Annie Ashworth is one half of the writing duo Annie Sanders. She and her co-author Meg Sanders have published five novels, including the best-selling Goodbye, Jimmy Choo and The Xmas Factor. As a genre it's probably best described as Hen Lit - not about young relationships but old cynicism. Writing as a duo is an unusual but very enjoyable way of working, which involves tolerance and immense honesty, but is curiously reassuring: someone else to bore senseless about your work who is also involved. Meg and Annie have also written several non-fiction books together, including Trade Secrets, around the BBC2 series. Annie is a director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival. Here she discusses Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom.
Annie Ashworth on Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
Life's too short to read anything twice. In fact I managed to scrape through my A-levels and my university degree reading the set texts just once, and I actually threw Middlemarch across the room with glee when I'd worked through to the last page. As tempting as it is to pick up and re-read something you've enjoyed - loved even - I only have to walk into a bookshop and I'm so overwhelmed by the novels that deserve and demand to be read, I know I'll never waste time going back over old ground.
So the yardstick of a great and loved book? That it moves house with me. When a house is sold - and there have been a few - and the bookshelves are emptied, much of their contents end up going to the Oxfam shop but some just can't be parted with. The Penguin Classics with their curled pages and notes in the margin in adolescent handwriting taken during seminars. Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf - though Lord knows why. I think she's overrated as a writer and I'm not sure she'd make it past the slush pile today. The complete works of Mary Wesley come with me too. She was a delight, an inspiration, a talent that was so nearly missed.
The sainted Jane Austen comes too of course, and though I've never re-read it in its entirety, Pride and Prejudice sits by my bed and I dip into it occasionally. It's a funny, clever, observant look at snobbery and 18th century life, but it's also the thinking woman's Mills and Boon. The scene in which Darcy reveals all transports you to a land of 'if only'. Then you close the book and try not to be cynical. You try not to think about how the relationship will get tired eventually, and how they'll have their first row and how their kids will drive them mad.
I'll never throw away Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns either. Both novels managed a remarkable feat – to transport the reader to a place they had never been or are ever likely to go and made them understand it. I could almost taste the dust in my mouth.
But there are some books that I have re-read and those were the ones that I curled up and read out loud to all three of my children. Books that have been passed down from the oldest to the youngest. Each time I read them they bring me joy. Children's books can be so wonderfully funny and inane, but they can be shocking too. The most dreadful events can take place, made starker somehow because they are couched in a story levelled at a child's understanding. Children take these events on the chin and move on. Perhaps for us adults they are all the more affecting because the emotions and fall-out are left hanging. They're not explored. The characters in the book don't discuss how they feel. Take, for example, Mrs Weasley hugging Harry Potter – one of the most moving moments in any book because this boy has had no maternal love, no love of any kind, for the whole of his life and has faced unimaginable fears. Suddenly a warm loving woman embraces him. To read this as a mother was almost too much to bear and I howled.
However, the book that has made me cry every time has to be Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom. This is a story that could be rewritten for adults and would be judged as fascinating and moving. Written as it is, though, for children, it is devastating. A young boy, Will, is evacuated from the East End to the country and billeted with a late-middle-aged widower who is cantankerous and unwelcoming. As the first part of the story unfolds, the reader gets a wonderful sense of hope that the country will be the saviour of this child. There are signs that all is not well – the bed-wetting and the dreams – but Will makes friends and shows an exceptional skill at drawing.
His mother's demand that he return to London and the scenes that follow are extraordinary, culminating in the moment when Tom goes to find him and discovers that his mother has run away and left Will locked under the stairs, tied up and holding in his arms the body of his dead baby sister. Your mouth drops open in disbelief. How could a mother behave like this? How could a child recover from such a trauma?
From then on you know that Tom has to kidnap him from the hospital to which he is taken, remove him from the threat of being taken to a children's home and make his world safe. It is such an unexpected scenario, an old man having custody of a young boy – can you imagine it being allowed to happen today! But it is this that makes the story so moving. Tom can show his compassion again – he was clearly a wonderful husband – and this boy will get all the love and care he needs.
This is not the end of the blows – his best friend Zac is killed in the Blitz – but somehow the book limps to its conclusion. It's an unusual 'happy ending'. Good has overcome evil in a way, though it's an odd sort of evil, and I have closed the book every time fearing how long William will have this safety net. What if Tom dies, as he inevitably will soon? How will the past come back and manifest itself when Will becomes a man?
I don't imagine my children absorbed any of these implications, and why would they? They came away with a sense of relief. I am left with an immense feeling of unease and it is this that makes it one of the most unusual books I have ever read.