What makes a child become a compulsive reader? A lifelong addict of fiction, Francis Spufford looks back in this absorbing memoir to the origins and progress of his love affair with books.
Children's authors often claim to write "for the child I once was", or "the child I still am". The spark for their writing is the need to keep connections and continuities alive between their past and present selves. In The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford does the same thing from a reader's standpoint, and the exercise is so rewarding that it seems strange no one has done it so thoroughly before.
Escape and refuge were the key to the young Spufford's readerly beginnings. His sister Bridget, three years younger, was gravely and chronically ill. The family's ills were compounded when Spufford's mother developed osteoporosis at an early age. Growing up in a scene of ceaseless medical emergency, the young Francis "made a bargain that limited, so I thought, the power over me that real experience had", and won a second life in books.
As time went on, reading provided escape from more familiar if equally unpleasant realities. Spufford's adolescence shows reading as his refuge - as it is for so many bright, rebellious, disaffected teenagers - from the physical coarseness and lack of privacy of boarding-school life.
Yet the need for escape, however strong, is always secondary in Spufford's readerly memoir. The young Spufford enjoyed some of the classic conditions for making readers, not all of them negative or painful. Born in 1964, he became an independent reader in the early 1970s, a "golden age" of children's literature. The names come off the pages like a litany: William Mayne, Peter Dickinson, Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Penelope Farmer, Rosemary Sutcliff.
They were days when "to be young" (and a reader) "was very heaven". As an infant, he was read to, and recalls early encounters with Shirley Hughes and Maurice Sendak.
There was no television at home. Instead, young Spufford enjoyed the freedom of Newcastle-under-Lyme children's library, ferried to and fro on the free bus from Keele University, where his parents taught.
Unusually, Spufford was happy to read books commonly regarded as "for girls": Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, and especially Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, which form one of two detailed, fascinating retrospects (the other is on Narnia) on enthusiasms revisited from the sophisticated perspective of an adult critic.
He can now review the recent questioning of Wilder's naive integrity, just as he can perceive the hotch-potch of tastes and prejudices that make up Narnia, but the books and the first experience survive, landmarks in a life.
Spufford came late and slowly to the classics. In adolescence, he turned instead to science fiction, attributing his taste to a continuing need for story. Not so. Science fiction (notably Ursula le Guin's The Dispossessed) provided him, as it does many adolescents, with a theatre of ideas, at a stage when subversive theories and abstractions are newly intoxicating.
Even so, the need for story is at the book's heart. Friends who came late to literature, he notes, "developed almost no appetite... for story". But the great reward of early reading is exactly this - the sense, so strong in Spufford and those like him, of one's own life, too, as a narrative: "a story among stories".
Next week sees book events nationwide to celebrate Bedtime Reading Week (which starts on Monday, March 11, details on www.bedtimereadingweek.co.uk) and World Book Day on Thursday March 14 (ideas and resources for schools: www.worldbookday.com)