Francis Spufford was born in 1964; he describes growing up in a golden age of reading, comparable to the heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. The Child That Books Built is a memoir out of the ordinary intertwining childhood and reading.
In the memoir, the reader is taken on a literary journey through a forest, island, town, and "the hole." Each of these places forms a major theme or chapter. Throughout the journey, books are Spufford's constant guide and landscape. Books help him hide away from the harsh realities of a sibling’s illness.
In a chapter about the forest, we glimpse of Spufford’s early childhood, living on the campus of Keele University. The reader is taken through the history of storytelling. The forest is symbolic of storytelling, a primal setting for fairy-tales like Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood. Spufford takes the reader deep into the forest Where the Wild Things Are, as well as Alice, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet. The psychoanalytical theories of Freud and Bettelheim are also encountered.
Once through the forest, Spufford delights in the freedom his ability to read gives him. It was this delight that kept me reading, onto the island. Spufford read books that took him away from the reality he was living. The magical moment he connected his mind and language with the words he was reading was in The Hobbit. Woven through this chapter are insights into the lives of authors, including the fascinating early childhood of C. S. Lewis.
In the last two chapters, the books he reads help him make sense of his expanding world. To Kill a Mocking Bird provides the vicarious experience of a town in uproar. He gains personal strength from the Little House books. In the chapter on "The Hole," books navigate Spufford through boarding school, puberty and the transition to adult life.
This memoir reminded me of my own childhood reading: how reading added adventure and imagination to my playtime. I consider the key message of this book is that children need to read to develop their imaginations; and as they grow they need to keep reading to maintain a learning and questioning mind. This is a book well worth getting lost in the forest for.
About the reviewer
Sally Shaw is a full-time MA Creative Writing Student at the University of Leicester. She writes poetry, and is starting to write short stories. She was a nurse for 33 years.