I was a child raised on stories. But it wasn't just about learning to read, it was about learning to imagine. For children, and indeed adults, stories are the path to imagination, to dreaming, to creating characters and worlds and opportunities beyond our real life boundaries.
When I was young I used to write stories, the root perhaps of my grown-up profession as a writer. I always knew I didn't have a great affinity with drawing, but I tried nonetheless, to add colour and shape to my tales. Of course, the source of inspiration for each of my own creations was always an established book I'd read, and fallen in love with. I lived each story as if part of its world, feeling the joy and the sadness of the characters, wanting desperately to be part of their adventures.
The joy of a beautiful childhood story is the legacy it leaves. In my case a vivid universe of intermingled memories made not from films or TV shows but from books: the Indian In The Cupboard wounding Boone with an arrow, the corridors of Misselthwaite Manor in the Secret Garden, the palace of the Snow Queen, the ominous Groke in The Moomins. Reading the Jolly Postman to my younger sister (once upon a bicycle, so they say, a Jolly Postman came one day...) and still now being able to recall the look on Mr Brown's face when Paddington bear offers him a marmalade sandwich.
Looking back, imaginative storytelling was slightly lost in the books I read as a teenager, with the most popular authors being those who reflected the real lives, thoughts and concerns of teens like us. For me it was Judy Blume and her angst-ridden novellas like Forever, and the brilliant Jacqueline Wilson (a quick search to remind me of her early hits took me down memory lane with the Bed and Breakfast Kid, Double Act and The Illustrated Mum) who managed to turn hard-hitting issues into heart-warming life lessons.
While I think of my teen-reading years fondly (Hollywell Stables, The Babysitters Club and sneaky 'grown up' books by Virginia Andrews also made an appearance) the common theme across them all was interpretations of reality. Much like a written soap opera, each had the disasters of life and love, some with happier endings than others. Imagination in the CS Lewis sense, where lions spoke and the White Witch reigns, was consigned to the bookshelf.
This was all flipped on its head with the introduction of Harry Potter. Surprisingly for one so easily immersed in magic and mystery, I never got on with the books, but I still praise JK Rowling for opening the minds of so many children (and adults) to the power of a great story and the strength of imagination. At the same time, Lord of the Rings hit cinema screens and sent many back to the books that they tried so hard to avoid at school, journeying through Middle Earth with the joy of discovery in their eyes.
Clearly I am not the only one affected by the stories of my childhood. You only have to look at the addition of Mog the Cat to the Christmas advertising rosta in 2015 (courtesy of Sainsburys) to understand how many grown-ups out there were nostalgic for the writing and illustrations of Judith Kerr, the face of Mog so thoughtful, the words of Debbie so wise ("I think she'd rather have an egg"). Paddington went big budget and adopted Ben Whishaw's voice, but many complained that even Hollywood couldn't do justice to Michael Bond's original work. Most excitingly of all, The Adventures of Moominland exhibition arrived at the Southbank Centre in London, ostensibly part of their 'family' exhibition series but I predict to be full of grown men and women exploring, or what at times feel like climbing inside, the imagination of Tove Jansson, perhaps in order to inspire their own creativity, to imagine a world so far from reality yet so close to one's heart.
Magaret Atwood said: 'In the end, we all become stories'. However true that is, and however each of our stories goes, we should all be thankful to the beauty of true storytelling, the words and pictures that bring someone's imagination to life, and in turn shapes our minds and our souls. Sometimes the world is a funny place, and for a few moments we need to escape, to climb out the back of the wardrobe with Peter and Lucy, fall down the rabbit hole like Alice and explore ruins with the Famous Five. Never grow up or out of your imagination – it is the key to another world.
"One summer morning at sunrise a long time ago. I met a little girl with a book under her arm. I asked her why she was out so early and she answered that there were too many books and far too little time. And there she was absolutely right.” - Tove Jansson.