Monday 16 March 2015

The books that made me by Paula Harrison

Things change a lot between the ages of eight and twelve. I didn't move schools or travel across the world. Not much had happened on the outside, but even so I was a different person with a different outlook at twelve compared to who I'd been four years earlier. As I spent a huge amount of that time with my head in a book, it wasn't really surprising that the stories had affected me greatly.

One of the books with a big impact on me was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I'd read a lot of Enid Blyton around the ages of six and seven and I'd loved The Enchanted Wood series, but Alan Garner's book opened up a more rounded fantasy world to me that seemed at once really strange and really familiar. I love the slant on the King Arthur legend which forms the backbone to the story and the way the author makes it his own. The sheer scope of the story world that Alan Garner invented was an absolute eye opener to me as a child. It was one of the books that began my love of fantasy and showed me how a writer can use fantasy to say things that are relevant to the world we live - things about people's motivations, about greed, loyalty, self-sacrifice and endurance.
I also love the escape motif. Susan and Colin, the children at the centre of the book, spend a great deal of the story trying to evade capture. This book has a page-turning quality that stands up beside the faster-paced middle grade novels of today, which is not something you can say for all the classics.

This brings me nicely on to The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. I could have lived inside this book forever. I read the whole sequence of books and loved the ones involving the Drew children too, but this one is my favourite. I have re-read it many, many times.
Like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, I love the fact that this is fantasy within our real everyday world. Susan Cooper is an expert at brewing atmosphere. She creates a feeling of menace that had me hiding under my covers long after I'd put down the book and switched off the light. If you haven't read them, I recommend starting with the first book, Over Sea Under Stone, and reading all five books in order, finishing with Silver on the Tree. Cooper sets up the battle between good and evil, drawing on mythology and the English landscape throughout history. The time slip passages are woven neatly into the narrative.

I did have a varied reading diet, though, and when I wasn't feasting on fantasy, I loved school stories. The Chalet School series was my absolute favourite. Jo Bettany (who always got called Jo-seph-ine when she was doing something outrageous) is such a brilliant character - impulsive and mischievous but with a strong sense of right and wrong. It seems odd, in a way, that they chimed so much with me. Maybe I found the Austrian setting alluring - it was a long way from my everyday life. I was born in Bletchley (home to the code-breakers) and lived in a small town all through my childhood. Nothing seemed more tempting than being in a school in the Alps and having a meal called "Kaffe und Kuchen". In amongst the tales of sports matches and pranks, there's one book where the girls have to escape from the Nazis on foot in a Sound of Music-esque way. I remember so clearly reading about the teacher, Miss Wilson, whose hair turns white overnight from the stress of the escape.

I could add lots and lots of other books to this blog piece, from The Lord of the Rings to Anne of Green Gables. The best thing is that I found so many books that I loved that I didn't stop reading them when I passed twelve. Middle grade books became a long term passion for me and I believe this is a great time for UK children's books with excellent new stories coming into the book shops all the time.
Of course my reading then had an enormous impact on me as a writer. In particular, I never let go of my fascination with fantasy set in our everyday world. I love that lifting of the veil, where a fantasy dimension is revealed showing the characters and readers something they never knew was there. I'm very proud that my own fantasy middle grade novel, Red Moon Rising, will be released on the 2nd April. The main character, Laney, discovers that she is part of a secret community of faeries living as if they're humans. They belong to tribes with powers over water, air, plants, animals or fire. Laney awakens to her new identity on the night of a blood-red moon and this instantly makes her an object of suspicion. She sees a dark figure searching the graveyard and has to try to figure out what all of it means.
I'd like to thank Lisa Evans for an awesome cover, and my publisher Nosy Crow for believing in my book.

So, what books made you?


  1. Oh, we would have been such good friends (if I had dragged my nose out of a book long enough to talk to you!) I still recommend the Dark is Rising saga to children and adults as an extraordinary example of thrilling, well-written children's literature with deep meanings and high stakes. And I reread Anne of Green Gables on a regular basis. I also adored The Phantom Toll Booth, Watership Down, and Newbery winner Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight. I can't wait to check out Red Moon Rising!

  2. Thank you Kateywrites! I love how these books have become old friends. I also enjoyed The Phantom Toll Booth and Watership Down immensely. I haven't read Dicey's Song - I will have to get hold of a copy!