frank Baum.

Don't get me wrong, my family and I have been hooked on Andrew Lloyd Webber's hunt for a girl to play Dorothy in a new West End production of The Wizard of Oz.
A number of the contestants are from the north west of England and live in the circulation areas of several newspapers I work for, so that has been an added interest. But little if no mention of Baum has been made.

The BBC rectifies this with a special documentary this weekend. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The True Story is being shown on BBC4 on Sunday. It looks good, too.

Baum's ambition was to write America's first real fairy tale. And that's pretty much what he did. Of course the film has played a major role in cementing the iconography of the story in our consciousness. Nevertheless, all the key ingredients - the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Yellow Brick Road - all these were Baum's creation.

Baum was one of those great 19th century figures who tried all sorts before discovering their true vocations. He'd been a poultry breeder, a newspaper editor and man of the theatre. Then he picked up his pen to become a children's author and struck gold - or yellow brick, more precisely.

What's perhaps not very well known is that Baum wrote a string of books set in the 'merry old land of Oz'. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the one still read the most today, naturally.

One extra fact I'll share with you.

Last summer my family and I visited my brother who lives in San Diego and paid a visit to the Hotel del Coronado, which is on Coronado island, reached via an amazing mile-long, curving bridge. It's an impressive historic hotel, boasting turrets and spires. It's said that L Frank Baum got the idea for the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz from the hotel when he was living in the area.

You might be familiar with the hotel, too - it was used by Billy Wilder in the movie Some Like It Hot.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The making of Robert Westall

WHEN I was 12 and just starting at secondary school, my class had a session where the school librarian, Miss Larsson, introduced us to the school library.
She showed us around the building and introduced us to the Dewey Decimal system and how to find things. Most of us were pretty much bored by this.

But as a reward she sat us down and read us the first couple of chapters from a book to whet our appetites.
By the end of those chapters we were all on the edge of our seats, desperate to know what happened next.
'We only have one copy of the book, so you'll have to sign your name in the log book and wait your turn to read it,' she said. By the time I inked in my name, there were already at least a dozen names ahead of mine. I was never going to read the book at that rate!

The story that had so captivated us was Robert Westall's debut novel and Carnegie Medal-winning The Machine Gunners.
I eventually did read the book and discovered a wonderful writer who has remained one of my favourites through life. I recently read Blitzcat for the first time and was completely drawn into Westall's world.

I currently live close to where he spent the last few years of his life, Lymm in Cheshire, and a few years ago I wrote a magazine article about him, which I reproduce here. I hope you enjoy it.

I plan to write some more about this brilliant, prolific children's author shortly, so watch this space!