Tuesday 22 September 2015

The magic of children's books: how one good story can change your life

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a wrestler. I had it all planned out. I would be called Zero, and my finishing move would be the ULTIMATE ZERO, and naturally the commentators would shout it because it was just that awesome.

Then I wanted to make video games, before I found American football and dreamed of becoming an NFL player.

At no point did I want to be a writer. Books took too long to get through. They were boring. They felt like work at a time when all I wanted to do was play Grand Theft Auto or Final Fantasy VII.

And then Harry Potter happened. It was published when I was 11, right in the prime of my I-hate-books mentality, when I was running round in the playground acting out video games and sprinting home to spend hours playing them when the bell rang.

It was there in my room when I got home from school one day, as if (excuse me) by magic. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I took one look at it, and threw it aside. It looked rubbish. It had a train on the front. There were LOADS of words inside it. I went back to playing on the PlayStation.

But that evening, under the glow of the bedside light, I read the blurb on the back cover. I turned it over, and opened it up to the first line. I read the second line, and the third, and soon there was no stopping me. Like so many others – kids who hated reading, kids who loved it – J. K. Rowling took my hand and led me to Hogwarts, and it blew my mind.

One of my favourite posts on Middle Grade Strikes Back so far is S. F. Said’s piece on the best books of the 21st century. The BBC created a poll, and there were no children’s books on it – just one example among many of children’s books being neglected in the media.

S. F. Said argued that: “books like Watership Down and The Jungle Books, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials have proved again and again that children's literature is really just literature, transcending every kind of label.”

But I would go so far as to suggest that children’s books are more than just literature. They carry with them a unique magic: the ability to change your life; to redefine who you are and the kind of person you can become. I would never be an author if it wasn't for finding J. K. Rowling's story. I wouldn't even be a reader.

I’ve got a lot of friends who don’t read. They’re sportsmen and gamers and TV fans and movie lovers, and they just don’t get on with reading. The only difference between us is that I found the right book when I was a kid, and they didn’t.

Harry Potter opened the door onto a whole world of stories – books like Skellig, which I would never have read if not for Hogwarts; books like The Graveyard Book and the His Dark Materials series and Percy Jackson.

Every single book I’ve ever read for pleasure, every children’s story, every adult novel, is all because I found Harry Potter at precisely the right time. Hogwarts might not be for everyone, but if it’s not, then something else will be. It’s just a matter of finding it.

That’s the true magic of children’s books: kids read them at the most important time in their lives. The things they see, the things they watch, the things they experience when they’re progressing through Year Five and Six and through to Seven and Eight, they’re the things that define them.

No video game, for me, has ever been as good as Final Fantasy VII, which I played when I was 11. It carved out a glowing legacy and is the bar by which every game I play is measured against.

A game might be good, but is it FFVII good?

I can’t remember what I did at the weekend, but I can remember the delight I felt when my friends and I nailed the exact lyrics to a Spice Girls song, and killed it on the last day of Year Five.

You remember your school days forever. The best lessons, the teachers (good and bad), the friends, the enemies, they’re a highlight reel stapled to your soul – and the books you read then are remembered with the same fondness. They help make you you.

That’s not to say that children’s books are only for children. They’re not. The best children’s books are for adults too. Grown-ups can, and indeed should, read them. Not just as a way of getting their kids reading, but for their own enjoyment. Nowhere is literature more exciting.

As C. S. Lewis once said, “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” 



  1. I read them in my second year teaching as the children were all so enthusiastic about them. I had never experienced so many pupils discussing a book. I loved them as an adult and my children do now too.

    1. It's amazing, isn't it? One of the first things I do when I go to schools is ask how many people have read Harry Potter, and every hand shoots up... 17 years on and still changing lives.