Recently, I read with interest a personal essay entitled ‘You can never go back: on loving children’s books as an adult’ published on the LitHub website.
Writer Anya Jaremko-Greenwold laments that adults turn away from children’s literature in favour of reading books deemed good for them, when ‘the books we loved growing up had cosmic power – they chipped away at and gnawed upon and shaped our identities’. But we can’t go back, she argues: children’s stories can never be for us what they once were. Which is why she subtitles her essay: ‘Why visiting old fictional friends is so bittersweet’.
I identified with this essay, because I was such a keen reader as a child. As Sir Frances Bacon phrased it, I ‘devoured’ children’s books. They were a source of great comfort and joy to me – and inspiration. I am not sure I have ever found it bittersweet, though, to revisit those books in adulthood, because I have had no desire to go back: I move forwards, with my own writing, and that writing grows out of everything I have ever read and found inspiring in my life, including the stories of my childhood.
For me, the stories that most resonated were those rooted in legend: the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen; the One Thousand and One Nights; the mythology of ancient civilisations: the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks.
The latter was a key inspiration for my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears. It was a children’s book that first introduced me to Greek mythology. I remember it as well-thumbed, with a cracking spine, and falling open on certain stories I loved: Persephone and Hades, King Midas and the golden touch, Theseus and the Minotaur – although the Minotaur illustration would frighten me. My governess read this book over and over to me, as did my parents, and I lived the stories in my imagination.
The stories of Greek mythology stayed with me over the years, and when I had my own children, I was able to rediscover them all over again – and then, more recently, once more with my grandchildren. So it is that childhood stories can be treasured and revisited – and, importantly for my own writing, dwell in an imagination for so long that even years later they can spark creative ideas.
Aphrodite’s Tears is an adult novel, a romance – not fantasy, but true to life. However, it is interwoven with Greek mythology, and when I wrote the book I found my mind returning often to that old, worn compendium of my childhood. There is such warmth in my memories of reading that book, such magic and thrall, and Aphrodite’s Tears became imbued with those feelings.
Emilie Buchwald said, ‘Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.’ Writers are made this way too, and I am so very glad for all the books I read, and was read, in my formative years.
If you are interested in Greek mythology, I highly recommend Robert Sabuda’s pop-up Encyclopedia Mythologica. The artwork is beautiful and brings to life the stories:
It’s ideal for reading aloud to children, because it’s a book both adult and child can enjoy. In fact, you may find you love it so much, it’s a book you want on your own shelf. Because, in fact, while you can’t go back to childhood, you can always remain young at heart and appreciate the stories that shape imaginations.