Charlotte Comley traces the history that led to a love of The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

I have to admit that when I’m asked about my reading history or favourite books it fills me with panic. Go to any writers' event, and the topic usually drifts on to books. Being interested in writing for children, I often hear long lists of children's books from the other authors. They talk about them as if they were friends.

However, the truth is that, although my war-baby mother who struggled to read and write encouraged education, she only wanted us to get enough to get by. As Mum said, ‘No one likes a clever woman.’

I was the first person in the family to get a degree, and when I did bring a book home, my mother would see it as an invitation for me to do a job. 'Since you have nothing to do, can you go to the shop to buy milk, wash up, mow the lawn... ?' Years later, I introduced my mother to audiobooks and things did change. Until that moment reading was a waste of time.

I loved books, but they were never in abundance. I was in my late teens and an adult when I read most of the children's fiction other writers loved as children. It makes a difference. There is a lot about children’s fiction that I just don’t get. Ballet shoes, horse riding, boats and worst of all wandering around the countryside begging at farmers’ doors for lemonade - it’s something I can’t connect with.

Still from the BBC TV serialisation of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

I enjoyed The Railway Children, but was frustrated by the way they made poverty an adventure and characters were somehow still removed from the dirty-poor. I still cringe at the Perks’ birthday chapter and the quote from Mother, warning them about how to present the gifts to a poor person.
'There's no harm in it,' said Mother, 'but it depends how you do it. I only hope he won't be offended and think it's charity. Poor people are very proud, you know.'
I swore out loud when I read it and still wish that the evil little coal thief - didn't know it was stealing, right *wink wink* - had got run over by the train. And the buns! What was that all about? If the mother had some sense, she’d have bought a bag of flour, eggs and butter. You could have made a massive cake and still have change. Shop-bought buns that she decorated? The woman just got on my nerves.

Back in the 70s and 80s, it was seen as a waste of time to educate working-class children, and if you had a hearing problem and needed speech therapy, you were slammed into a separate building with the other 'remedials' in secondary school. It’s now more kindly referred to as ‘special needs’ class.

Anyway, remedial class was my reading time. We got to watch Words with Pictures, but since I'd seen most of the episodes in primary school, I read. I liked The Hobbit, and I admit to being a bit in love with Dickon from A Secret Garden, but when I started on The Lord of the Rings, the staff sussed me. Hearing problem? Check. Speech problem? Check. Dim? Alas no, so I was chucked out of the warm, kind and chill unit.

I went into the mainstream, which was a different ball game. It was just before Christmas in Senior One or Year Seven as they call it now, I was in the bottom set for everything. It’s hard to believe, but I was never even allowed into Mr Williams’ geography room.

I still got my reading time. I am convinced that the reading and daydreaming when I was not doing geography put me in good stead for a writer. But they weren’t kids’ books. I read horror because it made me feel less alone. Flowers in the Attic, Let’s Go Play at the Adams’, Salem's Lot, and The Shining. Thank you, Stephen King, for my bizarre fear of shower curtains and the fact I’m still freaked out by hotel corridors.

Stephen King, Comicon 2007, Pinguino Kolb

Since I had two part-time jobs during secondary school, reading took a bit of a back seat at home, and then I went to college and had to fight to do A-Levels. I would have just sucked it up and given up on education entirely if it wasn't for The Color Purple, the first book to make me cry. First of all, all the mistakes were in print. I’ve only been diagnosed as a dyslexic as an adult last year, and the red pen over my work was all too familiar throughout education.

What can I say, I am sorry if my grammar offends, but I have things to say!

And Celie didn’t let it stop her from telling her story. However, it was the pain through the words that made an impact. Celie, a poor black girl with a miserable life, writes to her sister. How I longed and still do, to have a connection with a family member like what she has with Nettie. Celie is an incredibly powerful narrator. She's often detached from the events happening around her, but she doesn't wallow in sadness. She tells her story.

I still don't understand how black lesbians living in the deep South could make such an impact on a girl from Lancashire. Maybe it’s because although it's brutal in places, she manages to overcome and change. She is strong and refuses to be anything other than herself.

To this day when I'm corrected over whether to say can or may, tea or supper, when given small reminders that I shouldn't be here, or I will never be truly accepted, I remember Celie, Nettie, Shug and Sofia's voices.

Folks don't like nobody being too proud, or too free.

Still from the 1985 film of The Color Purple


Charlotte Comley is currently working on two teen novels funded by the Arts Council. She is a professional storyteller and has had 11 educational resources published. She is also studying for an MA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Winchester University. Regularly contributes to Words & Pictures - Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isle.

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