I was thinking earlier about books that have changed my life. I was clearing off A's bed, and found that she had squirreled Goodnight Mister Tom at the end of it. This was my absolute favourite book as a child (I think I read it for the first time at around nine). It certainly changed the way I perceived the world in quite a major way. I read it so many times, and loved it so much, that I bought a special plastic cover in WHSmith for it, like books have in the library. It was the only book of mine that ever received this very special treatment, and it was this copy which was in a pile of Jacqueline Wilsons in the top bunk.
Before reading Goodnight Mister Tom I don't think I had ever really thought too much about people whose lives were clouded by neglect and misery. But the pictures of the lonely, grieving, emotionally barren Tom, and the terrified, neglected Willie, were so startlingly clear, that suddenly I was confronted by a new reality. Some people are desperately unhappy. Sometimes, for some people, life is unbearable. The first time I read the section where Willie has to return home I felt physically ill with horror at the traumas that Willie has to face. In fact, it took many, many re-readings before I read that bit again, and generally I skipped it up until Tom kidnaps Willie and they return to his home.
The characters seemed so incredibly real. Up until that point, I had existed on a diet of Enid Blyton and the like, where the story, rather than the characters, takes primary importance. Goodnight Mister Tom was the first book I read where the characters seemed utterly real. I remember working out whether or not Tom would still be alive when I read the book, and realising that he probably wouldn't be, since the book was set in the war, and it was already the late 80s. I still remember the feeling of devastation, even though I knew deep down that Tom had never really lived.
Chapter 4 was my favourite - the one where Tom takes Willie into the village to buy him supplies. I remember feeling the excitement along with him, when he is allowed to choose a comic and a sweet, and the contentment of being in the library. The language is just so rich that I have memorised and internalised large chunks of it. Chapter 4 of Goodnight Mister Tom was my comfort reading for many, many years.
I almost don't want A to read it, because I think I would find it really quite painful if she didn't like it. And it almost feels like Goodnight Mister Tom is my book, which is ridiculous, given that I know it is one of the most popular children's books of all time. It's a great gift, to be able to write as though you are just writing for one person. I have enjoyed all of Michelle Magorian's books, but to my mind, none of them quite measured up to this, and, quite possibly, no book ever really will for me.