It’s World Book Day and children everywhere are dressing up as their favourite book characters in celebration! My parents read hundreds of books to me as a young child – works by Roald Dahl, Ted Hughes, Judith Kerr, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, J.R.R. Tolkien and Margery Williams Bianco, to name just a few – but there was one book that was always my favourite.Tilly’s House written & illustrated by Faith Jaques and first published in 1979, is the story of a wooden doll, a kitchen maid called Tilly, who decides to escape the dolls’ house she resides in, and find a home of her own. Along the way she befriends a teddy bear called Edward, who helps her on her mission and by the end, her journey is happily complete. It’s a simple story, plainly written, and seeing it again had me questioning why it made such a strong impression on me as a child.
There is something universally appealing about dolls’ houses; miniaturisation; of viewing the world in a different scale, and of toys coming alive. A few examples in popular culture spring to mind: Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker ballet, Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers, the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Toy Story franchise, and more recently, Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist, which was made into a BBC television adaptation last year. It helps that Tilly’s House is full of charming, colourful illustrations. But for me I think it was more (or less) than that.
I suspect I was drawn to Tilly’s plight because it seemed utterly plausible (living toys aside) to me. As a character Tilly isn’t overtly beautiful, ambitious or heroic – she isn’t trying to save the world and doesn’t rely on a ballgown, magic powers or long golden hair in order to snag herself a prince. She is hard-working, friendly and quietly determined – she simply decides what she wants – independence – and sets about finding it. I can’t help but admire that.
Making one’s own home is part of the plan for most people, but for me, throughout sharing a room with my sister as a child, a student house at university, and then a cottage with my mother, it was my enduring, number one goal, even above finding Prince Charming. Leafing through Tilly’s House now I can’t help wondering if the little book was the initial seed of that relentless dream.I’m happy to admit that nowadays, when entertaining friends in my own tiny flat, I feel the same, proud, sense of achievement as Tilly in her greenhouse-bench home. In fact, Safe With Me, the last novel I had published, features a woman who escapes from a life of drudgery to a semi-rural garden centre, so maybe Tilly is still inspiring me, even now. In my opinion the power of children’s books cannot be underestimated.
What’s your favourite childhood book and what effect has it had on you?