The conversation ranged from experiences of learning to read — Grenville from the ‘Kooka’ stove, Gerritsen by listening to Snow White on a record and following the story in the accompanying booklet — to influential childhood and teenage reads. Both Grenville and Gerritsen spoke of the value of role models in literature. Grenville grew up wanting to be a boy and was reassured she wasn’t a freak when she discovered George in The Famous Five. Gerritsen loved Nancy Drew because she opened up possibilities closed to women in real life.
Grenville and Womersley talked about the impact of reading ‘age inappropriate’ literature as children. In an era before the advent of young adult fiction as a genre, both had free rein over their parents’ book collections. Womersley remembers reading aloud from All Quiet on the Western Front to scare his fellow sixth-graders. Grenville said many books ‘went straight over my head’. But the existence of ‘a world I do not yet understand’ was important, teaching Grenville to live with mystery and tolerate the unknown, teaching her humility.
Gerritsen is critical of the ‘challenging fiction’ schools force on young people — the literary equivalent of brussels sprouts when kids want to eat ice cream. Her advice for encouraging more young people to read was to make it fun ‘so it always has that aura’. Womersley’s advice to make reading more attractive: ‘Ban it.’
All three agreed that it’s irrelevant if people are reading paper or ebooks — ‘as long as they pay for it,’ quipped Gerritsen.
On the subject of writing, the panellists also agreed ‘you can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader.’ But now that they are writers, both Grenville and Womersley find it hard to read unselfconsciously. Grenville says she can ‘barely read fiction’, while Womersley might find himself thinking as he reads, ‘my editor would never have let that get through’, or wondering if he could replicate another author’s good idea.
Funnily enough, I thought the same about learning from another author’s ideas as I read Womersley’s Bereft, the book most likely to beat my novel The Half-Child to the 2011 Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction. (Grenville quoted TS Elliot as saying, ‘Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers simply steal them.’)
The session was supported by The Smith Family and opened by Skye, a young woman who had benefited from TSF’s Learning for Life program. Skye described books for her as ‘a safe place for adventure’ where there was ‘no judgment, no exclusion’. Education and literacy, she told the audience, gave her opportunities, allowed her to dare to dream of going to university, resulted in the ‘luxury’ of a career choice.
I won tickets to the ‘Why I Read’ session by tweeting about a book that was influential for me as a child: “The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, by Beatrix Potter, my first crime read: a tense, dark tale of attempted murder and betrayal.” And it’s true. The story stands out from a childhood rich in books in stories as my first thriller. The tale of a naïve duck who accepts the offer of a sandy-whiskered gentleman to incubate her eggs in his feather filled wood-shed still gives me chills forty years on as I read it to my own young daughter. Jemima Puddle-Duck introduced me the power of literature that unsettles, frightens, arouses, and introduced me to the perennial theme of inappropriate relationships.
What were your influential reads as a child?