Books we knew before we could read

Child reading

"There is always one moment in childhood", wrote that modern master of the soulful soundbite, Kahlil Gibran, "when the door opens and lets the future in." For me, that moment occurred around age four, when at dinner one night I discovered that our kitchen table had a drawer underneath it, and proceeded to use it to hide my crusts, just as the eponymous heroine had in my bedtime book, My Naughty Little Sister And Bad Harry by Dorothy Edwards and Shirley Hughes. I was promptly spotted, roundly rebuked, and refused pudding, which set the pattern for my lifetime: ineptly modelling my own behaviour on attractively intractable literary characters (My Naughty Little Sister remains a favourite muse), reaping dissatisfaction, disillusion and despair, but persisting nonetheless, despite the repeated lack of real, and metaphorical, cornflake tart.

But what is interesting is that this formative experience was inspired by a book that I couldn't even read. A couple of years ago, National Children's Book Week prompted plenty of nostalgic Guardian Unlimited discussion about influential childhood literature, but of course these were the ones we consumed as voracious little bookworms, already in thrall to the freedom and power we found in their internal, imaginative worlds. I'm well aware that my current reading tastes are still moulded by my early love for Rosemary SutcliffAlan Garner, Robert Jarvis and Willard Price(although it can be difficult to find adult books with a generous helping of ancient druids, Bengal tigers and warrior mice), but I rarely wonder about the impact of the very first books that hit my brain.

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