I love being a parent in London. Nowhere else could children spend their Easter holidays gazing at tigers; taking an imaginary drive on a (real) red bus to see the Queen; hearing about the bells of St Clements and creating a mini Whitechapel foundry; or walking through mock-ups of Roman and Victorian streets (at the Museum of London, these last two).
But I grew up in the countryside. And I sometimes miss the kind of childhoods you read about in storybooks.
The Little House in the Prairie, mend-and-make-do style of subsistence living, where families exist hand-in-hand with nature, at the mercy of the elements. Or an Anne of Green Gables, country-cottage upbringing, with stunningly beautiful scenery that nourishes the vibrant imagination of a young orphan child.
Last weekend, we visited Wales, where I grew up. Of course, in reality, my childhood was probably not too dissimilar to that of a townie kid. I watched loads of telly and spent hours cooped up indoors, reading avidly. But I wonder whether Austin and Gwen, raised in a city, will have many moments where storybooks and reality seem to collide, like the one described by Helen Braid in her poetic blog .
When my surroundings match those of a book I’m reading, it leaves a deeper imprint, and stays in the imagination for longer. On going back to familiar landscapes, the story also returns – vividly. So, for me, the Welsh countryside is the place of many magical tales I read as a child, usually drawn from Celtic, Arthurian or Norse mythology.
But I didn’t stay. For many reasons. As well as being beautiful, it was also the place of no cinemas; venues so poor they never attracted the bands I loved; and a sea of faces so similar in skin tone that a black girl starting at a local school warranted a special staff meeting.
It’s changed a fair bit. And, when we visit now, it’s to spend time with the people we love and to dabble our feet in the best bits of country life. There’s no time to notice the isolation, or lack of culture (compared with London, that is).
But there will also be barely any time for the romance of the place to creep into Austin and Gwen’s souls, through stories read from start to finish. This makes me a bit sad.
So: can anyone recommend any books for children set in cities, with the same poetic vision as my childhood favourites? I’ll probably still read those to Austin and Gwen. I’m hoping they might enjoy them. But I want at least some of their books to sing from the streets they live in, and make a magical place of their own childhood home.