Ms Harrison’s Desert Island Reads

‘Each peach pear plum, I spy Tom Thumb…’ – opening page
Each Peach Pear Plum, Allan Ahlberg and Janet Ahlberg (1978)

My first text is the children’s book Each Peach Pear Plum – a classic picture book that introduces children to a number of characters from traditional stories like Robin Hood, the Three Bears and Cinderella and encourages them to ‘spy them’. Years on from reading it as child, I can still recite it verbatim thanks to its fantastic rhyming text. Now, as I read it with my two year old (or rather he recites it back to me), I see first-hand the pleasure its lyrical quality and the tiny details in the illustrations brings once more to small eyes and ears.

‘We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.’ – Roald Dahl
Boy: Tales of Childhood, Roald Dahl (1984 – this is my original copy from that date)

I’m confident that everyone has a favourite Roald Dahl book growing up and this is mine: a collection of memories from Dahl’s childhood from how his Norwegian papa lost his arm to hilarious anecdotes of how much he hated his first boarding school. He writes: ‘some are funny. Some are painful. Some are unpleasant. I suppose that is why I have always remembered them so vividly. All are true‘.

The reason why it’s on my list is two-fold: firstly, I have wonderful memories of reading it with my dad. Secondly, it made me feel less sorry for myself when having had my adenoids and tonsils out around nine and being given toast to eat in hospital, I learnt Dahl also had his adenoids out – without having any anaesthetic. The description of the detestable Mrs Pratchett (think Mrs Twit teamed with Miss Trunchbull) with her sharp elbows and filthy finger nails delving into a jar of gobstoppers still revolts and tickles me to this day. Dahl has this magical ability to make a fairly ordinary event extraordinary and for this we love teaching it in Year 7 in English.


Never fear: Thank Home, and Poetry, and the Force behind both‘ – Wilfred Owen
Poems of the Great War 1914-18 Selected poets

It was a supply English teacher when I was my third year at secondary school (Year 9) who introduced me to WWI poetry.  The visual and aural imagery of Wilfred Owen in particular really awakened me to the horrors of trench warfare and the bravery and loyalty of the soldiers who fought in these conditions as well as the heartbreak and pain for those at home. Although war poetry is a literary genre in its own right, it’s feels so much more than that – it raises and expresses political and historical consciousness and continually begs questions just as relevant today around identity, guilt, loyalty, courage, compassion, duty, death and humanity.

I’d choose an collection of poetry from the Great War to chart the evolution of words from the early call to arms, excitement and patriotism at the start to the disillusionment and regret as the war went on, damaging a generation. ‘Lest we forget‘.

‘You must cherish your illusions if they make you happy’ Jo – Little Women
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868)

My mother gave me a copy when I left home after my A Levels to teach in Budapest – it was her favourite when she was young.

It’s the story of the four March sisters and their indomitable mother, Marmee, who living Massachusetts in the eighteen-sixties, navigate genteel poverty with stoicism and strive—always—to be better. I love believing that its progressive instinct – and the character of Jo in particular – gave credence to and inspired women to write for themselves and for others then and for many acclaimed writers ever since. Despite being written over 150 years ago, the story of Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy transcends time and remains one of the most powerful coming-of-age novels and a clear reminder that you can find your place in the world.

We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’ — Prospero, The Tempest
The Complete Works of Shakespeare

The Complete Works of Shakespeare is provided to guests on Radio 4 Desert Island Discs automatically when they’re cast away. I’d take a copy with me too as together with many plays I’d like to re-read, there are many I’ve still yet to read and I’d definitely have the time to do so!

Shakespeare has given me some of my favourite all-time heroines: Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing and Katherina in the Taming of the Shrew. It has also afforded me some of the most memorable theatre – I have seen four versions of Hamlet (one of my favourite plays) for example and each production brings something new to the stage. It is teaching Shakespeare though that I treasure most from Year 7 to Year 13, Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth, and Richard III to Much Ado about Nothing. The complete works will be a reminder of many fond memories created in the classroom as students explore and discover Shakespeare’s wit, imagery and story-telling.

‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’ – Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami (2002)

Murakami’s novels (along with a Blue Peter documentary on Japan when I was about eight) was the catalyst for going to teach in Japan for two years after I finished university.  Through reading his books, I discovered a love for magical realism which consequently led me to Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez (Love in the Time of Cholera would be text No 9. Probably.).

It’s hard to decide on one of his books and although Kafka on the Shore isn’t my favourite (Dance Dance Dance wins this award), I’d choose because a. the cat on the cover is the spitting image of my black cat with his curious green eyes and b. because the story takes you across Japan to lesser known places in the south reminiscent of my time there as well as to the shady comfort of magical woodland which would be a welcome relief when on a desert island. 

Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
– David Bowie, Changes
David Bowie Is, Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes (2013)

I’ve been a huge David Bowie fan since I was a child thanks to Labyrinth happening to come on TV.  His fearless experimentation, reinvention and creative vision is awe-inspiring and I can always find a song from his career spanning decades that best reflects my mood at any time.

I have countless discographies, biographies and photo-books but if pushed to select one, it would be this.  It is the only book to be granted access to Bowie’s personal archive and I bought it at the sold-out exhibition of his work at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum which, for a David Bowie fan, was a visual explosion and dream come true.

Letters of Note, Shaun Usher (2013)

This feels a bit of a cheat but it would be the perfect read for any time spent on an island. Letters of Note was a Christmas gift the year it was published (it was one of the first books ever to be crowdfunded!). It’s like museum in print, containing 125 inspiring and unusual letters which celebrate the power of written correspondence – something in a digital age I need reminding of. Letters from well-known and lesser-known people including Leonardo da Vinci, Amelia Earhart, Charles Darwin, Roald Dahl, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, Dorothy Parker, John F. Kennedy, Groucho Marx and Charles Dickens capture the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance of living. Every time I flick through it, it’s like selecting a chocolate from a chocolate box.