Like a lot of kids who grew up to become writers, I was a voracious reader from a very early age.* My parents loved books too, and I remember going through their shelves in search of something, anything to try next. They didn’t often deny my choices in this regard–they let me try Alex Haley’s Roots, for instance, even though I must’ve been all of nine at the time–but they were sure also to suggest more age-appropriate titles. Both ways, I discovered a wealth of wonderful writing: my mother’s collection of Agatha Christie’s novels was an early obsession, my growing collection of Doctor Who Target novelisations another. It was therefore very hard to pick a single book out of all the books I loved back then . . . until I remembered this particular one.
I don’t know whether Tom Sawyer came from my parents’ bookshelves or was given to me by them. The edition I read back then, which I still have, is inscribed with my mother’s name and year at school, dating it to 1960 or so. It was therefore on the shelves at home and I could easily have stumbled across it that way. Equally, she could have given it to me to read, thinking I would like it–and what a gift it was.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a tale of mystery, magic, horror and romance that takes place in a world very different from our own. It reads to me today very much like urban fantasy, with all the quirky world-building and complex moral dilemmas of the very best modern writing for children. For anyone. It doesn’t matter that it was based on Twain’s actual childhood experiences; it doesn’t matter that the superstitious practices he describes were actually followed by people he had known (or that none of this magic seems to work very well); it doesn’t matter that this different world of his was separated from my childhood by merely a matter of years, not light-years. Twain’s writing effortlessly demonstrates that there’s magic in the mundane, and that fiction doesn’t have to be fantastical in order to be fantastic. Despite a shocking lack of no swords and sorcerers, robots and ray-guns, the much-younger me was entranced.
I’m still entranced.** It’d be drawing a very long bow to say that reading Tom changed my life forever. But it undoubtedly biased my reading of every novel since. That list I glibly rattled off earlier: “mystery, magic, horror, romance and humour”–I feel like I’ve been trying to corral these unruly elements into stories ever since. Had I not been exposed to them in such perfect form, at such an early age, perhaps I would be a very different writer today.
When Mark Twain learn that the Brooklyn Public Library was considering banning his book, he responded: “The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean.”*** I say, may children will continued to soiled by this wonderful book for generations to come, to the betterment of us all.
* Whether writers ever really grow up is a whole other conversation.
** Yet I’ve never finished the second in Twain’s diptych of fictional reminiscences, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it puzzles me that this is the novel that people describe most fondly. Are we reading the same books? To me, Tom Sawyer is one of those rare novels that simultaneously captures and transcends its time. Huck Finn is the inferior sequel.
*** The full quote is: “I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.”
Sean’s most recent book: ‘Troubletwisters: The Monster’, co-written with Garth Nix, published by Allen & Unwin (Australia), Egmont (UK), Scholastic (US). For more, visit Sean’s website.