Books for the young are full of wonderful life lessons. Debut children’s author Miranda Hart picks her personal favourites.
In September last year, I succumbed to that old back-to-school feeling. I left school over 25 years ago but I can still get the dreaded sense of the freedom and lightness of summer ending, and life somehow becoming more of a drudge as we head into the darker skies of autumn. I was also embarking on an exciting new writing project: my first children’s book. Writing is a lovely job in many ways but it can be isolating (fun office chats are me talking to my dog about whether 10.30am is too early to stop for lunch).
So that sense of going back to work on my own, with a blank document on my laptop, fuelled a rather low mood. And when a low mood sinks in, you find yourself almost revelling in the awful world news and feeling self-pitying about the tiniest things. (I went into a fury simply because I couldn’t find a Biro I had only just used – why do they do that?!)
It’s easy to spiral into seeing just the negative around us and then quite simply not smiling. I think we all have days when we just want to hole up, cancel friends and cocoon in a duvet. I found that nothing could prompt an upward turn to my mouth – not even a cheeky dollop of ice cream with my favourite comedy, Modern Family, or watching my dog run as fast as she could to catch a squirrel and crash into a tree trunk looking slightly embarrassed (yes, not even a classic YouTube-worthy animal mishap).
In this glum state, it struck me how there are so many people in the world for whom there is genuinely very little, if anything, to smile about. And they are often the ones who keep doing so, who put on a brave face, staying cheery despite everything. Yet here I was, down in the dumps because of an unnecessary post-summer bout of the blues.
‘Snap out of it, Hart,’ I thought. Ironically I had recently written a book called Miranda’s Daily Dose of Such Fun, about the importance of enjoying a moment of fun every day, having researched how a smile has a positive effect on the nervous system and therefore our emotional wellbeing as a whole. I knew the importance of a smile, not only for oneself but to spread kindness to others, too.
With renewed vigour I sat down, eager to begin work on my children’s book. I thought I had an idea mapped out for it but somehow a new story emerged. I found myself writing about a young girl who had lost her smile and was desperate to get it back. The story flowed and, as I wrote, my imagination became more alive than ever before: there were suddenly unexpected magical beings, some that even excited or scared me, and silly, strange adventures helping my heroine, 11-year-old Chloe, on her important mission. The adventures Chloe went on were often inspired by make-believe scenarios that made me smile as a child (and, indeed, still do as a grown-up) – from skating with penguins to playing a game of chess with life-size pieces who move themselves and chat in character; or snakes and ladders with a 60ft-high board that has actual ladders to climb and real (friendly) snakes to slide down; or flying on the wings of an eagle.
I became a kid again. It was fun – and I got my smile back as I wrote the aptly titled The Girl With The Lost Smile. It allayed any fears I’d had that people would think I was just hopping on a comedian bandwagon of children’s book writing, because this was a story from the heart. I think there is a reason comedians lean towards children’s books – it’s because we are children! We like silly. We like breaking rules. Also, we like finding different ways in our imagination to navigate life because we often find it hard. So it made sense for me to write about a girl who came to understand the power of friendship and found the keys to maintaining a smile. I’m incredibly proud to be part of the world of children’s authors and I hope that I am accepted!
Writing a children’s book reminded me of all the wonderful titles I read as a child that provided me with the escapist imaginative worlds I have needed on those non-smiling days. I still regularly turn to old favourites. So it’s with great pleasure that I share with you, dear reader, my top eight children’s books. I am sure you will agree that these fine pieces of work would perk up the bleakest of bookshelves.
The Magic Faraway Tree
This is such a distinctive and surprising book. An Enchanted Wood? That’s one thing, but coming across characters in the tree such as Moonface and Saucepan Man – well, however surreal they were, you were captured. What a unique mind Enid Blyton had. The adventures in the different lands at the top of the tree – I remember in particular the Land of Spells – and then the sudden disappearance of Moonface et al…it all spooked me as much as I loved it.
I like that feeling of being nervous of and excited by a story at the same time. (I have coined a word for this: ‘nervited’. You’re welcome.) It’s an edgy feeling that gets the adrenalin going but you know it’s all going to come good in the end. A good life lesson. My adult version is ‘this too shall pass’ – remembering that fears and nasty moments always disperse eventually.
I hope my friend David is incredibly proud of himself, because what a thing he has achieved with his children’s books. They all highlight his skill as a comedian, with humour threaded throughout the fantastic stories in his wonderful Walliams world. I like the fact that all his books touch on some moral or life lesson, too, and in the case of Gangsta Granny it’s never to assume that your grandparents (or any older person) are boring just by nature of their age. They have a wealth of life experience and stories to share, and may indeed still have naughty adventures in them, like Gangsta Granny planning to steal the crown jewels. The joy of getting older is the freedom from peer pressure, the sense of being able to be more and more oneself without apology, and I for one plan to grow old as disgracefully as I can get away with – watch out! Any Walliams book is worth a read but I am biased towards this one as I played the mother in the television version.
Oh, I love these wonderful stories about outdoor life in one of the most beautiful parts of our country – the Lake District. Camping, sailing, exploring, discovering – it’s still the stuff of dreams for me. My favourite character was Peggy. She was shy and a little nervy but always kept up with her sister, who was captain of their boat. It was rather like me and my sister; although I was the elder, I was the shyer one, and often had to rely on my little sis to do the grown-up things. And I have to say Peggy is my favourite character still, because that’s partly who my dog is named after. I love that this book celebrates the importance and joy of friendship. But above all it harks back to a time when children had to use nature and their imagination to have fun through the long summer holidays. No iPads on tap here. I hope it inspires kids and adults who may have forgotten about the bliss and thrill and beauty of nature to rediscover it.
Another Enid Blyton, the Famous Five adventures are probably the best known of her extraordinary body of work. I adored reading about Julian, Dick, Anne, George and not forgetting Timmy the dog or indeed the scones and ginger cake, which I felt were characters in themselves. If there are any young girls out there who don’t feel as though they conform to the stereotypical female interests of princess dresses and the like, and would call themselves a tomboy, as I did when I was younger, then strong, fearless, resourceful heroine George will inspire you. I mean, she didn’t give up looking for that gold treasure and even calmly dealt with being trapped in a dungeon. She rocks! Set in a world where everyone had cooks and gardeners and an ease of life that doesn’t really exist any more, this is also a great book for escaping from the now. It gives much-needed respite as it lets us enjoy the peace and simplicity of children’s lives in days gone by.
You may not have heard of this book but it was the one I was most obsessed with as a youngster. It’s the story of a Letter-Box who feels very alone and sad, and is bored with just eating envelopes. So he decides to move away from his pavement position and visits a number of woodland creatures who all present him with lavish picnics so that our beloved Friendly Letter-Box can eat something other than paper and stamps. It’s a lovely, albeit bizarre way to share with children how people can be lonely and need to be looked after and treated well. Also there’s a subtext for us adults – that some of our jobs are hard, lonely and mundane, and it’s important that we appreciate and spoil each other, whether that’s with lavish picnics or in other ways.
My eight-year-old nephew introduced me to this book. He is an avid reader and Michael Morpurgo is one of his favourite authors. And what a story this is. Set in dangerous, war-torn Afghanistan, it really opens children’s eyes and teaches them about this part of the world as well as showing them what courage truly is as young Aman travels back to safety in England. That’s a powerful enough story in itself, teaching children about resilience and finding the inner strength to keep going despite all. Then add the treacherous journey in the company of his ‘shadow’, a gorgeous springer spaniel, and cue tears from me!
The Harry Potter stories are, of course, the bestselling books in history and therefore you could say this is a rather unoriginal one to put on my list. But I think this book is vitally important. Not only was it the beginning of a whole lexicon of cultural parlance that we now take for granted – muggles and sorting hats – but I believe it got many adults reading again. J K Rowling explores almost everything in her books – fantasy, friendship, horror, corruption, romance, coming of age – and she says the main theme is death. When you hear that, you realise that Harry, after the murder of his parents by Voldemort, has a constant sense of darkness, doom and death looming over him. He is forever battling – fighting for his life, and for good over evil. I love the way that J K’s personal story has mirrored the success of her books, too. She has fought for life and good. She is a wonderful woman.
I visited Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lake District a few years ago and was mesmerised by the little isolated cottage where she came up with so many of her delightful creations. I feel grateful to her as a writer for holing herself up in the way she did, living in her imagination and creating for the benefit of others. And I still love Mrs Tiggy-Winkle – her cosy, apron-clad matronly demeanour. You just want to rush up and give her a hug, despite the pricks (if you pardon). I wish to have an encounter with a friendly hedgehog like Lucie did in this tale (the joy of children’s books is summed up by that sentence). Life getting you down? Go on a daydream where you have an adventure with a hedgehog!
IN SEARCH OF A SMILE
Miranda’s new book:
Mr and Mrs Sweet looked at each other with concern as Chloe disappeared around the corner. Chloe hadn’t SMILED at them on her way to school. And that was a very worrying first.
As Chloe slouched along the road she saw a policeman. She tried to muster a SMILE for him. It must be a very difficult job and they are so brave, she thought. If anyone needs a SMILE it’s a policeman. She looked at him, but found herself only able to stare. And the policeman didn’t look best pleased. She didn’t even look at the lollipop lady – who snapped at a small boy dawdling as he crossed the road and made him cry.
And there was a dishevelled Mr Broderick, pedalling across the playground ahead of her, already late for the start of his day because that morning his car had broken down before he’d even backed out of his drive; and the seat of the bike he’d jumped on had fallen off, so he’d come to work on his daughter’s tiny pink bicycle shaped like a unicorn! It was exactly the kind of sight guaranteed to make any child laugh – not least one as humorously inclined as Chloe – but…
NOTHING. Today, the world stayed grey. There was no doubt about it, Chloe had lost her smile. And she hadn’t a clue how, or where. Or indeed what ON EARTH was going to happen to a girl with a LOST SMILE.
This is an edited extract from The Girl With The Lost Smile by Miranda Hart, which will be published on 5 October by Hodder Children’s Books, price £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £10.39 (a 20 per cent discount) until 1 October, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15