The Books That Made Me

My earliest reading experience involves the charming picture book Not Now Bernard by David McKee. My dad used to read it to me at bedtime. It’s the story of a boy who claims there is an enormous purple monster in the house, and his parents who refuse to believe him.

I’ve always been interested in stories set entirely in the real world with a touch of magic about them.

I remember so vividly curling up in bed with the Roald Dahl Treasury as a child. I still have that book somewhere. It’s a huge, heavy claret-coloured thing and has extracts from his novels, plus some strange poems, recipes, short stories and, of course, the wonderful illustrations of Quentin Blake.

I loved how Dahl injected magic into everyday life. I guess, in a way that’s something I’ve tried to do with my own novel, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Growing up, I remember adoring the Famous Five books, again because they brought exciting adventure to what is a relatively normal and relatable world (albeit with delicious sausage rolls and ginger beer). I recently devoured the smash-hit bestseller The List of Suspicious Things by Jennie Godfrey which, now I think about it, is a kind of Famous Five book for grown-ups.

For whatever reason, I’m someone who is naturally drawn to the cosier things in life, so horror and grisly crime have never been on my radar, although a police procedural that leans heavily into the community and is set somewhere picturesque can tempt me. I have enjoyed lots of the Alan Banks books based in Yorkshire, for example. What’s most important to me when I pick up a book is how it’s going to make me feel. I don’t want to be frightened, or even kept on edge for too many chapters. Life itself is difficult enough, thanks. What I always want is a story to be a form of escapism, but to show me a side of humanity that I haven’t seen before, one that hopefully makes me feel better about the world. Books like The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano and Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers are some of my favourites that do that so brilliantly.

I remember reading Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce when it first came out in 2018 and falling head over heels for it. I loved how a commercially packaged book, one that shouted, ‘read me read me read me!’ was so impeccably written and crafted, with characters so beautifully drawn. It’s definitely been a huge inspiration for me as a writer. What’s difficult is writing books that are uplifting or charming without feeling sickly sweet or sentimental. Pearce does that brilliantly.

The books I remember most fondly are the ones that make me laugh and cry. We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman is a perfect example. It’s a book about two middle-aged best friends, one of whom is receiving palliative care. Doesn’t sound particularly funny, does it? In fact, on paper, it could be mawkish, but the tone is so perfectly judged. It feels so real and raw and all the more moving for it. I’m so looking forward to picking up Newman’s second book, Sandwich, later this year.

A final mention must go to the incredible Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which has inspired me perhaps more than any other book, as a writer anyway. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so invested in a story about a seemingly ordinary woman struggling her way through life. It was so immensely moving and funny and is the benchmark for all my future stories!

  • Samuel Burr