A Memorable Birthday

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Happy birthday to us! This year is Puffin's 70th anniversary. 70 years old – sounds ancient doesn't it! But Puffin has never been so lively and fun. This year is packed with spectacular celebrations – watch this space for updates every month.

Birthdays are exciting times, so here are some of our favourite authors describing which birthday meant a lot to them . . .

Imogen’s Birthday by Anne Fine, former Children’s Laureate and author of Flour Babies and Madame Doubtfire

When I was three, my mother gave birth to triplets. She had a hard time coping, so the local authority allowed me to start at the infant school which my elder sister already attended. I had no problem staying up with everyone, so on I went up the school, perfectly happily.

But once I moved on to the primary school I found myself tormented by one of those spiteful children whose only pleasure stems from making others unhappy. Her name was Imogen and she ran her very own gang of girls, constantly showing them how to take advantage of my lack of height and growing loss of confidence. (When, all those years later, I came to write The Tulip Touch, I had no problem thinking of mean little things for Tulip to have done in school.)

My family had no spare money, so when Imogen’s mother handed me, along with all the other girls, an invitation to her daughter’s party, my own mother wouldn’t hear of my not going. “But it’s your birthday too. It’ll be nice! A kind of shared party.”

Shared party, nothing. It was pure misery. I was picked on, left out, whispered about in corners and unmercifully teased as usual. But suddenly I realised that this wasn’t school. No one could make me stay.

So I sneaked off to find my coat and scarf and quietly let myself out. I think I was nearly home before her deeply embarrassed father came kerb-crawling in his car, a muted Imogen beside him, and begged me to return to the party.

Interestingly, I don’t recall whether I went back or not. All I know is that this was the birthday on which I learned an unforgettable lesson: though some of the miseries of life can’t just be walked away from, a good few of them can.

Cathy in pink outside credit Chris Watt 
Cait's 16th . . . by Cathy Cassidy, author of Dizzy and Angel Cake

My daughter Caitlin was 16 a couple of weeks ago. She had been saying beforehand that birthdays had lost a little of their magic since she'd got older . . .and that made me sad. I guess pass the parcel and ice cream and jelly don't cut it any more when you are a teenager.

Instead, she had a bunch of friends over (the same ones who had happily played musical chairs not so long ago . . .) to go watch a gig in the village and then stay for a sleepover. One of her prezzies was a set of false moustaches, so they all dressed up in trilby hats and moustaches and went off looking like the cast of 'Allo 'Allo, which made me smile. Back home, they snuggled down with DVDs and birthday cake and hot chocolate, and giggled themselves to sleep.

It snowed heavily in the night and by morning we were snowed in – sleepover guests included. If you want magic, snow will do it every time… it was the best prezzie Caitlin could have asked for.
The sight of six ultra-cool teenagers galumphing around the garden in false moustaches, building snowmen and pelting each other with snowballs, was priceless. Later, they dressed up in gothic fairy-frocks with ribbon straps and tutu skirts and did a Snow-White-meets-Twilight photoshoot in the snow . . . brrr . . . 

Miraculously, nobody got frostbite/pneumonia/hypothermia.
It was the following day before they were all delivered safely home. Caitlin said it was her best birthday ever . . . it's definitely one I will never forget. Birthday magic? If you want it badly enough, you'll find it!

Jeremy Strong_Charles Shearn_2 
Jeremy Strong, author of The One Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Dog and My Brother’s Famous Bottom

This was THE Birth Day, the one that introduced my daughter Jessica to the world. My wife, Susan, and I were disciples of the Natural Childbirth Trust and knew the procedure. We had learnt and practised the different levels of breathing for relaxation. For the final stage it is recommended that mother-to-be and partner should have a song to sing to take the mother’s mind off the contractions. Jess was our second child so we knew all about it. When our first child, Daniel was born we had chosen The Beatles Here, There, Everywhere. Big mistake! It was far too slow and lyrical. It just didn’t work in such a fraught atmosphere.

So, when we prepared for Jess’s birth we opted for something more upbeat. We also left setting off for the hospital until the last minute. By the time we arrived contractions were less than ten minutes apart. Susan was taken straight to the prep room prior to birthing. She wasn’t fully dilated so the nurses left us for a few minutes and of course that was when the final stages really got going. My hand was being squeezed to a squodge as Susan gripped it, her breathing speeding up. ‘Time to sing,’ I encouraged. And we began, loudly.

‘If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise . . .’
Nurses heads appeared round the door. ‘Are you all right?’ The pair of us simply nodded, eyes wide, shouting the song as my hand crumbled into broken fragments and Susan banged the bed with her other hand. ‘If you go down to the woods today, you’ll never believe your eyes…’
Nurse checked for dilation. ‘Oh my goodness I can see the baby’s head!’ The midwife and a doctor came bursting in and a few minutes later Jessica arrived in the world. The best birthday present!

Michelle Magorian, author of Goodnight Mister Tom

My most memorable birthday was when I was a drama student. It was a very special one – my 21st. After a day of voice and movement classes and rehearsals, some of my friends persuaded me to pop round to our local pub for a birthday drink. Unbeknown to me, this was to give the other students time to dash round to their flat with food and decorations.

Although we had student grants at that time, we didn¹t spend much money on alcohol because we didn¹t want to get into debt, so there I was with a pint glass of blackcurrant juice, all set to go home and wash my hair in my tiny bedsit as soon as I had finished drinking it, when I found myself being persuaded to pop round to their flat for a cup of coffee. Eventually I gave in. We had almost arrived there when one of them ran on ahead 'to put the kettle on¹ but it was really to warn the others that I was coming. When I arrived, the flat seemed empty and silent and the light in the sitting room was switched off. I was told to go in and turn it on. Hardly had I stepped into the dark when the light came on and there was everyone in my year singing ‘Happy birthday’! After lots of hugs and laughter, someone put a needle on a gramophone record and everyone began dancing.

It was magic. An evening I will never forget.

Melvin Burgess (Guardian , copyright Don McPhee)
 Melvin Burgess, author of Junk and Nicholas Dane

I found birthdays anti-climatic when I was a child.  When you’re  little, birthdays are such big landmarks.  In our house it was presents rather than days out, and they were great presents, don’t get me wrong – but then that was it. Finish.

Except once. Some friends of my parents, people I don’t remember seeing before or since, were going on a trip to Whipsnade Zoo.  It was miles away, in pre-motorway days, a day’s drive, camping overnight, a day at the zoo and then the same back.  Since it was my birthday, they wanted to know, would I like to come with them?

Did I want to go? You bet. I was mesmerised by the natural world as a child – still am.  My friends called me nature boy.  I’d been to other zoos before, of course, but Whipsnade was the Zoo of Zoos.  Loads of space – herds of game you could see from a train!  Zoo Heaven.

I wasn’t a good traveller. The long journey, in an old car on winding roads, took forever.  I followed my usual pattern of hunger, eating, getting sick; hunger, eating, getting sick.  I puked all down the side of the car, but fortunately managed to keep it on the outside.

We camped overnight on a farm, and I walked with the woman to the farmhouse to ask for fresh milk, which we got still warm from the dairy.  We had a night under canvass, and then we set off to the zoo just a few miles away.

It was the best day.  I rode elephants and camels, saw the herds, took a photo of an Indian rhino – a great black bent head, half hidden by a bar I was stupid enough to include.  It was a reminder that even at Whipsnade, the animals were caged.  But it was wonderful trip, only exceeded, I guess, by seeing those same rhinos in the wild last year, sitting once again on an elephant in Nepal.

To that couple who took me – I can’t remember your names or even your faces.  But thanks for my best birthday ever.

Adeline Yen Mah
Adeline Yen Mah, author of Chinese Cinderella and Falling Leaves

My stepmother Niang divided the children in our family into two classes.  Her two children were the upper class whose birthdays were celebrated every year; whereas we five step-children belonged to the lower class and our birthdays were unknown.

When I was ten years old, my parents took me away from my aunt in Shanghai and sent me to a school in a northern city one thousand miles away.  The airline hostess on the plane handed each passenger a landing card.  My father helped me fill out the blanks until we came to the part labelled `Date of Birth’.
`What’s your birthday?’ he asked.
`I don’t know, father.’
`How old are you?’
`I’m ten.’
`Ten years old already?  How time flies!’ he exclaimed, lost in thought.  After a while, he continued, `Good!  At least we can now put down the year of your birth.  But how come you don’t know the date of your own birthday?’

`Nobody told me!’
`But we need to put down something here!’ he said, staring at the form.  `What do we do now?’
`Don’t know, father.’
He chewed on the top of his pen as he stared at the landing card.  Suddenly he exclaimed, `Why don’t I give my birthday to you?  This way, you and I will have the same birthday!  Would you like that?’
I was ecstatic!  How wonderful!  To share the same birthday as my father!
`Oh Yes!  I would love it!’ I exclaimed proudly as he wrote November 30th on my landing card.

That’s how November 30th became my birthday.