Did you know we have a special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library? It’s a collection of 80,000 books to which we add 1,000 new titles a year. Every month or so, our colleague, Claudia takes a look at this very special collection. This month, she has been looking at childhood memoirs.
Today Saturday 20 November is World Children’s Day. It commemorates the Declaration of the Rights of the Child by the UN General assembly on 20 November 1959 (its precursor was adopted by the League of Nations 35 years earlier, drafted by Eglantyne Jebb who founded Save the Children).
One of the most fundamental things that all human beings share is that we were all once children, though the experience of childhood varies enormously. For this blog post and the accompanying display on the ground floor of Kensington Central Library, I wanted to concentrate on peoples’ own childhood memoirs, rather than on reconstructions of the childhoods of the famous written by others.
Many writers and artists return to their childhood to examine the source of their inspiration; those interested in social history and psychology look to it to cast light on changing times and psychic development. Many other people who are not necessarily professional writers are drawn to revisit childhood memories, often in their later years as the understanding that the world in which they grew up has gone forever makes it appear more urgent to record it. We have many childhood memoirs linked to particular places and eras, some recording vanished rural lifestyles with a golden glow of perhaps selective nostalgia, others recording harsh conditions and the fight to improve them. Notwithstanding the huge differences in childhood experiences, as in all human experiences, certain features of childhood memoirs recur around the world and throughout history – the sense of the freshness and intensity of perceptions, the partial understanding of things that become clearer as we mature, and often the huge influence of significant people in forming who we become.
It is fascinating to see famous people through the eyes of their children, and memoirs of the children of important figures can give unique insight into those people’s daily lives and intimate relationships. Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of the poet Dylan Thomas, records the brilliance and volatility of both of her parents, and the wild beauty of their home at Laugharne on the estuary of the River Taf in Carmarthenshire, in a childhood full of love and joy as well as instability, alcoholism and poverty. Vyvyan Holland’s father, Oscar Wilde, appears more as a haunting absence than a quotidian presence in the memoir he wrote in his sixties. He describes the collapse of his happy childhood when Wilde was imprisoned under the persecutory homophobic law of the day, and his mother’s flight abroad with their children in an attempt to shield them from the scandal.
Childhood memoirs can give extraordinarily acute glimpses of ways of life because children’s eyes tend to focus on and record details that adults may overlook and which may be left out of historical analyses, giving a depth and texture to our understanding. The Education of Little Tree is Forest Carter’s memoir of his childhood being brought up by his Cherokee grandparents in Tennessee in the 1930s and is a depiction of a world threatened by the dominant culture. The unsentimental immediacy with which childhood memories are laid down, and with which some especially gifted writers depict them, makes stories like that of Little Tree’s removal to school to be “educated” out of his culture and heritage by those who think it is inferior, particularly piercing – here is another child, like Holland, who suffers due to bigotries he cannot understand and who as an adult must try to make sense of what was inflicted upon him.
Although not childhood memoir, I had to include in this display our biographies of Eglantyne Jebb, who as mentioned above was the extraordinary woman who founded Save the Children and drafted the original declaration of the rights of the child adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. Jebb’s urgent commitment to enshrining children’s human rights grew in the wake of the situation in Germany and Austria after their defeat in the First World War, when economic breakdown brought about by punitive peace terms caused the starvation of many children.
So I have included several moving memoirs and diaries of children caught up in war and genocide – the most famous such document is undoubtedly The Diary of Anne Frank, of which we have several editions; we also have the diary of Zlata Filipovic, describing her life during the war in Bosnia between the ages of 11 and 13, Loung Ung’s memoir of the Cambodian genocide, and more recently Malala Yousafzai’s description of her incredible fight for girls’ education in Pakistan, and how it led to her near-fatal shooting.
Other memoirs of children experiencing totalitarianism include Carmen Bugan’s wonderful Burying the Typewriter, about being a dissisdent’s daughter in Communist Romania, and Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs, about negotiating the rigid demands on a Young Pioneer in the Soviet Union. Very different demands were made of child stars like Shirley Temple and Drew Barrymore, and other child celebrities whose stories we can find in our collection.
Some of the world’s greatest writers have left records of their childhoods that rank among their finest works. The great Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki describes growing up in Tokyo in the 1890s and in My Reminiscences, giant of Bengali literature Rabindranath Tagore carefully examines the influences that awakened his curiosity and activated his genius. Ngugi Wa Thiongo, who grew up to become one of Africa’s greatest literary figures, wrote Dreams in a Time of War about his 1940s boyhood in Kenya, and Wole Soyinka, another giant of African letters, produced an unforgettable childhood memoir in Aké, about his village childhood in 1940s Nigeria. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the most important Yiddish writer, recorded his childhood in a Jewish Warsaw that was to be destroyed, including his eavesdropping on the conflicts brought to his father’s rabbinic court.
Some childhood memoirs have been treasured inclusions in bookshelves around the world for decades – Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie are both such classics, which cast fascinating light on the adults they became, and the subsequent books they wrote. Some childhood memoirs glitter with irreverent humour – Norman Lewis’s Jackdaw Cake and Natalia Ginzburg’s The Things We Used to Say (also translated as Family Sayings) deal with serious subject matter, but highlight the ridiculousness of childhood’s confrontation with adult eccentricity in a way that is extremely funny – this is also true of Gerald Durrell’s childhood memoirs, brought to TV screens in the recent popular ITV series.
Children’s views of their own lives provided invaluable social insight to sociologists, and we have some fascinating period pieces from the sixties, when Donald Measham interviewed a group of suburban children about the experience of being 14, and Ronald Goldman followed up children who had been taken into care – our Collected Biography Collection, a sub-group of the main Biography Collection which deals with groups of people, includes many books about groups of children united by a common experience, like wartime evacuees or children brought up under colonial rule.
As well as these memoirs of childhoods distinguished by historical drama or by subsequent fame, we have many memoirs of more simple, less eventful childhoods remembered by those who chose to preserve them with tenderness, regret, celebration, pain or humour – or, often, a mixture of all these. I hope you will enjoy discovering childhood from around the world and across the centuries.