THE BLOG

An Ode to Children's Books

16/04/2014 16:50 BST | Updated 16/06/2014 10:59 BST

There is something magical about the stories of our childhood - the books we read as children and the books that were read to us retain their fairytale appeal. Last year I took part in an exhibition at the V&A's Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. The exhibition displayed objects from the last 50 years that together told the story of modern British childhood. The pieces I recognized from my own upbringing - a school milk bottle, about which I wrote, and a 1970s chopper bike, transported me right back to the long hot summers of my heady pre-teen schooldays. They had a glamour in the old Scots sense of the word, which means a sparkle or an enchantment. Everyone feels like this about the books with which they grew up.

So when the opportunity came up to take part with over 50 other writers in "26 Characters", the opening exhibition of Oxford's new Story Museum, I jumped at it. If the milk bottle endowed me with the ability to time travel, imagine what a whole book might do. We were asked to write about our favourite childhood stories. For me that had to be Heidi, a book which as an eight-year-old inspired such imaginative engagement that I faked illness in the hope my mother would send me to Switzerland. She did not fall for this charade. Re-reading Heidi for the exhibition took me straight back to the experience of being eight, vaguely discontented and longing for the escape that that reading provided. It was as if an emotional time machine was embedded in the text.

As part of the exhibition we were also commissioned to write about another writer's favourite book. I bagged Anthony Horowitz who chose Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The choices are telling. My friend Ella Bertoud, is one half of The Novel Cure - a duo who prescribe books to tackle life's ills. Ella and her writing partner, Sue Elderkin, have a Novel Cure for Kids in the pipeline but she often recommends children's books to her adult clients. 'Re-reading old favourites is a return to childhood,' she says, confirming my feelings about Heidi as a literary time machine. Interestingly, Ella also prescribes modern kids' books for specific difficulties when adults consult her. 'Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy is productive escapism and a great antedote to loneliness because the characters have daemons,' she explains.

Reading for me (especially reading poetry) has long been a medicine chest to doctor my emotions so I can see where the idea comes from. Ella has had great success with her adult clients, recommending children's fiction - even she says, books that weren't around when they were growing up. At first this mystified me. I think perhaps I fell victim to the common misconception that fiction written for youngsters sidesteps difficult issues when the truth is, the best children's fiction confronts darkness head on. Harry Potter's fight against evil provides the reader with a clear moral compass. Stories like Skellig by David Almond or any of the teen fiction written by Patrick Ness, touch a nerve with their profound portrayal of traditionally adult subjects, like mortality, fear and loss.

In reading to my daughter when she was younger it became apparent that modern children's writing differs from the classics of my own childhood. Heidi and the Secret Garden might propel me back to the comforts of childhood, but for her fiction from the pre-TV era grated because the prose felt too descriptive. In our modern lexicon I've come to the conclusion the simple fact is that kids have more choice of entertainment than when I was growing up and if we expect them to read, the stories have to have a swift pace to grab them by the imagination and haul them into the story. I can hear a wave of tutting crashing towards me but the classics of one generation's childhood rarely continue over too many generations more. We can all return to the comfort of Beatrix Potter but hundreds of her contemporary children's writers are now long forgotten. It's a natural process.

For myself, I'm less concerned with what children are reading, than that they are reading at all. Statistics provided by the Reading Agency paint a gloomy picture of access to the medicine chest for many UK youngsters. Only one in five parents easily find the opportunity to read to their kids. In lower income homes 14% of kids rarely or never read books for pleasure and overall a stunning 46% of 16 - 24 year olds don't read for pleasure at all (a vital indicator of cognitive development). It doesn't surprise me then, that there is a vogue in finding other ways to tell stories, alongside simply writing them down and these days many children's writers are working in more than one media. Julia Donaldson, for example, has developed a stage show to communicate her Gruffalostories and recently even I took the road with a dancer in tow to tour primary schools in the north of Scotland with a picture book I originally wrote for my niece, I'm Me.

In such a climate and indeed, in a time of austerity, it is a joy that the Story Museum has just opened its doors. Like all the writers taking part, producing words for the exhibition was fun - a return to my own childhood and a window into the childhoods of others. As Kim Pickin, the museum's joint director says: "We're hoping that it will encourage everyone to revisit a familiar classic, or perhaps explore an unfamiliar one... We're hosting talks, workshops and performances, a costume room and an online gallery to get people discussing, and becoming, their childhood story heroes."