You know you’ve been a literary critic for too long when you start a book at the end. And I don’t mean turning directly to the last page to find out what happens, either. No, I’m talking about the acknowledgements. To the well-trained eye, these thank-you lists – sometimes spare, sometimes gushing – position their author with merciless precision in the literary ecosystem.
So when I flipped to the back of Salley Vickers’ latest novel, I was in for a pleasant surprise because she lists not people but books. Which is apt since The Librarian traces the impact an idealistic young Children’s Librarian has on East Mole, the Wiltshire market town she moves to in 1959. She is Miss Blackwell, a name borrowed from the ‘remarkable’ Children’s Librarian at Vickers’ own local library when she was growing up.
As Vickers explains, ‘It is to Miss Blackwell that I owe many of the books and characters that have informed not only my writing life but probably my whole take on life, what seems to me to matter most, how I brought up my children and how I like to be now with my grandchildren’.
Among those books is Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, which Vickers bought with a birthday book token when it first came out in 1958. It is, she says, ‘one of the greatest children’s books of all time’.
She learnt to read before she started school using The Tale of Peter Rabbit and others by Beatrix Potter, in whose debt she’ll forever be ‘for so enhancing my vocabulary at a very young age and for her salutary example in the use of cadence’, she confides.
As for Enid Blyton… The real and the fictional Miss Blackwell both scorn her. For Vickers’ part, she enjoyed them, though her parents wouldn’t have them in the house so she associates them with chocolate spread sandwiches on sliced white bread, another contraband treat that was served up at the friend’s where she read about the Famous Five.
Here is the list of ‘Recommended reading from East Mole Library’ in full:
E. Nesbit, The Treasure Seekers
Tove Janson, Comet in Moominland
Ernest Thomas Seton, The Trail of the Sandhill Stag
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
Beatrix Potter, collected works
Gwynedd Rae, Mary Plain books
Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories, Puck of Pook’s Hill
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
George MacDoland, The Princess and Curdie, At the Back of the North Wind
Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives
Eric Linklater, The Wind on the Moon
Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand
Andrew Laing, The Blue, Brown, Olive and Lilac Fairy books
Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons and following stories
Mary Norton, The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield
P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door
Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding
Norman Hunter, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm
Leila Berg, Trust Chunky, Little Pete Stories
Philippa Pearce, The Minnow on the Say, Tom’s Midnight Garden
Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, What Katy Did Next
C.S. Lewis, the collected Narnia
Jack London, White Fang
Noel Straetfield, Ballet Shoes, White Boots
T.H. White, The Once and Future King
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
Geoffrey Trease, Cue for Treason
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
Dr Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables series
J.B.S. Haldane, My Friend Mr Leakey