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What are you reading? Children’s books for World Book Day

In honour of World Book Day on March 4 2021, the University of Derby’s Creative Writing and Publishing academics remember books that meant something to them in childhood.

By The Corporate Communications Team - 3 March 2021

David Barker, Senior Lecturer in Publishing 

A book that I remember vividly from my childhood is Brendon Chase—published in the 1940s by Hollis and Carter, and then republished in the late 1970s by Methuen (which was when I came across the book). I remember standing in the bookshop, a branch of Hammicks in Windsor, and being grabbed by this book, its cover, its promise of adventure and also the peculiar name of the author, which was simply: BB.   

BB, it turns out, was a writer called Denys Watkins-Pitchford. An art teacher at Rugby School, Watkins-Pitchford had won the Carnegie Medal in 1942 for his book The Little Grey Men. Home-schooled as a child because he was considered so fragile, he fell in love with the natural world and became a talented illustrator, going to Northampton School of Art and then the Royal College of Art in London. And it was the beautiful illustrations in the novel, as well as the writing, which captivated me. 
The novel is a pure blast of outdoorsy escapism. Three brothers (Robin, John and Harold) decide to run away from home instead of returning to boarding school for the term, and the book follows their escapades as they spend months living wild in the forest (Brendon Chase). They do things that were unimaginable to me, as a bored and cautious 10-year-old in the Berkshire suburbs. They build dens, they hunt, they fish, they avoid capture by the authorities, and more. Did I want to run away from home? A little bit, yes. But did this book, written 36 years before I discovered it, quench my thirst for adventure and living wild? Absolutely! 
Brendon Chase (2016) by BB. 

Adrian Buckner, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing 

When I was in what is now known as Year 7, I read Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh. It was published in 1969 by Puffin Books—the children’s section of Penguin. In those confidently hierarchical days, this denoted high quality. Jill Paton Walsh is perhaps best known now for her Booker prize nominated Knowledge of Angels. However, she was a supreme writer of children’s fiction and my re-reading of Fireweed last year raised all kinds of questions for me about the distinctions we make about who a book is for and at what age they should read it. 

Fireweed enthralled me at the time, with its tale of two youngsters thrown together to fend for themselves during the London blitz. There were still relatively young adults around me back then (the early 70s) who would talk about that period of history. This book made it come alive for me. On re-reading I appreciated how beautifully subtle it was—the feelings that the slightly younger boy has for his female friend that he is not able to quite understand. And alongside these fresh insights, utterly undimmed was my sense of writing that was perfectly pitched for children in the early years of secondary school, but compromised nothing in literary craft and regard for the intelligence of its young readership. 
Fireweed (1969) by Jill Paton Walsh 

Child reading a book
Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

Dr Matthew Cheeseman, Associate Professor of Creative Writing 

I don’t really have a strong sense of childhood; or rather I don’t think about it often. There’s no book here that makes me go, yes, that’s the one! I’m sure there were plenty that moved and excited me; it’s just that I’ve forgotten them and with lockdown there’s no checking the attic at my parent’s house. 

This is, by way of apologising for my choice, an odd one. It’s an out-of-print picture book titled Weird and Wonderful Weaponry. I don’t think we ever had a copy, but remember it from a library, maybe even school, sitting with the annuals and oversize picture books published by the likes of Usborne and Octopus. I was fascinated by its catalogue of extraordinary pistols, cannons and missiles. It used to be me wearing the helmet gun, bearing the curved German Krummlauf, which could shoot bullets round corners. The chapter on rockets does stick in my memory; it had a thirteenth century Mongolian rocket-battery and a weaponised wooden hare. 
Perhaps I only saw it once or twice, who knows. I found it again second-hand a few years ago and eagerly handed over the cash. I’m looking at it now, a curiously deathless book, filled with the blanket allure of technology. I wouldn’t really know what to think if I saw a young person reading it today. It’s certainly not about sharing or building community. Someday perhaps my child will catch a glimpse and I will study their reaction. 
Weird and Wonderful Weaponry (1975) by Major EN Hebden. 

Dr Moy McCrory, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing

Growing up in a working class and immigrant family, I’ve observed how negative attitudes towards us did not always hit the intended mark, to humiliate and silence, but informed and challenged our reactions, and so it is with books.  
One which stands out is The Irish Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, an American woman who in the 1920s shrewdly produced a ‘twins’ story annually, dipping into different national backgrounds like a great pick-and-mix. As a child I couldn’t get enough of The Twins; Chinese, Eskimo (sic), Japanese, Dutch, always the same formula. Through them I learnt varied folklore, social differences and I identified with Moonflower, the girl who runs away to attend school, showing how a modern China was adapting to change.  
In a bookless home, copies came from school and library, but The Irish Twins, a worn, damaged copy from the class raffle, came to stay. It sat on an empty ledge like a warning. And it was that tale which showed me for the first time that not everything in books was accurate, that writers did not know us better than ourselves, no matter how educated or well-intentioned they were.  
I have a copy now from a second-hand bookstore, the English name of its first child owner inked inside. First published in 1922, this story of immigration to America, of absentee landowners and rent-hikes struck a chord in the Irish American community. It is not just because the books were always out of date that these twins, bare footed, every second word ‘musha’ and their pale version of the Deidre myth, did not go down well in my family.

We had our own savage retellings of displacement and long-memorised privations balanced against the crack and hilarity of living. But The Irish Twins, and a primary school teacher who said that ‘none of you will ever write books’ as she gave out dogeared prizes like a benediction, are key memories which nudged my urge to write, to put on the page the world as I knew it, and not as others imagined it for me.  
The Irish Twins (2018) by Lucy Fitch Perkins. 




About the author

The Corporate Communications Team
University Press and PR

The Corporate Communications Team manage the University's Press and PR, putting forward academics, support staff and student representatives for 'expert comment' on different topics to local and national broadcast media. The team is highly experienced in communications and journalism - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as in-house and agency public relations.