Not a review: ‘Bookworm’ by Lucy Mangan

Note: this really is not a review. My about-a-book entries are never reviews, just me gushing about books I’ve absolutely loved and have time to write about. Take it for granted that if this was a review it would be a five-star thing, though, because I’m coming out of the tail-end of a migraine right now and shouldn’t be looking at a screen, but am compelled to write this.

Despite the name, this blog regularly goes completely off-piste in terms of subject matter. Instead of being about books (was the plan) or favourite cafes (was never the plan) as the name implies (name taken from what I will call my bookshop when I have one), posts tend to be some mangled version of what a Bookworm (me) and a Coffee Monster (my dearly beloved) are sort of doing to pass the time, as a way to er, pass the time to avoid doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

But not today. Today it is all about (ta-da!) Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan.


There’s no need to copy and paste the blurb to explain what this book is about. It’s right there in the title. It’s just this incredibly generous, insightful, familiar (if, like me and both my sisters, you are a bookworm), nostalgia-inducing, memory-prompting gift of a tome that manages to cover a history of children’s books in the very funny, very sincere, warm-but-no-fucking-nonsense style that I treasure in Lucy Mangan’s columns. And it has a beautiful cover illustrated by Laura Barratt, who, I was told by my local Waterstones’ childrens department manager with no small amount of pride, also works for Waterstones.

I want to give a copy to everyone – people who I know grew up as bookworms, because my God the stories that you suddenly remember reading, and the descriptions of the world just going away while you do it, and the not-quite-fitting-in with classmates who don’t understand why you like reading… To people who have children almost as a guiding manual to books they should be trying to get hold of (there’s a handy list in the back)… To my parents, especially. It’s just fantastic.

You don’t even have to have the same taste in books as Lucy Mangan to enjoy it. In a total opposite to Lucy, as a kid I read as many 1980s and early-90s dystopian books as I could lay my hands on, and re-read them. In my heart I am always convinced we are rushing towards dreadful dooms, and I always felt as though Z for Zachariah, Brother in the Land and their kin such as Plague 99 (by Jean Ure, whose dystopian and horror books I loved) were good preparation.

So no, not a review, just a sort of declaration of love.

And a quick, badly edited, list of stuff that reading it prompted:

  • Flashback to winning an award, for something, at a primary school event I was too ill to go to. You were supposed to be able to pick your prize, but I couldn’t because of being ill. So the headteacher, Mr Green, picked out a book for me. It was hardback and called The Weather Child, about a boy called Edmund who goes deaf. I loved it. There’s a scene where he decorates the old Christmas tree and tries to get his Mum to come and see it, and while he’s doing it his Dad sets the bonfire with the tree on it, and it was just heartbreaking. I remember feeling very seen by and thankful to Mr Green for knowing to pick it out. [I wrote this without checking the details, and have now discovered it was called Mundo and the Weather-Child by Joyce Dunbar. And I’d forgotten an important detail, which is that the Weather-Child was an imaginary friend.]


  • Trying to sit in a tree at home to read [I had a fully countryside childhood, with gardens and fields and a river straight out of books. I was very lucky.] It sounds better in writing, honestly. I tried cushions in the fork of a branch and everything, because children in books were always sitting in, reading in, and having lunch in trees. It was wildly uncomfortable and I had to give up. I went back to the sofa.
  • Annoying the rest of my primary school class by convincing them to vote for Goggle-eyes (Anne Fine, whose Crummy Mummy and Me was also a staple in our house) as our class read. I was enthusiastic because I’d read it so many times and loved it. I did not fully realise, at the time, that everyone else went along with the idea because the series adaptation had just started on telly. It was a lot more slapstick than the book, and they were disappointed.


  • Trebizon School books! I had forgotten they existed, and they were my first introduction to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. A lot of the poems I remember best I remember because they were in books. There’s an Australian classic, Thunderwith, which did a similar job.
  • Following on from that, realising that having Australian relatives who always sent us books meant there was a strong Australian classic slant to our childhood reading. Seven Little Australians and The Family at Misrule was my What Katy Did (oh Judy, my heart still breaks every time) long before I ever bothered to read about Katy. Shout out to those books, also, for being what I now recognise as a rare example of a stepmother joining the family and being loved by all the kids and it not being a big plot point. Also Marmaduke the Possum, which put me right off picking flowers. [Lucy Mangan, if you ever read this, I fully recommend all these books. Warning: Marmaduke contains talking animals.]


  • Oh yes, Bookworm will have you wanting to share the titles of every book you ever loved as a child, in the event they weren’t mentioned in it. (It’s a personal memoir, after all, not an exhaustive history.) And that is brilliant because it’s that feeling, isn’t it, of wanting to sit with a friend and a stack of books and trade titles you love. That feeling, I’ve found, becomes a bit jaded as an adult when people are just retweeting recommends on Twitter or you (say) work for a writing magazine. But coming out of Bookworm, it feels fresh. The enthusiasm is back, and not rooted in sharing books because they are culturally important or have something to say or are prize-winning, but because you won’t believe what Jessica Wakefield did this time.
  • Oh, my god, also: thank you, Lucy, for finally clearing up for me what a lavalier is.
  • I’ve been sort of feverishly listing a lot of books to track down and re-read.
  • Also exclaiming ‘yes!’ and ‘Ha!’ a lot, especially on reaching certain authors like Judy Blume, whose books were passed constantly between me and my sisters. I was there at the Q&A mentioned in Bookworm, and was fully one of the 30-something ages women crying. I also teared up about (amongst others) The Railway Children and Charlotte’s Web because the lovely thing Lucy Mangan does is remind you, through her own memories, of how you felt when you read them for the first time, and what it was like to hide under the bed with a book to avoid being called out to play or do the washing up. And how it feels to emerge in a daze from a completely different world and time, your elbows all embossed from lying on the carpet.

All that.

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