The Books That Built Us

Miranda Mills and her mum, Donna Mills, write about the books that most influenced their lives.

Scroll down to read, or press play to listen to Donna and Miranda read their article aloud.

Donna and Miranda Mills
The Books That Built Us

The Books That Built Me

By Donna Mills

I have always thought that I owe at least as much gratitude to certain books that came into my life at the right time as I do to any of the universities, schools or teachers and professors that have more formerly sought to influence and guide. I think I am always happiest learning about anything and everything through the written word. Curled up with a book in hand and a cup of tea on a nearby side table, still seems the ultimate luxury to me. Wherever we've moved, walls for bookshelves, a gathering of favourite volumes and a nearby sofa have been far more important to me than fancy kitchen equipment or a super comfortable mattress: I can sleep on almost anything, but I like my books around me with a space to read in comfort.

Fortunately, I can shut out the world the minute I step into a book. It's a rare gift: I open my book, I settle in comfortably and I'm lost in the pages. It's as if my own desert island appears. I register nothing of what's going on around me (the number of times I've missed my stop on tubes and buses is embarrassingly large): my mother soon learnt that it was no use calling to me from another room, I wouldn't hear a thing. A hand on my arm was necessary to break the spell. Now in my sixties, a good book weaves the same enchantment as it has done for every decade of my life.

Miranda asked us the question in The Bookish Almanac this month: "What are the books that have made you who you are?" It's such a fascinating question to any reader. My responses must be similar to those of most bookworms: there are so many, I think; I'm still discovering them, I murmur. Yet, I have to acknowledge, I can think of five easily that I've read repeatedly and that have never failed to give me joy or comfort in times of happiness and times of grief, and whose influence I can trace so that I can say these books made me the person I am. So here is my list. I wonder if any of you might recognise any of the books here too?

1) The Golden Treasury of Poetry. Selected and with a commentary by Louis Untermeyer. Illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund (1969 edition).

My first "proper" poetry anthology. I read and reread it. It was simply, but generously illustrated with line drawings and watercolour paintings. I still marvel at the breadth and depth of the selections from British and North American poetry. It suited me as a 7 year old, and continues to inspire me now. Amongst the riches, there's a section called "Unforgettable Stories." Here are the story poems, the ballads and the legends, some tragic and serious ("La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John Keats, for example), and others ("The Janitor's Boy" by Nathalia Crane) delightfully lighthearted in tone. If I could only have one poetry anthology for the rest of my life, I would gladly settle for this one.

2) The Queen's Book of the Red Cross, published November, 1939 at the start of World War Two. With a message from the Queen (later of course the Queen Mother) in aid of The Lord Mayor of London's Fund for the Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

Another anthology. I found this one as a teenager pushed to the back on a low shelf in one of those, dusty, musty, higgledy-piggledy, secondhand bookshops that so thrill any collector searching for those hard to find treasures. I liked the look of this large volume at a cursory glance. It was marked $3 CDN (by this time my family had emigrated to Saskatchewan). The price was right, and I thought I might find some "new to me" authors. I was right. Here were pieces by E.M. Delafield, Daphne du Maurier, Ann Bridge, Jan Struther, Eric Ambler, O. Douglas, Dorothy Whipple, Georgette Heyer and Ruby Ferguson. There were some wonderful illustrations, and one taken from an original ("Hop Pickers" by Dame Laura Knight) that I especially loved. I went on to search for more books by all of these authors and to look for Laura Knight's paintings in art books. I began to try to find what more they'd written: some were obscure and their books hard to find, some much easier, but I constantly looked for those authors and was over the moon if I chanced upon them. So, nearly 28 years later, when I saw my first Persephone catalogue. I was overjoyed. Someone else loved these writers and was putting them back into print. It made me realise that Miranda and I weren't the only ones who read and valued such "middlebrow" fiction.

3) Miss Read's Christmas Book. Illustrated by Tracey Williamson. Michael Joseph, London.

Miss Read's novels, memoirs and essays are the ultimate "comfort reads" for me. There are two main series of novels named for the villages in which each is set: Fairacre and Thrush Green. I can't choose only one of her novels as a favourite, so instead I've chosen one of her anthologies, the Christmas one. Christmas books are a rather large subset of Miranda's and my collections. Honestly, if you celebrate Christmas, there's something so rewarding about a really good Christmas anthology. This one has all of Miss Read's excellent taste with a delightful mix of new and old favourites, and as an added bonus it's charmingly illustrated too. It's the first book I put by my bedside table on December 1st, and I read a selection from it nightly until New Year's Eve. Christmas is all about tradition for me, and reading certain books every December increases my joy at that time of year.

4) A Child In the Forest, by Winifred Foley. Illustrated by Tricia Newell. Century Publishing.

If there's a memoir which evokes a sense of place more than any other for me, it's this one. I've read and continue to reread Winifred Foley's four short memoirs again and again. I recommend them all, but this is the first one and it's important to start with her at her beginnings. These autobiographical sketches were first broadcast by Woman's Hour on BBC radio in 1973 as a serial. I've never been able to hear the original broadcasts, perhaps they are lost, but the books are magical. Winifred, or "our Poll," as she was known to her family, was a spirited, observant and intelligent woman, born in 1914, in the Forest of Dean to a poor, but loving family. She writes with emotion, but is never sentimental. I have always found her words to be inspiring and to have the capacity to make me laugh and cry at the same time. There's no sugar coating here, Winifred's family (her father was a coal miner) suffer hard times, and she gives voice to so many working class women, born in the early 1900s, whose stories have largely not been recorded. For all the dire poverty Winifred records here though, it's the warmth of a loving family that shines through.

5) Winter Cottage by Carol Ryrie Brink. Illustrated by Fermin Rocker. Macmillan.

My last choice is a children's novel, written in 1939. It's one I didn't read until I was in my early thirties and had begun to collect Brink's children's books as Miranda enjoyed them so much. I love this book, I think because whilst lightly told, like Winifred Foley's sketches, this is essentially a story of a family (here a widowed father and his two daughters) who have fallen on hard times in 1930 America at the start of the Depression. Mr Sparkes, a poetry loving jack of all trades, but master of none type, and his two young girls are homeless and are driving across the midwest to live with the sister of their late wife and mother in Minneapolis. It is quite clear that they are not wanted there, but Mr Sparkes has lost his job and options are very limited. Their car breaks down in the Wisconsin woods very close to an old cottage, built originally as a farmhouse by Scandinavian settlers to withstand the freezing winter. It is currently used as a summer cottage by the Vincent family, who have locked it up for the winter months. Of course, the Sparkes who at first plan to spend only one night there while their car is fixed, end up staying for far longer. There's a satisfactory ending, great characters and brilliant illustrations by Fermin Rocker in Miranda's copy, a 1969 reprint. I, not only highly recommend it, but would encourage children's books enthusiasts to look out for more of Brink's classics, and take the time to read about the life and work of Fermin Rocker too. 

When I finished selecting these five, I realised that not one of these books was the original volume I had first read. All of those had been lost through the years and our many moves. But, I hadn't forgotten them. Rather, I had searched and found copies a couple of times at least, because I knew my shelves were incomplete without them and that they still had something to say to me. In answering Miranda's question here, I've realised they still do.

The Books That Built Me

by Miranda Mills

I've never been able to hold on to memories of my early childhood; I'm not one of those people who can recall the people and places of their youth with any degree of clarity. Perhaps this is because my family moved a lot; perhaps it's because I did undergo some trauma when I was very young and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Or perhaps I just have a terrible memory. Whatever the case, the past is a vague blur, but a few moments do stand out crystal clear, and many of those moments involve books.

I can recall the eager delight I felt when I read The Little White Horsefor the first time, whilst we were living for a few months in Chicago (my dad's job in Physics took us all over the States). I remember a trip to Vancouver, which had the most fabulous bookshops; sadly I also remember the horrific car accident my Mum and I were in on that same holiday. I had a Jackie pony book with me in the car at the time, and I was never able to finish it; the crushed cover reminded me too vividly of our totaled minivan.

A happier memory is my beloved 'Nanny' (my mum's mother) bringing me Chalet School books in her suitcase whenever she'd visit from the UK, and an added treat was my Mum letting me choose a Famous Five story from the British Food Shop (which also stocked a few books), which we'd stop by on the way to the airport in California.

Books, then, are interwoven with my strongest memories, and below I've chosen five novels which affected my life in some way and in some part made me the person I am today. 

1/ Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

I came to this story very young, and the successes and failures of Pauline, Petrova and Posy left a deep impression on me. I am sure it is because of Ballet Shoes that I first wanted to take a ballet class; that started me on a life-long love of dance and the desire to become a professional ballerina. A bad knee injury meant that dream never materialised, but I have those years of rigorous training to thank for my strong work ethic.

Even more than a passion for ballet though, I think Ballet Shoes gave me another great gift: it provided a wonderful example of female ambition and allowed me to dream big in pursuing a creative career.

2/ The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer (out of print)

The first book in the Chalet School series, originally published in 1925, ignited my love of vintage children's books and my passion for book collecting. I appreciated the international atmosphere of the series, with many of the Chalet School students being European, and the children expected to learn English, German and French.

The Chalet School books had wonderful settings, too: first in Austria, then Guernsey, Wales and Switzerland. Reading the books reminded me of the happy years I'd spent living on the French / Swiss border when I was under five, and I was even more delighted when we returned to the Geneva area when I was fifteen, and I once more attended the International School.

It was Elinor Brent-Dyer's series that opened up so many other books and authors of the period that I came to love and collect: Elsie J Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Gwendoline Courtney, Malcolm Saville, Monica Edwards, Elfrida Vipont, Lorna Hill etc etc. I still have many of the books I collected as a young teenager sitting on my shelves, and now I take photos for the Instagram account of Girls Gone By Publishers (who have reprinted all of the authors previously listed).

3/ The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

My Mum gave me my first Agatha Christie book when I was about eleven and started my obsession with Golden Age crime novels. I devoured every book Christie wrote, as well as the mysteries by Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Georgette Heyer and Patricia Wentworth.

Out of them all, Miss Marple remains my favourite sleuth, and the first in the Miss Marple series, The Murder at the Vicarage, is exceptionally strong.

One day, I'd love to try my hand at writing a mystery novel myself!

4/ Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

I remember I first read about Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in India Knight's fun book, The Shops, when I was twenty. I was intrigued by her description of Miss Pettigrew, and I popped into Persephone Books (at that time, just around the corner from my university in Bloomsbury, London) to buy a copy. Thus began my interest in 'middle-brow' fiction of the type republished by Persephone.

A few years later, I had a job at Persephone Books and was lucky to be given many of the slightly damaged books that weren't sold in the shop. I read dozens of Persephones at that point, discovering so many new authors that have since become some of my favourite writers.

Now in my late 30s, I have almost a complete set of the 149 books so far published. Last Christmas, I was invited to do an event at the new Bath location of Persephone Books; it was my first 'in-person' event, where I got to talk about being a 'book influencer' and my passion for literature. It was so much fun! I find it hard to believe that I've been a reader of Persephone books for seventeen years, but what fabulous bookish discoveries those years have held!

5/ Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Of course, I had to include a book by my very favourite writer! If I were ever marooned on a desert island, I think I could get by very well, as long as I had the complete works of Jane Austen with me.

I still remember falling head-over-heels in love with the world of Pride and Prejudice when I first saw the 1995 BBC adaptation. I went on to read the novel, and then all the rest of Jane Austen's books. I've been reading and listening to the Austen canon ever since; I think I must have been the only child who would love to play with her doll's house and listen to Persuasion read by Geraldine McEwan at the same time!

Jane Austen's books have meant more to me than the works of any other novelist; nothing beats her dry humour and her needle-sharp understanding of the foibles of the human character.

*Please note: affiliate links are used for Blackwells. If you order a book from Blackwells using one of my affiliate links, I may make a small commission from your purchase, at no additional cost to yourself. I like to support Blackwells by linking to their website, as I’m a big fan of their flagship Oxford bookshop, and they offer reasonable overseas shipping. You in turn support my work by shopping through my affiliate link. Thank you!


Creative Challenge

Consider the books that stand out the most in your memory. Which ones have influenced you the most and made you the person you are today?