forgotten children's favourites

To mark the 10th anniversary of the children’s laureateship, the current holder of the post, Michael Rosen, and his four predecessors - Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Quentin Blake and Anne Fine - this week selected their favourite children’s books. They were allowed seven choices each (you can read their lists here) and each chose some of my own favourite children's reads, ranging from The Box of Delights (Quentin Blake) to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Anne Fine) to The Railway Children (Jacqueline Wilson). I was particularly pleased to see that Michael Morpurgo even opted for a deeply unfashionable Blyton amongst his selection - the particularly fine Five Go to Smuggler’s Top.

However, what I did notice about the laureates’ choices is that with a few notable exceptions, they mainly opted for the “classics” of children’s literature: well-known books that are already established as general favourites. To continue my recent “children’s books” theme, I thought it might be interesting to create my own list of favourites with a difference - a list of “forgotten” children’s books rapidly disappearing into the lands of obscurity, that are maybe not quite so universally well-known. Here are my seven "forgotten favourites:"

1. Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm Saville

Written in the 1940s, this is a good old fashioned adventure in which a group of children (plus loyal dog) thwart a wartime sabotage plot by dastardly German spies. It’s the first in the Lone Pine series, a more sophisticated take on the Famous Five in which the members of the Lone Pine Club, armed with little more than their bicycles, sandwiches and hand-drawn maps, solve mysteries taking in everything from counterfeiting to sheep-rustling in a variety of real locations. Writing into the 1970s, Saville attempted to “sex up” the later books adding criminals with (shock!) guns, and even a touch of romance for his teenage characters who by now had traded in their cotton frocks and shorts for jeans, but the books still manage to retain their carefree innocent feel. 

2. The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

First published in 1941,The Swish of the Curtain is a sort of original Fame! - the story of a group of children who, bored during a long summer holiday, discover an abandoned chapel in their home town and decide to transform it into a theatre. As the Blue Door Theatre company, they quickly develop serious theatrical ambitions, in spite of the opposition of their parents. Written by Brown when she herself was just fourteen, the novel is peculiarly timeless: in spite of the archaic picture it presents of a genteel suburbia complete with a kindly Bishop (the children’s ally) and a cringe-inducing Women’s Institute headed up by the dreaded Mrs Potter-Smith (their arch-nemesis) it feels very contemporary in tone, perhaps simply because of its robust sense of humour.

3. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

In spite of the recent movie version, Susan Cooper’s Arthurian-inspired fantasy series, the Dark is Rising sequence seems to be distinctly out of fashion at the moment, perhaps because of its slightly 1970s homespun Woodcraft Folk-ish feel. The best known of the series is the second - the brilliant, and extremely scary The Dark is Rising - but my personal favourite is the third book, which focuses more on Cooper’s main female character, Jane. Set in Cornwall, it’s a classic seaside children’s adventure story but given a darker fantasy twist, haunted by the powerful mythical figure of the Greenwitch herself. The final section inevitably leads to what Nancy Mitford refers to as “Brimming”.

4. We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome

Surprisingly, Ransome’s famous Swallows and Amazons didn’t make it into any of the laureate’s selections, even though it’s an undoubted children’s classic. For my money though, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea is even better: the story of what happens when the Walker children’s holiday plans go wrong, and they find themselves unexpectedly fighting a storm in the treacherous waters of the North Sea, drifting away from the safety of the English coast into the shipping lanes - and into a real adventure. Marking a definite change of pace from the rather annoying whimsy of Peter Duck or the slightly too try-hard comedy “hi-jinks” of The Picts and the Martyrs, this a compelling heart-in-your-mouth story of adventure on the high seas. 

5. Fifteen by Beverley Cleary

Beverley Cleary is now best known as the creator of naughty Ramona and her long-suffering older sister Beezus, but she also wrote Fifteen, a 1950s take on the “young adult novel.” It evokes an innocent, All-American world of high school dating, which already seems distinctly archaic: a lost realm of milkshakes, pin-curls and good manners. Gossip Girl it certainly isn’t, yet naive small-town heroine Jane faces all the familiar dilemmas of adolescence (how to decide what to wear to the dance; how to work out if Stan really likes her; how to deal with sophisticated, cashmere sweater- wearing Marcy), even managing to take in the unfamiliar exoticism of yes, a Chinese restaurant with characteristically gutsy good humour.

6. Clover by Susan Coolidge

I have to make a confession now: I still find all those old-fashioned “girls' books” - Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and the like - weirdly compelling reading. However my real favourites are the little-known “wild cards” of this genre: L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books, Louisa M. Alcott’s hilariously moralistic An Old Fashioned Girl, and especially one of the lesser-known sequels to What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge’s Clover. Leaving behind rather tiresome Katy (who, let’s be honest, since that whole thing with the swing has really become a bit of an annoying goody-two-shoes) this story focuses on younger sister Clover as she embarks on some much more exciting adventures Out West.

7. The Circus is Coming by Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild is perhaps most famous for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, which won a place on Jacqueline Wilson’s shortlist. However, she also wrote many other novels, many of which are based around the theatre. The Circus is Coming marks a bit of a departure from the theme, being set in the world of (you guessed it) the circus. A bit less overtly girly than many of Streatfeild’s books, it tells of the adventures of prim and proper brother and sister Peter and Santa, who unexpectedly find themselves living with their estranged Uncle Gus, a circus acrobat, and become increasingly drawn into the world of the circus itself. (For any other serious Streatfeild fans out there, can I also alert you to her little-known autobiographial novel A Vicarage Family? Read it with a box of tissues close by, however. You too will be “Brimming”: I guarantee it.)

the arrival

I was recently given a copy of The Arrival by Shaun Tan. I've never come across Tan's work before, but after reading this thoughtful, beautifully-illustrated book - which is poised somewhere between a graphic novel and a children's picture book - I'm an instant fan.

The Arrival is a universal story of migration and displacement, told through a series of wordless images. A man leaves his wife and child behind in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country of unknown customs and behaviours, mysterious objects, peculiar animals and indecipherable languages. Luckily many of the strangers he meets in this new metropolis have shared his experience, and transcending barriers of language and difference, are keen to help him on his way.

Tan's exquisitely detailed illustrations in sepia tones evoke old family photographs and histories, creating a powerful nostalgic quality: this could easily be a story from some forgotten lost time gone before. However this hopeful, wistful tale is also peculiarly contemporary on its take on the universality of migrant experience, and the importance of communities and belonging. As Tan himself suggests in this interesting commentary on how the book came to be written, 'we might do well to think of ourselves as possible strangers in our own strange land.'

a somewhat polemical princess

I was surprised to discover this week, via the Guardian Books Blog, that Hodder plan to publish a sequel Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 children’s classic A Little Princess, this September.

A Little Princess
is one of my all-time favourite children’s books, with a fabulous riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches narrative arc. Sara Crewe, “the odd little girl with the big solemn eyes” is the wealthy but unspoilt heroine with a lively imagination, who travels from her home in India to London to attend Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies where her good manners and intelligence lead her to quickly become the “show pupil”. But when her beloved father’s sudden death leaves Sara unexpectedly penniless, the unpleasant Miss Minchin (surely one of the best ever children’s book baddies) forces her into drudgery, revealing a much nastier side of Victorian London life. However, with the help of a little courage and fortitude - not to mention a few loyal friends - just when things are at their very worst, magical things begin to happen. A Little Princess has a fantastic ending, and regardless of whether you’ve warmed to Sara, or found the whole thing a bit on the twee side, it is impossible to read it without melting into a happy, warm and sentimental Victorian mush.

The planned sequel will be entitled Wishing for Tomorrow (which I am afraid really is twee) and has been written by Hilary McKay, the author of a number of bestselling children’s books including Saffy’s Angel. The new story will not follow Sara herself, but some of the other characters we meet at Miss Minchin’s establishment, in particular Sara’s friend Ermengarde - the “monumental dunce of the school”, “a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever.”

Now I have to admit, A Little Princess is certainly a book that leaves the reader wanting more - but the prospect of Wishing Tomorrow fills me with dread. Partly that's because of McKay's decision to reject the style of the original, which she felt would not appeal to contemporary readers, to “make the children more childish” and to include “a few more jokes.” All of this seems to me to be based on a total misunderstanding of what makes the original book so charming and distinctive: after all, Sara is a brilliant heroine precisely because she isn't childish or cutesy, but solemn, thoughtful and a little bit quirky - a young person to be reckoned with. And A Little Princess is far from being without humour, but it is a humour which is always subtle and rather arch - I can't imagine why anyone would think chucking in a few "jokes" to liven things up would be a fitting tribute. Mostly, I think I just generally resent the notion that the book's style needs "improving" for today's audience - as if it isn't bad enough that we're already subjected to dire re-visionings of beloved childhood books in the form of Hollywood movies (see Northern Lights; The Secret of Moonacre; and also the grim new film of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, featuring Ian McShane - yes, that’s Lovejoy - as Merriman Lyon) we now find writers, who might be expected to know better, imaginatively "polishing up" our favourite childhood fictions into glossy, bland 21st century shadows of their former selves.

What is more, much as I love A Little Princess, I can't help feeling that there's something a little bit disappointing about the very notion that writing a sequel to a book published over 100 years ago is the best one of our leading children's writers can come up with. I can absolutely see the appeal of the project, but wouldn't it be better if we could see contemporary children's writers creating fictional worlds as exciting, compelling and delightful as Burnett's, but for our own times? Alternatively, rather than just continuing the story, wouldn't it be more interesting to do something a little more challenging and different with A Little Princess as source material - perhaps as Eva Ibbotson does in the excellent Journey to the River Sea which is undoubtedly in part a tribute to Burnett.

However, ultimately the fundamental problem I have with Wishing for Tomorrow is simply this: I am really not a fan of sequels. On the whole, they are just a Bad Idea. As I am sure anyone who has read Emma Tennant’s Pemberley (or any of the other dire Pride & Prejudice sequels - though strangely, the new “zombie” version looks quite appealing) will attest, there are times when (unless you are Jean Rhys) it’s best to leave well alone. Admittedly, Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter, which follows on from Rebecca was slightly less painful, but I’d much rather have just left the story where it was - with a question mark. More often than not, a little bit of mystery is so much more appealing than tidy resolution.

I'm aware all this is not particularly fair or objective: after all, the poor woman hasn't even published her book yet, and I've already decided it isn't worth reading. For all I know, it might be brilliant. But right now, I have to say that I definitely won't be rushing down the shops to get my hands on McKay’s Little Princess continuation when it comes out in September. Instead I might just happily re-read my old Puffin copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original, complete with evocative and nostalgic illustrations by Margery Gill:

Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father ...

i'm back

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. I've been off-screen for a bit, because quite a lot has been happening in the real world.

First of all, after some very busy final weeks, I have now finished working at Arts Council England, which I will miss very much - I had a wonderful time there, and will especially miss working with all of my lovely colleagues and friends.

Secondly I have finally, at long last, managed to make my escape from The House of the Green Taps!

And thirdly, I’m writing this from Scotland (or more specifically here) where I have now come to spend a very extended holiday/dissertation writing break. As I write this I can hear a whole chorus of seagulls: the view from the window looks almost exactly like an illustration from a Famous Five book.

More soon...