Froggy Emma (or, early book influences)

For GCSE English Lit, we studied Macbeth, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and my personal essay choice was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I enjoyed the analysis and our teacher was brilliant, but the contents didn’t inspire me to go read more classics. Not long after, I discovered cyberpunk, golden age sci-fi and far flung fantasy and that was it… a lifelong love of SFF.

Much before GCSE age, I read Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Railway Children and Black Beauty. They came as part of a collectable weekly set in the late Eighties, along with explanations of context and I’d devour these, absorbing facts. I don’t remember much about them now though.

And before that, my first “grown up” book — the one I read by myself but was a decent wordcount — was Enid Blyton’s The Hidey Hole. My favourite ever book was her Secret Island. I still have the paperback, well-worn and well-thumbed. Skipping forward a few years, I’m sure it’s why I loved Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons so much. My love of Blyton’s two series, The Twins at St Clare’s and Mallory Towers led me to find Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s, The Chalet School. My disappointment when I found out that didn’t exist was palpable.

Beverley Nicols The Tree that Sat Down was another well-loved book of mine and it was only later in life I realised there were other books in that series. I found it deeply unsettling yet a compelling read. It didn’t keep me away though.

Intertwined with these and going further back are Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree aeries with Silky and Moonface and their far-off adventures, and The Children of Cherry Tree Farm books. Although I’d need to see them side to side to compare, and read the books about 35 years ago, I still remember reading, “The stoat can easily be told from the weasel, by the simple fact its tail is blacked and its figure is slightly the bigger.” (It does rather ruin the joke, “how can you tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel?” [ans: A weasel is weasily identifiable, whereas a stoat is stotally different.])

I’d read for hours. My family joked the world could burn around me and I wouldn’t notice and it’s likely true. It was an expensive hobby too. Books bought to last all holidays didn’t get as far as the destination and we weren’t particularly encouraged to use the library. I was challenged on multiple occasions about whether I was actually reading the words or just turning pages — each and every time I would pass the test, irritated as to why I had to wait so long for the adult to read a section to question me on — I just wanted my book back so I could finsh the story!

But why froggy? Recently, a friend who I’ve known for years and years called me Froggy Emma and it took me back. The very first thing I read were nursery rhymes. On my second birthday, my parents gave me a book of them and for some reason, my absolute favourite was “Froggy Boggy”: Froggy Boggy tried to jump upon a stone and got a bump. It made his eyes wink and frown and turned his nose upside down. That’s 41 years ago I first found it and somehow the ‘frog thing’ as a nickname or idea for presents for me, stuck for a long time.

Thinking about the other nursery rhymes in that collection, I always preferred them to fairy stories — perhaps because they’re stripped back and more honest. There’s less room for rewriting to suit the patriarchy and with some, like Ring a Ring a Roses, they’re honest and grounded in cultural context. Of course, back then, I wouldn’t have known that. I just like my fantasy and escapism presented as ink on a page. And that’s a habit that’ll never change.

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