The first book I ever read was called Are You My Mother. Written by PD Eastman, it was a 60-page epic thriller of laughter, tears, drama, plot twists and a heartwarming ending that I won’t spoil for you lest you’ve not read it and want to be thrilled by this baby bird’s journey of self-discovery. I was 2 1/2 when I first read it, to the surprise and disbelief of my mother, who assumed that I had just memorised the sound of her reading, as opposed to knowing what a (spoiler alert) snort was. Yet there I was on my little wooden chair with the seat woven out of banana leaves, dying to find out if the little bird found his mother. If I could pinpoint a moment in time where my love affair with books began, it would be right then with the little orphan bird on the wooden stool.
I had every single Dr Seuss book, devouring his rhymes like Sam-I-am and green eggs and ham. The Lorax made me environmentally aware, the Sneetches on the Beaches taught me about the ridiculousness of racial segregation, the Cat in the Hat was a bit of a twat, but he always cleaned up before Mummy got home so that was alright. My favourite was Oh The Places You’ll Go, the little person in the brightly coloured balloon still relevant today. My parents, both massive readers indulged me, and I suspect secretly enjoyed the chance to read with me, though I read alone most of the time. Being an only child grants you that privilege of not having snot-nosed siblings demanding I build a snowman (or a sandcastle, as the case may be). It was just me and my books.
Then came proper novels. No more shiny hardcovers, kid-proofed so that bite marks were at a minimum and marker can be wiped right off, but real paperbacks with real pages that were at real risk of the food I’d eat at the same time I read. Left hand holding up the book, right hand holding the fork, mouth towards the plate, eyes on the page amirite? This was when I started my Roald Dahl collection and found a kindred spirit in Matilda (at least where books were concerned). I read Rudyard Kipling and learnt about how armadillos came to be. I solved mysteries with The Famous Five and Nancy Drew, I babysat with the Babysitter’s Club (that Kristy was a bossypants, right?), and Dame Jacqueline Wilson taught me more about family life than I think real life has. And the classics! I wasn’t a mild-mannered 7 year old with glasses, I was journeying to the centre of the world, I was defeating pirates, the 5th musketeer, the 5th little woman, I painted fences and sailed down the river with negroes in the South.
And then it came.
The book to end all books.
I was that kid. All my friends were. We knew the spells, rode the broomsticks, whispered Voldemort in case he could hear us. We got the books on the day they were released. I’m still waiting for my Hogwarts letter, and if you’re a Harry Potter fan and you say you’re over that then you’re a damn liar. Just like Matilda, I found a kindred spirit in Hermione. I was a know-it-all with bushy hair and bucked teeth (hers were fixed by magic, mine by braces), I loved reading and learning and in her world, she was treated with respect for that. I remember being told I’d go to Hell for reading it, but I didn’t care. The books were ultimately about a battle between good and evil and good always prevailed, as did love – familial, platonic or romantic. A message as old as time and as important now as is it ever was and ever will be.
This was probably when my love of science fiction and fantasy began to grow. My mum (who I’m pretty sure passed on the nerd gene to me) got me the Lord of The Rings trilogy to read before the movies came out. I was just entering secondary school, a strict place with a banned book list as long as I was tall, but that didn’t stop me. I read on the bus to school and hid in corners. My friends brought their own books and traded under the table like a black market library. In assembly we read Leviticus; in the canteen we read Tolkein, Nix, Wynne Jones and Pratchett. Phillip Pullman wrote a trilogy that made my mind expand, my heart break and my eyes water, which I think everyone should read. This was when I started reading comic books and mangas too: DC and Marvel, Shonen Jump and Kodansha. I “took a break” between novels to read Fruits Basket, Full Metal Alchemist, Ouran Host Club, and in between those I read Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman. My bookshelf numbered in the hundreds.
I got older, I got conscious. Started off with To Kill A Mockingbird when I was 15 as part of my booklist (and if you recognised the title as a quote from there, then well done you!). Scout was me when I was her age; precocious, messy and a reader. I read Shakespeare with my dad and learned about the immortality of words. I read Things Fall Apart and suddenly there was a whole new continent of writers to explore. Purple Hibiscus introduced me to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her culture, so different to mine yet so similar. I found out why the caged bird sang with Maya Angelou and cried at the injustice. I left one country and came to another, and read of immigrants like me. I was introduced to a new caliber of novels, to violence in a Clockwork Orange, to peaceful pasts and hopeful futures in the Kite Runner, to unrealistic realism in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a raft with a tiger. I attempted to read Salman Rushdie many many many times. YA fiction inspired me; John Green broke my heart and mended it many times. Suzanne Collins told me to fight back against oppression. Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite writers and I will someday write a love letter to him about all his works. Twilight, for all its faults, got more people to read so I can’t deny Stephanie Meyer her due.
And now I am an adult. If someone asked me what I read I’d say simply “books”. My books are in boxes, in PDF files, in shelves around the world. They live in charity shops, on my wishlist and in Waterstones, waiting for my next paycheck. There are genres I prefer, but there isn’t a book I’m not willing to try (except for the sequel to 50 Shades of Gray because no.) If you ever need me, you know where to find me: nose in a book, mind in another world. Feel free to join me.