On the outside, the council house we grew up in looked just like everybody else’s: we all had the same colour door (green), with black slate tiles and beige, narrow bricks. But inside, our house was different. Inside, we had books. Not a huge amount by today’s standards, and with the exception of my dad’s prized Reader’s Digest collection, most were borrowed from (and promptly returned to) the library. But we were a family of readers, with my dad the most passionate reader of all.
It wasn’t the books per se that he loved, but the landscape of dreams within them. Our meagre bookshelves were eclectic: Austen and Wilbur Smith sat alongside Shakespeare and James Clavell, vying for space with the histories of ancient civilisations and guides to mushroom picking, bird spotting and wine making. We had a respectable dictionary and Thesaurus collection for the daily crossword competitions and in the days before google, friends would knock our door to borrow them.
Our little oasis of books helped lead me to university, where I read what the English Literature course told me to, and in the holidays, my dad would share with me his latest book haul from charity shops and car boot sales. I fell in love and eventually had children, so I saw my dad less as I got older, but when we did meet up, ‘What are you reading?’ became our instant re-connection.
I have told you all this in order to establish my dad’s credentials as a reader, because I am about to tell you that this 77-year-old man loves Middle Grade fiction. I absolutely shouldn’t have to do this, but there is such ignorance about children’s literature, that I feel it’s necessary to clarify that my dad still has all of his mental faculties and is a prolific and discerning reader.
When my mum – his wife of 47 years – died a couple of years ago, books became even more important to my dad. Books are now his companions, his heart-salve and distraction. My brother and I take turns to visit him every weekend, and so, once a fortnight I take my dad out for lunch, and whilst he eats his gammon, egg and chips, we swap and discuss books. Some of his favourites this year have been All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon.
Every fortnight, my then ten-year-old and fourteen-year-old sons nodded politely away at my dad whilst they guzzled their coke. Then last year, my youngest brought along Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, a fantastic and moving series set in prehistoric times, seeped in magic and survivalist skills. My dad’s eyes lit up when he described it, so my son gave him the book. And oh, he loved it. My dad devoured the whole series, and for months, he and my son had long and gorgeous conversations about wolves, woods and magic.
When the series ended, my dad pined for more. We gave him Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, which he wept over, Varjak’s Paw by SF Said, which he (and my son) raved about, and Holes by Louis Sacher. He adored In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll and Rooftoppers and Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. Time after time he has met us with tears in his eyes as he discussed the books with my son, wondering why they have been restricted to the ‘children’s’ category when they were such sophisticated, well-written and moving stories. He still reads ‘adult’ literature (he is currently reading – and loving – Himself, a stunning soon-to-be-published debut by Jess Kidd), but he also loves the Middle Grade books that my son gives him. In fact, he makes no distinction between the two: all he wants is a compelling and well-written story that touches him in some way.
Watching my dad – a prolific reader – discover a whole world of books he knew nothing about made me realise how many adults are missing out on tremendous stories just because they are categorised as ‘children’s’. Yet the potential for ‘cross over’ between grandparents and grandchildren must be huge: both are at the vulnerable extremes of life, with an empathy and emotional accord that unites rather than divides them.
But the best thing about my dad reading ‘Middle Grade’ books isn’t just that he was exposed to great literature: they reminded him of the child he used to be, and despite an age gap of sixty-five years and an increasing digital divide, they’ve helped create and develop a genuine connection between my father and my son.
Next week my son will give my dad his latest favourite book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. And my dad won’t ask him whether it is ‘adult’, or ‘YA’, or ‘Middle Grade’. All he wants to know is, ‘Is it any good?’
Like so much ‘Middle Grade’ literature, the answer – of course – is yes, it’s brilliant, and my 11-year-old son can’t wait to share it with his 77-year-old grandad.