Childhood stories

Kids reading <em>Hairy Maclary's bone</em> (pic: New Zealand Herald)

Kids reading Hairy Maclary's bone (pic: New Zealand Herald)

I really enjoy reading. Always have. Right now, I am trying to reacquaint myself with Michael King’s Penguin history of New Zealand (2003). Progress has been slow. I have been dipping in and out of King’s history for over a month now and Tasman’s ships have only just dropped anchor in Murderers Bay (Golden Bay).

The problem is not the writing, which is just as engaging as I remember it, but an 18-month-old toddler. There’s no more lazing on the couch with a good thriller for me. I now spend most of my reading time telling stories about cats in boxes, wandering dogs and dancing giraffes. While I appreciate the benefits of reading to your children, multiple renditions of Little Tug can get a little tedious.

My daughter’s current obsession is Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy (1983) – the first of Lynley Dodd’s popular series about Hairy Maclary the terrier and his mates Hercules Morse, Bottomley Potts, Muffin McLay, Bitzer Maloney and Schnitzel von Krumm.* We might read it a dozen times a day. She never seems to get sick of it – unlike her father. Scarface Claw – the toughest tom in town – is a particular favourite; his spitting hiss at Hairy and his gang sends her into fits of giggles every time. It must be the delivery.

As a child of the 1980s, I assume my parents read Hairy Maclary to me. That or the hard-covered Little Golden Books series (they could survive anything!). I’ll have to ask. I do remember reading a lot of Roald Dahl stories at bedtime – James and the giant peach (1961), Charlie & the chocolate factory (1964), BFG (1982) and The witches (1983) are particular standouts. While these stories were not always warm and fuzzy – James’s aunts bully him, Charlie lives in poverty, Sophie and the Boy are orphans – their adventures seemed so exciting to a 10-year-old. Imagine eating a snozzcumber (on second thought, maybe not), finding a golden ticket, travelling in a giant fruit and battling a hotel full of witches?

Not everyone has such a nostalgic view of Dahl. Adult critics have highlighted the dark nature of his storylines. Some libraries have even banned his books from their shelves for perceived misogyny (The witches) or references to drugs and alcohol (James and the giant peach) – a situation played out in New Zealand recently with Ted Dawe’s award-winning Into the river.

Another pre-teen reading staple of mine was the Commando comic series. Launched as Commando War Stories in Pictures in Scotland in 1961, it reached its peak in the 1980s, selling around 750,000 copies a month. Most of the stories were set during the Second World War, and each followed the same formula. Good (the British) always triumphed over evil (the Germans and Japanese). Courage, patriotism and self-sacrifice were the keys to their success. Political correctness never got in the way of the action – ‘Jerries’ and ‘Japs’ died by the dozen, with the Allied hero telling them to ‘Eat lead Fritz!’ or ‘Have a taste of that, Tojo’. Commando is still going strong today (54 years old and counting). Some things have changed – printing now takes place in Germany (what!). Some things have not – the writing still contains a good dollop of xenophobia. Whatever their shortcomings, I still feel a dose of nostalgia whenever I see a Commando cover.

Your turn. What are the standout books/stories from your childhood?

* Interestingly, the first children’s book about New Zealand – Stories about many things, founded on facts (1833) – has a chapter about dogs in it. No dairies though.

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