Lenny Henry talks to Julia Eccleshare about his route into reading … and into becoming a children’s author.
‘Thank God for the Dudley Public Library,’ says Lenny Henry. ‘My Auntie Pearl took me to the library when I was four and she thought it was time I learnt to read. The first book that was plucked out for me was Little Black Sambo. My Auntie chose it because it was a starter book.’
Perhaps Auntie Pearl thought that a book about a black boy would be easy for the four-year-old Lenny to feel comfortable with, recognising one of the cardinal rules of reading – that it’s important to identify with the character. The adult Lenny Henry has considerable reservations. ‘It’s a great little story but at school I was always called “sambo” or “golliwog”. People didn’t really think about what those words meant but they were incredibly prejudiced.’ Lenny would certainly not defend the wilder extremes of political correctness, citing the recent fuss in the US over Big Ears as ridiculous, but he’s against any book that encourages children to clump people together as all one kind just because they’re black or fat. In his own book, Charlie and the Big Chill, he’s created a black character whom he describes as ‘iconic’, someone who stands for many aspects of childhood, someone whom any child can identify with.
‘There was no way that I could find anyone like me in a book,’ says Henry. ‘The only blacks in books when I was a kid were slaves.’ But, luckily for Lenny, he had the imagination to identify with characters of all kinds and his early visits to the library had already instilled a delight in books which kept him going back and back. ‘I used to borrow a pile of books every week. I was a voracious reader. I think it was because I knew that every week I could go the library and get three books out. Books were a big thing in my life – always.’
Encouraged first at home by Auntie Pearl and later at school, Lenny enjoyed reading for pleasure and not just as something associated with education. He’s alarmed at the prospect of the current generation growing up associating books entirely with school because they’re being deprived open access through libraries.
‘It’s important for children to have access to books in libraries. It’s like a universe, not just a world but a whole galaxy of pleasure and knowledge is on offer in a library … because I was introduced to books early I was never scared of them, though I did jump ahead a bit fast. I remember being in junior school and wanting to succeed so I read and read.’
Like many others, Lenny cites Enid Blyton as one of his breakthrough authors. ‘With the best writers you conjure up images yourself without any help from computer generation, video or other visuals. You begin to take an active part in a book. When I read Enid Blyton I was there with the Secret Seven or Famous Five. I was on Puffin Island or right in the secret cave.’
Bowled along by the power of adventure, Lenny swiftly moved on to books with strong narrative which spoke more directly to a teenager. ‘By the time I was at secondary school I was going to the library and getting out really adult books with sexy bits in. I was a bit of a daydreamer, not really successful and I was really pleased to find books that were about people like me. I particularly liked The Car Thieves where a kid is held in a juvenile detention centre. He’s a misfit and feels out of place everywhere. He goes out somewhere, meets a girl and has his first sexual yearnings. I found this very interesting when I was about 15 and it said lots to me. I realised one of the things books can do is provide a direct pipeline that links the reader to the character. In the same way I loved E W Hildick’s Birdy stories (Birdy Jones, Birdy and the Group, Birdy Swings North, etc.). They’re about a pop group which this boy Birdy runs. It’s got all the fame and fortune stuff and I loved the idea of this guy who doesn’t sing, he just whistles.’
Alongside these more obvious teenage titles, Lenny also read horror compilations and ‘lots of comics. They’re a very strong influence on everything I do.’ But the biggest influence came from discovering Dickens. ‘I tried to read all of Dickens in one term. I had this great teacher at my secondary school called Mr Nash. He encouraged me to read Dickens and even more he encouraged me to read Dickens out loud. Lots of books would benefit from being read aloud, partly because when you’re reading aloud or listening to a book being read aloud you can take your time over it. I re-read Hard Times recently which had been one of my favourites at school. Dickens piles on joke after joke after joke, but you have to take your time to understand it and to take in what he’s doing. He also uses great expressions such as describing someone as having “commodious eyes” – brilliant, quite brilliant. Of course, at 12 or 13 I didn’t really understand all of that. I thought they were all very serious books. I enjoyed them but I mostly read them because I thought that I should read them. Even then, though, I knew there was a lot of stuff going on in Dickens.’
Also, clearly, in Lenny Henry. As he says, thank God for Dudley Public Library … not to mention Auntie Pearl.
Lenny Henry’s Charlie and the Big Chill, illustrated by Chris Burke, is published by Gollancz (0 575 05938 9, £6.99) and was reviewed by Wendy Cooling in the last issue of BfK (No.93, July 1995).