Martha Lee is the CKG judge for YLG Wales and is a Community Librarian in Hengoed.
Life is full of ‘firsts’: first steps; first words; first day of nursery; then primary school and your first day of comprehensive school. Your first kiss; first boyfriend/girlfriend; first time you have sex; the first time you time your try a cigarette or alcohol (normally remembered because they are such a bad experience – I was 16, too young and it was vodka and orange juice – I haven’t been able to drink vodka since and only recently orange juice!). Your first day at college or university; first day of a new job, the first time you buy a house, your first baby and so on and so on.
I think we all agree these are momentous occasions in everyone’s life that we all can recall with clarity. But what if in addition to all these significant, life changing, events you’re a complete bibliophile as well? If you are, like me, you’ll also have all your literary firsts which are equally as momentous and life changing as the ones listed above.
Of course there are all the picture books you were read when you were little which always make a huge impact and bring back nostalgic memories: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson Dairy, Meg and Mog, Burglar Bill, Cops and Robbers, Each Peach Pear Plum – there are SO many fabulous books I remember from my childhood, I could go on and on but you get the idea! Being read aloud to is one of the best ways of getting children into the reading habit so all these books I reminisce about gave me a brilliant foundation, getting me drawn in to the particular experience of each book more and more. I began to dream and wonder and just wanted to read and read so I started to pick up books by myself to go on more adventures.
To begin, there’s the first book you read by yourself. Now I can’t remember exactly which my first was, being constantly surrounded by books I could be wrong, but I vividly remember sitting down and reading The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy when I was seven years old. I absolutely fell in love with clumsy Mildred and her adventures at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, along with her cat Tabby and friends Maud and Enid, always getting told off by the truly terrifying Miss Hardbroom.
The first time you read Harry Potter. Now I know Harry Potter isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but I can remember so clearly the first time I read it, nearly twenty years ago, it’s definitely a ‘first’ for me. My mother came home from work with a copy (from the library of course) and said that this was a new book that had come in that day and it was meant to be really good. I took one look at it (and the, let’s be honest, pretty bad cover), made a face but took it upstairs anyway and started reading it because I was bored. About 20 minutes later I ran back downstairs and declared to my entire family that this was THE BEST BOOK I’VE EVER READ, EVER. From then on I was a massive fan and queued up at midnight outside Waterstones in Cardiff every release date for the next one, peering in desperation at the book in the dark car on the way home. As I said in my bio on the CKG website, Harry Potter changed my life and certainly exploded my reading habit.
The book you know you’re too young to be reading but you carry on anyway. This was definitely Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess when I was twelve. Where to begin? Violence, swearing, sex, murder, betrayal, blood…this was a disturbing, gripping and utterly fantastic read. I read it once 17 years ago and can still remember every detail.
Your first ‘classic’. You either love them or hate them. Of course you study them in school (Of Mice and Men – hated it, Shakespeare – loved it) but reading Pride and Prejudice for the very first time of my own accord age thirteen turned me into a desperate romantic and all I wanted to do was be as cool and awesome as Elizabeth Bennett.
The first book that made you cry. Three words: The Amber Spyglass. Philip Pullman – how could you do it?! I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t read it but I cried solidly for a week after I had finished this. This book, this series, had such an impact on me – providing rocket fuel for my reading habit so that at thirteen I was an insatiable reader and didn’t stop through my teen years.
Your first adult book that scared you witless. Hands down this was I Am Legend by Richard Matheson when I was fourteen. Forget the rubbish film and read the book. I don’t think I’ve ever read something that has scared me more, just thinking about it now makes my heart race. I definitely wanted to do a ‘Joey’ and put it in the freezer.
So these are just a few of my literary firsts and there are still many more I could mention and many more I am yet to experience. All these earth-shattering firsts I have encountered have made me the person and devoted reader I am today. My regular visits to the library as a child and then a teen, getting recommendations for books from my librarian, parents and sisters and all of the amazing authors I’ve read has contributed to shaping my personal, emotional and literary development. I am so excited and privileged to have my CKG ‘first’ as judge which could help shape children’s reading habits. I have no doubt in my mind that those shadowers, and indeed anyone, who reads from this truly fantastic shortlist will have one of their own momentous ‘firsts’.