The Faraway Tree
First published 1939
An only child, I grew up with very few books. I was given the occasional comic deemed suitable for small people, one of which was Sunny Stories, edited by Enid Blyton. This led me on to her books, and The Faraway Tree was the first I read. Salma Yaqoob, from Stop the War, says it was this book that taught her the power of fantasy. I have chosen it because, despite the often twee prose, Blyton knew how to tell a story. Three children discover an old dark tree. They climb it and find it reaches into a magical land, which changes each time they visit. The story opened my mind to the world of the imagination and I became an avid reader.
First published 1922
I used to escape at lunchtime from my primary school and lead a whole gang of kids to Heston library, where I discovered William, the eternal anarchist. It was during the war but we didn’t think much about bombs or even about the ‘Nasties’, as William called them. When I was evacuated to Nottingham, there was always William to ease my longing to return to the London of the doodlebugs. He lived with me through the war and still makes me chuckle quietly to myself when I am sad.
First published 1954
This is my favourite of the wonderful Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. It starts with a huge flood. With the waters rising, the Moomins see a house with the front door missing floating towards them. It is huge, and they jump on board. Gradually you become aware that the house is in fact a theatre and comes complete with Emma, a grumpy stage manager. It ends with a show, which the Moomins put on for the small animals thereabouts. All jaded actors and directors should read this book.
100 shorter poems
Publisher long forgotten
This was one of my father’s few books. Some inspired teacher must have given it to him and he could recite several of the poems by heart. Later I too had an inspired teacher, who used to write poems on sheets of cardboard, decorate them and lay them out in front of the class. Anyone who finished their work early could choose a poem, learn and recite it. I eventually married a poet, and sometimes think that my father’s little anthology and Miss Mizen’s clever reward system gave me the extraordinary gift of a lifetime of love and happiness.
Wings and the Child
First published 1913
Edith Nesbit was an extraordinary woman who wrote for children in a language they could understand at a time when most such writing had a conservative moral and political bias. Her belief in the power of the imagination, the way she talked of children as real people with their own identities, her sense of humour and her exciting stories all mark her out as a very special writer. This glorious, affirmative book is a reminder that the world is full of wonders.
Plats du jour
Primrose Boyd and Patience Gray
One day my French professor invited me for a meal at the Normandy Hotel. It was one of the best turns anyone ever did for me. I learnt the importance of eating properly. Later, when I began to cook myself, I tried to recreate the wonderful cassoulet and salade vert I so enjoyed that evening. And the book that seemed to have all the information and enthusiasm to help me with my culinary attempts, and has stayed with me since, is this little Penguin, so delightfully illustrated by David Gentleman.
Tynan on Theatre
Ken Tynan’s reviews made us leap out of bed on Sundays to get the Observer, and this book contains some of the most important writing about the transformation in British theatre, from Rattigan to Osborne. My late husband Adrian and I met in the office of the BBC’s Tempo arts programme when Ken was its editor; I was a researcher and Ken wanted Adrian to write a script. From then on Ken was a good friend and a loyal supporter. He commissioned Adrian to write Tyger, a play about Blake with music by Mike Westbrook that was done by the National Theatre. And he never hesitated to defend it from its very right-wing critics.
Who Killed Dylan Thomas?
Adrian Mitchell, Ralph Steadman
Ty Llen Publications
This is a lecture given by Adrian in Swansea when he was a happy Dylan Thomas Fellow for a month in1995. It is not a conventional lecture, more a collection of thoughts on poetry and a collage of poems and letters. Adrian sent the manuscript to Ralph Steadman to ask if he could use Ralph’s portrait of Dylan. Ralph sent it back having drawn all over the pages and it was subsequently printed in book form.
It describes the constant struggle to exist that eventually killed Dylan. At the end Adrian writes: ‘Artists can sometimes survive without public help. But do you want art to survive? Or do you want art to flourish?’
The actress and long-time activist Celia Hewitt (Mitchell) runs the Ripping Yarns second-hand bookshop in Highgate, north London, which specialises in children’s and illustrated books