The book that got me four A Levels and a BSc degree
“Madelaine will never amount to anything,” my primary headmistress announced. “She is idle, unintelligent and frankly remedial.” The broke my mother’s heart, but my seven year old one harder.
Tears running down my face, I made an effort to withdraw into myself as much as possible. Under no circumstances was I to draw attention to the stupid little girl I inhabited. I’d daydream, too frightened to ask questions in class. I hated learning to read because it meant someone having to hear my mistakes.
The truth of it was that I was a painfully anxious child. I was convinced I was going to hell for having curly hair (Catholic education), that I was going to lose all my teeth if I forgot to brush in the morning, and that I was going to be a disappointment to my parents forever. Every day of school was utter hell. Having to be publicly exposed as thick was embarrassing and humiliating. And I’d dwell on it. All night.
What no one knew was that I could read. I was actually leaps and bounds ahead of The Magic Key or The Ladybird Books. I’d get through them voraciously…under the covers at home. Soon I’d hide in the library and read The Chronicles of Narnia all by myself. I’d stay up late devouring absolutely anything I could find. But I didn’t want adults to know in case they made me do it out loud.
Anyway, I went to secondary school, still shy, and realised that I wasn’t stupid. At my new school, I was comfortably average, away from hardcore Catholic expectation. But there was one author who changed everything.
I came across I, Coriander by chance. I was 11 and had to prove I could read to some librarian. Angry, tired of the relentless belittlement, I grabbed the thickest book I could find and spat out a whole page without pausing to breathe.
This book turned out to be the best thing I’d ever read. Combining history with magic and deep emotional pain, I stumbled into something I could relate to, get lost in. I finished it every night with my mother, stumbling occasionally over words like tulle or incandescent. But this book taught me that I could combine my imagination with my learning. To not stop when I didn’t understand a word or metaphor. To push through to the beauty of knowledge. And the doors that would open changed my life.
My confidence picked up in my writing. I used language and ideas I hadn’t dared to before. My English teacher singled me out to read more books and push myself harder. I’d get extra homework. I’d read Macbeth and Blue Heart and compare them under my own understanding of femininity. Then write about Alaskan Inuits in the 1890s. Two years ago, I had been shouted at for not knowing how to read ‘necessary.’
My creativity in writing spilled over into art. I got the art scholarship. Then I began to get curious about biology and history. My grades rocketed. By Sixth Form I had a BFI screenwriting scholarship and was commended by Foyles. I took the lead in plays. I got into UCL. I studied Biological Anthropology and got into books for my short stories. I even got work experience at CNN.
All from one YA fiction book that dared to use complex language and themes. Dared to get me thinking. Dared to challenge the ability and confidence of 12 year olds.
And you know what? I still have a copy today.