We are made, I think, just as much by our experiences as our DNA. The places you go, the TV you watch, the people you meet and the books you read have just as important an impact on the making of you. March 1996 drew a thick line down my childhood. Whereas I started my life in a London suburb, I spent my teen years in Galway, on the West coast of Ireland.
Before 12, before the move, I was an avid reader of “real” stories – stories set in this world with people like you and me. Some historical, some present-day, and an awful lot of them either Enid Blyton, Sweet Valley or Goosebumps. I don’t remember many of them well, though I was certainly already an avid reader.
I remember the books I read after the move much better, perhaps because I had access to more (mum never let me go out alone in our London suburb, whereas I was given free rein of Galway from fairly early on), perhaps because I didn’t meet up with friends as often so I read more. Who knows. In so many ways my life is defined by that move, that transition.
As a homesick 12-year-old in a new country, navigating a new school system, new culture, new everything, finding the library nestled among the medieval buildings and cobbled streets of Galway city, was like a home-coming. Here, amongst books, my accent didn’t matter, my uncoolness didn’t matter, my lack of close friends didn’t matter. All those worries melted away when I was ensconced between the pages of a book. The library grounded me, helped me to feel safe. And I visited the children’s section for long after I felt embarrassed to admit to it, glancing around furtively to ensure no-one I recognised was close by before going through the doors that separated the adult and children’s collections.
The library was also the gateway to another world and a new genre I’d never considered before. In the UK I’d had school friends who told me of the Narnia books and “the Alana books” as they referred to them (Tamora Pierce’s Song of The Lioness series, I think) but fantasy just didn’t interest me, pre-1996.
That changed when I came across the wealth of Irish fiction based on Celtic myth and legend in the library and bookshops of Galway. I looked at the mysterious, otherworldly cover pictures and read the intriguing blurbs. I couldn’t fail to be wooed by the stories of teens finding ancient treasures that awaken ancient evils, travelling back thousands of years to a time of clashing swords and powerful magic, or slipping between worlds to visit faerie. I devoured it all.
I read Michael Scott, whos teens walked the steps of Skellig Michel, slipped through time and found themselves in an ancient Atlantis full of magic wielders and lizard-kings. I read Cormac MacRaois, who’s charismatic scarecrow has a forever home in my heart. I read The Hounds of The Morrigan by Pat O’Shea, an epic adventure set in my home county of Galway. I read O. R. Melling’s perfect blends of magic and adventure and romance. I read Mary Regan, Siobhan Parkinson, Kate Thompson, Susan Cooper (A British author but I’m counting it because she blends Arthurian legend with Celtic mythology).
On top of library visits, I slowly built up a personal horde of books by Irish authors, by traipsing regularly through the many bookshops and charity shops if Galway. I found and loved non-fantasy fiction too. I read the Kevin and Sadie series by Joan Lingard, Mary Arrigan’s novels, Flight of the Doves, the Spider & Judith series, Under the Hawthorn Tree, and more, many of them published by Attic Press or O’Brien books.
These books were for me a way to connect with my new home country. Born and brought up in the UK to Irish parents I had always felt not “fully” British, and a little bit Irish. After all, all my relations were Irish, many of their interests were Irish and we visited Ireland regularly, almost every year.
But I quickly found my new Irish school mates didn’t agree. My accent and place of birth marked me out as English and that was that. Almost everything about me marked me out as “other” and thus “wrong”. I couldn’t speak a word of Irish, I hadn’t had my Confirmation yet (a Catholic ceremony taken by most Irish kids in the last year of primary school and by UK Catholics around age 14). I didn’t know the right lingo. I didn’t watch the right TV shows. I didn’t know the celebs or sports stars.
I would have liked to more quickly assimilate – but there was no option for new arrivals to learn Irish – we had to sit at the back of the class and study quietly instead. And I couldn’t take up Irish dancing unless I wanted to join the 5-year-olds. I didn’t like sport – Irish or otherwise – so that was out too.
Every day, over and over, I was reminded that I was an outsider. And I had no idea if or when I might ever be allowed in.
I was also an awkward, shy youngster who got easily embarrassed. Talking to new people was stressful. But books… books took me in, accepted me for what I was. Taught me about my new home without judgement, without harassment.
I’m a Vegetarian, by Bernadette Leech, held – still holds – a special place in my heart. It followed Vanessa, a girl who, like me, moved to Ireland from the UK and feels out of place, trying to make friends and make sense of her new home. I had no-one in my real life in the same situation as me and I felt so lucky to have stumbled on a book character who had the same cultural reference points as me, who worried as I worried, who was figuring out how to fit in in a whole new world as I was, all on top of the usual 12- and 13-year-old concerns.
I visited the library most weeks to find something new to read. You were only allowed 2 books at a time, which was a horrifying thought to me, used to the UK libraries where you can take 10 or more. My brother signed up too and as he would rather kick a ball than read a book, I took his card, doubling my allowance. Four books would tide me over if I had to wait a few weeks between visits.
I found books by UK and other authors too: Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, enthralled me as it has done millions of readers. Adrian Mole’s diaries, which kept me company not only in my teens but throughout my life, until Susan Townsend’s sad passing in 2014. Robert Cormier’s gritty and often beautiful books (I bought my own copy of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway to keep forever.) Wonderful authors like Madeline L’Engle, Philip Pullman, Mildred D Taylor, Garth Nix, Robert Swindells, Diana Wynne Jones, Jostein Gaarder (Remember Sophie’s World? It was a huge hit.), David Almond, Lian Hearn. And so many more. And yes I did eventually read Narnia.
These literary experiences formed me just as much as my family and relationships, my school lessons and my TV and music choices. Possibly more so. In these books I found compassion, love, adventure, hope, community, justice, bravery, freedom vs duty – not to mention great magic, ancient prophecy, demons, goddesses, warriors, battles external and internal, good vs evil – all taken on and beaten by children with good hearts and a whole lot of pluck. Very reassuring to an almost-teen doing her best to navigate a strange new world.