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The books we never outgrow

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Stylist takes a trip down memory lane remembering the children’s books that influenced who we’ve become – and still have the power to make us smile.

Want to ignite a heated debate in the pub? Forget the spending cuts, coalition or superinjunctions. Simply murmur the words, “Which was better, Fraggle Rock or The Muppet Show?” We guarantee that come closing time you’ll still be bitterly debating the relative merits of Barbie versus Sindy, Button Moon versus Bagpuss. Childhood paraphernalia is a subject no adult will tire of, and we all have one TV show, book or pop group which we could happily tackle on Mastermind. But of all these cultural reference points from our childhoods, few provokes as powerful a reaction as the books of Roald Dahl.

From the loathsome Twits to the loveable Matilda, nobody could tap into a child’s imagination like Dahl, who – in his 20 children’s titles – depicted the perfect child’s world without ever being cloyingly sweet or descending into cliche. Bringing Dahl’s wicked prose to life were the equally evocative illustrations by the artist Quentin Blake. A former Punch cartoonist who’d considered a teaching career before earning a reputation as a reliable illustrator of children’s books, Blake’s deceptively simple drawings were a perfect match for Dahl’s dark-yet-enticing fictional world. His personality-filled inky scribbles brought Dahl’s characters to life and their collaboration lasted 15 years, from 1975 until Dahl’s death in 1990.

Blake’s illustrations are truly iconic for our generation, with the power to reduce grown adults to a state of giddy excitement. Michelle Obama, the Queen and Angelina Jolie have all graced the cover of Stylist, but when news broke that we’d secured Blake as a cover artist we all became 20 years younger.

Of course it isn’t just Dahl and Blake’s fabulous partnership. A multitude of books define our childhood. Decades on, we still only have to see a can of ginger beer to think of the moonlit midnight feasts at Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s or a Turkish Delight to conjure up images of Edmund and Narnia’s White Witch to be transported back to the age of eight, underneath the covers with a torch because your mum’s already ordered lights out.

As a child, reading is one of the few ways of asserting your individuality

Nostalgia is an incredibly potent force, capable of prompting an impassioned tirade (about hobbits) from people who normally exude zen-like calm and maturity. Remember the sparks that flew when director Wes Anderson gave Fantastic Mr Fox a makeover two years ago? To our generation, meddling with the cultural reference points of our childhood is pure sacrilege. And they hold a special and powerful space in our memories. Most of us are able to recite our favourite Revolting Rhyme, yet we struggle to remember the ending of the book that gripped us last summer.

Obviously, we all feel an emotional connection to the cultural landmarks that decorated our childhood, and we remember them fondly; nostalgia is good for you. But is there a deeper reason that the books we read as children shaped the people we are as adults? There are undoubtedly biological and psychological reasons why we still feel such an affinity to Matilda, the BFG, Frodo and Queen Lucy The Valiant above other childhood influences.

They somersault into our lives just when our brains are growing at a rapid rate – children develop 50% of their mature intelligence from birth to age four, and a further 30% from ages four to eight. Illustrations also aid the development of our imaginations. Educational studies have found that partial pictures – like the scattering of Quentin Blake’s illustrations throughout Dahl’s books – strongly encourage cognitive retention, as it forces children to generate images for the parts of the book that are not illustrated.

The rapid neurological and psychological changes in our young minds mean strong, emotional events, like the death of Aslan or the fear of being abandoned in Anne Of Green Gables, leave a lasting imprint. The fact we read them in bed is also significant, because sleep is a key process in forming strong, lasting memories. Marcos G Frank, associate professor of neuroscience at the Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that cortical plasticity, the rearrangement of neural connections in response to life experience, means that those hours spent in bed fantasising about swimming in a chocolate river lodge deep in our memory.

those hours spent in bed fantasising about swimming in a chocolate river lodge deep in our memory

FEAR FACTOR

Equally fascinating is our perverse impulse to scare ourselves silly. Most children find “baddies” curiously compelling. Characters such as Captain Hook, Cruella de Vil and Miss Trunchbull are as memorable as the books’ protagonists. Psychological theory holds that as children we use the darkness and fear at the heart of these books to take safe risks within the safe confines of literature.

Children’s lives centre around routine and any successful children’s book has unpredictability by the bucketload. Hannah Sheppard, commissioning editor of children’s books at Headline publishing, explains, “As a child, reading is one of the few ways of asserting your individuality. Your experience of being absorbed in an imaginary world is yours alone. This gives children their first taste of independence – the reason we still react to them in such an emotive way.”

It’s no accident that so many memorable titles centre on a misunderstood, lonely protagonist, who manages to escape a horrid family or an evil teacher. Every child has some days when they feel alone in the world and these books tap into this. Dahl’s genius (21 years after his death he continues to sell 1 million books a year) lies in his willingness to look at death (The Witches) or bad parenting (Matilda), while making us feel safe.

This psychological journey, from fear to security, is one we continue to experience on a near-daily basis. Calling to reason that we should never dismiss nostalgia; we’re still benefiting from the lessons we learned from Anne, Charlie and Frodo.

Exclusively illustrated by Quentin Blake. Words by Farrah Butt.

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