Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Celebrating Childhood Picture Books and the stories that shape us

By Deborah Swift

 Lonely Boy I think it is not possible to underestimate the influence of childhood reading on later life. For me much of my childhood reading was not just about the stories, but about the pictures that went with the stories. My mother gave me a wonderful thick book called The Golden Wonder Book which was full of myths, stories and classic tales. Everything from Dickens, To Aesop, to Jane Austen - even Shakespeare. Here is one of the pictures by Anne Anderson from Rumplestiltskin.

The stories and extracts were chosen and edited by John Crossland and JM Parrish, but I can find out nothing about them. I owe these people a huge debt as they introduced me to so much classic literature. What was more, they were packaged with glorious illustrations by artists such as Anne Anderson, Margaret Tulloch and Arthur Rackham. The corseted lady on the left is by Arthur Rackham, the dandy on the right by Tulloch. It is these visual images which have stayed with me  - a vague sense of a romantic golden age from times gone by. Often the myths are set in a "medieval" England that is more myth than real history, but these images have endured in my mind. Later in life these pictures persuaded me to go into costume design as a career and from there to writing historical fiction.
The stories themselves influenced me in so many ways. The idea of the prince who might rescue me from a tower, that we might wake from a hundred year slumber with a kiss, the fear of entering some other world and never being able to return, these all have a place in my psyche thanks to this picture book. There was a strong moral code in most of the stories, which seemed to say that good things only happened to 'good girls.'  And many of the stories play with the idea of transformation from ugliness to beauty.

The idea of the influence of story on our lives was one theme I wanted to explore in The Gilded Lily - how were the sisters Ella and Sadie made different by the stories that other people told about them? Perhaps your parents called you "the clever one" (thereby implying you weren't attractive), or perhaps they told you that you were not intelligent, but a hard worker. Ella is "the pretty one" and Sadie "the skilful one". How will they each fare when they leave their village and go to seek refuge in fashionable London?

Some of the fairy stories that are mentioned in The Gilded Lily are Cinderella - called The Ash Maid in the 17th century - and Snow White and Rose Red. Of course these are stories mostly celebrated by girls. What childhood stories made a deep impression on boys? In The Gilded Lily, my character Dennis enjoys penny chapbooks of the sensational crimes of the day - tales of hangings and skulduggery.
Are there books or stories from your childhood that have affected your life?
Thank you for helping me celebrate - The Gilded Lily is out TODAY! published by Pan Macmillan - paperback and e-book. US edition with extras for Reading Groups coming soon.
Look out for the Giveaway of The Gilded Lily here next week.
Watch the Trailer
Winter 1661
Timid Sadie Appleby has always lived in her small village. One night she is rudely awoken by her older and bolder sister, Ella, who has robbed her employer and is on the run. The girls flee their rural home of Westmorland to head for London, hoping to lose themselves in the teeming city. But the dead man's relatives are in hot pursuit, and soon a game of cat and mouse begins.

Ella becomes obsessed with the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on flamboyant man-about-town, Jay Whitgift. But nothing is what it seems - not even Jay Whitgift.

Can Sadie survive a fugitive's life in the big city? But even more pressing, can she survive life with her older sister Ella? And when an altogether different danger threatens Ella's life, will Sadie run to the rescue, or turn the other cheek?

Set in London's atmospheric coffee houses, the rich mansions of Whitehall, and the pawnshops, slums and rookeries hidden from rich men's view, The Gilded Lily is about beauty and desire, about the stories we tell ourselves, and about how sisterhood can be both a burden and a saving grace.

"a beautifully-written blend of fast pace and atmospheric historical detail... the intense evocation of the period never falters" Gabrielle Kimm, author of His Last Duchess

All illustrations from Wikicommons or Grandma's Graphics


  1. Deborah, I loved your post. I had not thought about how much storybooks affected me- except to realize that they made me believe in happily ever after. But while reading your post, I came to realize that The Bookhouse Books did exactly the same for me. It was a volume of books for the 1920s that were full of stories, fairytales and myths with pictures just like what you showed above. They enveloped me. They formed my love for historical fiction. I always thought it was what I read when I was older, but it was them.

    Your trailer is marvelous! The book is a must-read.

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Debbie, yes, I think we are much more affected by them than we think.Thanks for the compliment about the trailer.
      I looked uo the books Debbie was talking about and here they are. They look gorgeous, and very similar to my "Golden Wonder Book" You can copy the link into your browser and find them at

  3. Hello! I loved this post, and look forward to reading more! This post really made me think about my childhood books, too.... Ida Rentoul Outhwaite's Elves and Fairies is up there for me, beside beautifully illustrated versions of the tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur. Also Grimm's fairy tales. It's funny how something you loved as a child can really make you the person (weirdo) you are today : )

  4. I still have my A Child's Garden of Verses, Deborah. It was the illustration style that I liked, and drew me in. Lovely post.

  5. Goodness, I can remember The Little Road to Fairyland, and every book that Enid Blyton wrote, beginning with The Faraway Tree, The Five Outers, The Secret Seven, all the boarding School Books, The Girls Annuals, Fairy Tales, Myths, Little Women, and the list goes on. The Greyling Treasure. Have these books helped to make me a writer - I think so and mystery and adventure play a big part of them and these led into history , ghosts , supernatural, past life regressions. The list goes on. Thanks for taking me for a walk down memory lane. Carole Lane (Weave)

  6. Great post! Howard Pyle's King Arthur books were a huge influence on me when I was younger -- probably the first thing that drew me towards the Middle Ages.

  7. Wow yes, I remember lots of these. Robin Hood and King Arthur - used to play at being Robin Hood, strangely - not Maid Marian! And I loved the Blyton Books too.For those that don't know, Outhwaite was an Australian artist whose first illustration was apparently published in 1904 when she was just 15 years of age - it accompanied a story written by her older sister, Anne. Lovely fairy pictures!

  8. Yes, so much of our first exposures to "culture" were in books of fairy tales - as our first exposure to classical music was often the tunes of the merry-go-round. These stories, these tunes (mostly Straus waltzes for me)have a resonance beyond all else of their kind. The Sunday "funny papers" too -- though I remember being quite critical of "Prince Valiant" -- perhaps wanting so much more than the cartoon frames offered. These things do shape our lives.

  9. Hi Katherine, thanks for reminding me of the music too. I love Strauss, and those musical box tunes that cam be both sweet and creepy at the same time.

  10. I remember my Dad reading from a collection of children's Bible stories (mostly the Old Testament ones because of all the battles, which probably wasn't the greatest idea for bedtime) and my Grandma would read the uncensored Grimm's Fairy Tales from an old book she had. But the first book that really got me to read on my own was The Knights of the Round Table by L.A. Bortolussi and illustrated by Pietro Cattaneo.
    My parents got it used because I was a big fan of the cartoon King Arthur and the Knights of Justice. I was only just learning how to read in the first grade and that book made the whole ordeal worth it and paved the way for the reading bug to really get me in the fourth grade with Brian Boru by Morgan Llewellyn. I still have both books and hope to share them with my own kids some day.

  11. Thanks, wish I could give you a name! It's lovely that you shared your memories with us. Bet the uncensored Grimm's fairy tales were grim! (Excuse the pun!)

    1. First time actually replying here though I've been reading for a while now, didn't see the option for my name. The Grimm stories were grim but also really fun. Though it gave my teachers a problem when I'd try to give the class the "director's cut" when I heard the different endings.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.