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I've used these pages to gather together blog posts that have already appeared elsewhere, chiefly on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. There are plenty of older posts about a variety of subjects. Happy reading!

Saturday, 9 January 2021

What IS a children's book anyway?

While I've been reading Carnegie Medal winning books I've found this question popping into my head occasionally. Usually I think about it while I'm digging on the allotment and then decide it's not worth writing about. Or rather, I decide that it's too complicated to write about and I'm not really sure what I think.

The allotment. Plenty of digging,
 plenty of thinking

But in the past few weeks I've read a series of historical novels and one non-fiction history book, and that question has kept nagging at me because the books I've read range from one which is definitely written for children to one which, although marketed to children, seems to me to deal with themes which are almost exclusively adult.

I suppose the first thing to say is that, speaking (as Noel Streatfeild might have said) as a children's author, all my own books have been written for children, and the subject-matter, style and vocabulary have been carefully adapted to my target audience. To be sure, I always hoped that adults would read at least some of those books too, and not only professionals like teachers and librarians and maybe even reviewers, but parents too, and friends and family. But, in the end, my children's books are written for children.

A Valley Grows Up by Edward Osmond won the Carnegie in 1953, the year I was born. Osmond was a teacher and artist who was encouraged by a children's editor at OUP to turn his idea for a series of wall-charts depicting an imaginary valley at various points in history into an illustrated book. His paintings had originated as blackboard drawings used to teach students after World War II. No question then that this is a children's book. Like many early winners it has a definite 'teachery' feel to it in the voice of the author. Given its origin as a series of talks based on a series of paintings this is not surprising, and it is the voice of an interesting teacher. It's also the voice of a man with his own prejudices which he makes no attempt to conceal. The earliest 'real men' to come and live in the valley are described as 'grotesque and primitive' and in the 17th Century the 'Roundheads' get a very bad press. After successfully attacking the castle 'the Roundhead army moved on to other acts of destruction elsewhere . . . During the dull years of the Commonwealth, after King Charles had been captured and executed, few changes were made because there was no feeling of enterprise in the country.'

The book is a curious mixture of fact and fiction. Osmond describes events in his imaginary valley as though they really happened, which does feel confusing at times. I was a little surprised at the poor quality of the reproductions in my copy of the book, and I wondered if I had a duff one, but then I found this from Marcus Crouch: 'It was unfortunate, if inevitable, that in reproduction  the original pictures lost much of their definition and their detail. The reader sometimes looks in vain for a feature mentioned in the text but reduced into invisibility by the block-maker.' I find this very odd as my copy has an ad on the back flap for The Map That Came to Life by H J Deverson and Ronald Lampitt. You can see this wonderful book in full online and the illustrations are beautifully clear.

A spread from The Map That Came to Life

In 1954 the Carnegie was won by a very different kind of history book - Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch. If you did not know that Ronald Welch (real name Ronald Oliver Felton) had seen service during WWII (in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, from whom he took his pen-name) and then become headmaster of a boys Grammar School, I think you could have guessed. This is a book in which the protagonist is a boy on the threshold of manhood. What kind of a boy?  This kind:

'The robber flung up his arm helplessly, his face a mask of fear and snarling fury. But there was nothing he could do to ward off this thunderbolt of sudden death that had swept upon him. He went down with a strangled scream as Philip's sword caught him full across his turban, and split his skull with a sound like that of a hammer smashing down on a length of thin planking.'

There is a LOT of fighting, some tournaments (where people get seriously hurt), a couple of major battles, and a siege of a Welsh castle. The body count could rival that of a modern Hollywood action movie. The story is set in the Crusader realm of Outremer in the late 12th century, and place and time are brought vividly to life, but the characters are more than a little two-dimensional. The first female character makes her appearance on page 234. Here she is:

'Philip [sat] with the Lady de Clare on his other side. She was a dark-haired, imperious-looking woman, most magnificently dressed, and by her manner fully conscious of her position as the leading lady of the Marches.' (That's all you see of her.)

The second woman appears just a few pages later: 'The Lady Anne de Chaworth was a tall, spare lady with a determined chin and a rasping voice. Her eyes missed nothing as she watched her servants, and even her mournful husband obeyed her instructions with a meekness that made Philip smile. Perhaps this explained Sir Geoffrey's gloom, he thought.' (That's more or less it for her, too.)

And there you have the whole female presence in the book, apart from a short scene where a gruff old soldier teases a couple of children, one of them a girl (the only real children in the book). This is, essentially, a book about men fighting and killing each other in a meticulously researched and realised 12th century world, and yet it is distinctly NOT a book for adults. No women or children to speak of, a bunch of men fighting and killing each other, and yet it's a children's book. 'For readers of eleven and over.' says my Puffin edition.

Illustration by William Stobbs

I know just who this book was written for. It was aimed squarely at Ronald Welch's grammar school boys and I'm sure many of them loved it because it's rather like an extended version of a war story in a boy's annual of the period. What character development there is consists in the protagonist getting better at fighting. But, given that this is a book entirely about adult men I had to wonder what was missing that would have turned it into a novel for adults. The quality of the writing is better than that found in many thrillers: perhaps a star-crossed romance woven into the story would have done the trick? Character development is not essential to an adult novel either though - look at Jack Reacher or James Bond. Is it just that the book doesn't have enough to say to its readers? Is it not subtle or complex enough to be marketed to adults? Is it, perhaps, a little childish in its simple, gung-ho revelling in violence; childish in a way that The Borrowers, for example, is not.

You will have to forgive the randomness of these thoughts. I'm hoping that by writing them down they might become clearer. My next random thought is that maybe children's books about adults are acceptable when they are distanced, either by history or fantasy or maybe by space. The Hobbit, for example, is about a group of fairly elderly dwarves and an adult hobbit on an often violent and dangerous quest. The Wind in the Willows may be about animals, but it's about adult animals with their own homes and lives. I'm struggling to think of a realistic children's novel with a contemporary setting that is entirely about adults.

Cover by Charles Keeping

And so to Rosemary Sutcliff. I'm leaping ahead in the Carnegie winners list to 1959, and I want to write more about Sutcliff later, but The Lantern Bearers, which was the 1959 winner, is a book about adults in which the chief themes concern the struggles of the central character, Aquila, to come to terms with the savage murder of his family, the kidnapping and probable rape of his sister, and his own problematic relationship with his son and wife. The bleakness of Aquila's despair after he finds his sister (after several years as a slave himself) married to a Saxon and with her own child and a new life is brilliantly portrayed as a kind of bereavement and a betrayal. I really can't think of any reason to call this a children's book, other than that it was published and marketed as a children's book, oh, and it has pictures - wonderful illustrations by Charles Keeping which make this one of the most beautifully produced books I know.

Spread by Charles Keeping

It's interesting to compare The Lantern Bearers with its sequel Sword at Sunset which was published for adults in 1963. I haven't finished this yet, but there are already some obvious differences. The story is told in the first person by Artos, who we know as King Arthur. It is wordier than its predecessors, there is a sex scene early in the book and there are no pictures. There are also many long paragraphs unbroken by dialogue. And the stylistic devices that occasionally irritated me in Sutcliff's 'children's books' are even more in evidence here - notably her tendency to make characters speak in a slightly stagey archaic manner, especially if they are 'tribal'.

And so my thoughts circle back to the place they always end up when I'm out there digging. Do I really need to know what a children's book is? I'm not so sure I even know what a child is. I suppose the bottom line is that I wouldn't want any child not to read an 'adult' book simply because it was not written or published for children, and I wouldn't want an adult reader to miss out, say, on The Lantern Bearers for the same reason.

I believe - I know - that it is possible to write for children in simple language and still tell a story that is rich and complex, and to do so without talking down to the children; without sounding like a teacher or a dotty old uncle. I thought that kind of thing was disappearing from the Carnegie winners until I reached C S Lewis (1956). I have plenty to say about him, but before that we have Eleanor Farjeon (1955) who occasionally wrote stories that defy any kind of categorisation and who definitely deserves a whole post to herself.

All of Ronald Welch's historical novels about the Crecy family are in print, with the original William Stobbs illustrations, available from Slightly Foxed magazine. Hazel Wood found more to like in Knight Crusader than I did, and her piece in Slightly Foxed magazine (No 39) will tell you why, and why she was inspired to republish the books. Slightly Foxed also have their own edition of the Rosemary Sutcliff Roman books with the Keeping illustrations, but for my money you can't beat the original OUP ones if you can find them.

Originally published on ABBA


The Borrowers is a remarkable book. Marcus Crouch called it 'flawless', and I agree with him. He also said that 'by its idea alone, one of the few really original ideas in children's literature, it would have been a landmark.' It is a dark and frightening book which is made bearable only by the brilliance of the characterisation and the precise realisation of the Borrowers' lives. It has atmospheric line illustrations by Diana Stanley and wonderful dialogue, but it would be inaccurate to describe it as 'fun' or 'twee'—words I've seen used to describe film adaptations. If you only know the Borrowers through their screen incarnations I recommend you read the book as soon as possible. The Sunday Times review on the back of my copy sums it up brilliantly: 'Beautifully written, poetic and almost always alarming, The Borrowers books have something very mysterious, sad and exciting about them.'

The book is a landmark and also, I think, a culmination. When I was reading it I found myself thinking of several of the other Carnegie winners I'd read recently. It seems to me that The Borrowers represents a synthesis of the most successful elements of those earlier books. The Clock family, Homily, Pod and Arrietty, reminded me of the Ruggles family in The Family from One End Street, and of the evacuated working-class families in Visitors from London. The Clocks, despite being only five inches tall are ordinary, recognisable people who live in a terrifyingly hostile world. Pod and Homily know about the dangers, but Arrietty is young and foolhardy and brave, and has to learn the hard way.

The Clocks are real people. There is nothing magical about them, but they do keep out of the way of 'human beans' and 'being seen' is the worst thing that can happen to them—well, almost the worst. They are, in fact, rather like BB's Little Grey Men, although in The Little Grey Men the characters are nowhere near as vivid and lively as those in The Borrowers and there is hardly a female in sight. Still, the close observation of the natural world from the point of view of a very small person finds echoes in The Borrowers as Arrietty goes outside for the first time:

'Cautiously she moved towards the bank and climbed a little nervously in amongst the green blades. As she parted them gently with her bare hands, drops of water plopped on her skirt and she felt the red shoes become damp. But on she went, pulling herself up now and again by rooty stems into this jungle of moss and wood-violet and creeping leaves of clover.'

Mary Norton

In The Little Grey Men we have this kind of thing: 'Being a damp sort of a place, weeds of all kinds flourished: all those plants which love water crowded round; giant dock, appearing not unlike the riverside plants of a tropical stream, with huge hairy columns for stalks as thick round as trees . . .'

There is a slight whiff of the schoolroom in BB's nature descriptions which is entirely absent from The Borrowers. Arrietty's journey (the first time she has ever been outside) is vividly realised, but also terrifying. Note the 'nervously' and even the 'blades' in the extract above. As we read about her bare hands and the drops of water and the red shoes we can't help thinking of blood. Well, I can't anyway. Further down the page we have this: ' . . . she knew about woodlice. There were plenty of them at home under the floor. Homily always scolded her if she played with them because, she said, they smelled of old knives.' A few lines later the chapter concludes like this: 'Startled, she caught her breath. Something had moved above her on the bank. Something had glittered. Arrietty stared.'

Illustration by Diana Stanley

Passages of description in The Borrowers always exist to create tension or to move the plot forward. Walter de la Mare also used detailed and poetic descriptions of the natural world from a small person's perspective, most notably in Memoirs of a Midget, but where de la Mare liked to cause unease by hinting at things unseen, Mary Norton made her Borrowers most emphatically real. And look at the Boy's reaction when he first sees Arrietty and she asks why he wants to kill her:

'In case,' came the surprised whisper at last, 'you ran towards me, quickly, through the grass . . . in case,' it went on, trembling a little, 'you scrabbled at me with your nasty little hands.' 

Mary Norton is evoking the human fear of the rat, I think, and it is as rats that the Borrowers will be exterminated if Mrs Driver has her way at the end of the book. It is a more visceral fear than those de la Mare conjures up in many pages of a barely glimpsed supernatural presence in his story, The Scarecrow, and the Boy's terrified reaction at this point gives us a warning of the way adults are likely to react if they find the Borrowers.

Whether or not Mary Norton was aware of these earlier writers we can't know for sure. I like to think she may have borrowed from them and she may also have borrowed from de la Mare the distancing or framing device that she uses to tell the story, though she certainly makes it her own and de la Mare is not the only one to use this kind of approach. The reader knows from the first paragraph that they are in the hands of a wonderfully skilful and assured writer:

'It was Mrs May who first told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me - a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth?'

So, the author, Mary Norton, pretends to be a little girl who is hearing this story from Mrs May, and then says that it can't have been her, perhaps because she no longer recognises the little girl she once was. And then it turns out that Mrs May is only relaying a story told her by her brother, who was given to 'strange imaginings'. 'There was something about him,' says Mrs May, 'perhaps because we were brought up in India among mystery and magic and legends - something that made us think he saw things that other people could not see; sometimes we'd know he was teasing, but at other times - well, we were not so sure . . . '

This is a wartime book, just as much as were We Couldn't Leave Dinah and Visitors from London, even though it is set in the time of Queen Victoria. Mary Norton wrote about the origin of the book. She describes (in the introduction to the Puffin Complete Borrowers) how undiagnosed short-sightedness in childhood led her to focus on tiny things seen up close. 'What would it be like, this child would wonder, lying prone upon the moss, to live among such creatures—human oneself to all intents and purposes, but as small and vulnerable as they.'

These childhood imaginings were forgotten until 'just before the 1940 war, when a change was creeping over the world as we had known it . . . There were human men and women who were being forced to live (by stark and tragic necessity) the kind of life a child had once envisaged for a race of mythical creatures. One could not help but realise (without any thought of conscious symbolism) that the world at any time could produce its Mrs Drivers who would in turn summon their Rich Williams. And there would be.' (Rich Williams is the rat-catcher.)

A N Wilson saw something slightly different in the book. Having noted that 'the ingenious way in which Pod and Homily 'make do' with cast-offs . . . does reflect the resourcefulness of British families during the austerity years', and having also suggested that the terrible destruction of the Borrowers' home, with the roof ripped off, 'owes much to the British experience of losing houses and possessions through aerial bombardment', he goes on to say:

'Many readers in 1952, however, the year of the book's publication and of George VI's death, must have seen a faint parallel between Arrietty, last of her strange race and guardian of the Borrowers' future, and the figure of Princess Elizabeth.' Wilson also apparently described the book as, in part, an allegory of post-war Britain 'with its picture of a diminished people living in an old, half-empty house.'

The fact that Mary Norton denied 'any thought of conscious symbolism' doesn't mean there's no symbolism in the book, but I value the book's truthfulness more than its symbolism. We live in an uncertain world with unpredictable dangers ahead. Homily's biggest fear is that one of the Borrowers will be 'seen' and they will have to emigrate. To hear some people talk about 'immigrants' these days you would think it was an easy thing to leave everything you have and flee to another country. It's not so easy for Homily: 

'It's no good, Pod, I won't emigrate!'

'No one's asked you to,' said Pod.

'To go and live like Hendreary and Lupy in a badger's set! The other side of the world, that's where they say it is - all among the earthworms.'

'It's two fields away, above the spinney,' said Pod.

The book is all about weighing up risks and making choices. The Borrowers live with fear and anxiety all the time, and the book ends on a horrifying note as the rat-catcher prepares to smoke out the Borrowers so that his terriers can kill them. Mary Norton carefully leaves her readers with no certainty that the Borrowers have escaped this fate, or even that the story Mrs May's brother told was true. There were no plans at first for a sequel, but in the end there were four more books and a short story prequel, though even after this Mary Norton was not prepared to deliver a straightforward happy ending. She had lived through two world wars and her books mirror the real, unpredictable and dangerous world that she knew; the same world we live in now.

The final words from Peagreen at the end of the final book in the series resonate powerfully today, when 'Stay safe' has replaced 'Have a nice day,' as a farewell greeting at the supermarket checkout. Arrietty says: 

'I only wanted her to know we were safe . . .'

Peagreen looked back at her. He was smiling his quizzical, one-sided smile.

'Are we?' he asked gently. 'Are we? Ever?'

For those eagle-eyed readers who have noticed I haven't mentioned the 1951 Carnegie winner, The Wool-pack, by Cynthia Harnett, I will just say that there is a decent historical novel here struggling to get out from beneath the weight of a wealth of carefully researched detail about life in Tudor times and about the Cotswold wool trade in particular. The Borrowers is by some distance the best book to have won the Carnegie up to this point. The Wool-pack is interesting because it is a signpost towards Rosemary Sutcliff who would, in a few years time, achieve a perfect blend of plot, character and setting in books similar in quality to The Borrowers.  But The Wool-pack is not itself the finished article.

Cynthia Harnett 
Marcus Crouch said of her work: 'The stories are not exciting . . .'
A strange recommendation, but true.

A N Wilson's piece, Royal life as seen under the floorboards in in The Telegraph 4/10/2004 (paywall)

Also worth a look is The Borrowers Anew by Judith Elkin in Books for Keeps

Originally published on ABBA

Vanished Worlds

70 years ago, in 1950, Elfrida Vipont won the Carnegie Medal with The Lark on the Wing, the second in a series of five books about the musical career of Kit Everard, a young Quaker. 

When I came to this book the only thing I knew about its author was that she wrote The Elephant and the Bad Baby, that brilliant collaboration with Raymond Briggs which is still one of my favourite picture books. In many ways The Lark on the Wing is a straightforward story about a girl who wants to become a professional singer (the author is more than a little snobbish about 'amateurs' and, it must be admitted, about lower forms of music, like Gilbert and Sullivan and sentimental popular songs). Kit faces various obstacles in the course of the book which, naturally, she overcomes. It is, as Marcus Crouch observes, a 'serious and deeply moving book.' He goes on to say that 'It matters very much to her (Elfrida Vipont), and to her readers, that Kit should find herself and remain true to herself, and in doing so not only become a great singer but also fulfil the God within her.' One Amazon reviewer found it far too high-minded and I do see why, but the confident and often entertaining writing carried me through. 

Elfrida Vipont was herself a Quaker who, while studying History at the University of Manchester, realised that she really wanted to be a singer. She went on to study singing, according to Wikipedia, 'with teachers in London, Paris and Liepzig'. She didn't pursue a career in singing and instead married, had children, and became a writer. She initially wrote boys' adventure stories under the name Charles Vipont and then wrote many more novels for children and young adults as Elfrida Vipont as well as writing widely on Quaker matters and about music, often as E V Foulds.

There is a passage early in the book which seems particularly deeply felt. Kit tells Terry, who is already a professional singer, that she understands what she needs to do to be a singer herself.  'Lots of hard work, and no fun and games, but it's worth it.'

'I think it is,' said Terry. 'I've always known it would be for a man. But it may not be the same for a girl. Papa Andreas always says your mother had a lovely voice, but she can't have been much older than you are now when she was married.'

'Ah, that was different,' said Kit. 'You see, she'd met Father.'

Terry's arm trembled slightly on hers. 'And you—haven't met anybody like that yet?' he suggested.

Elfrida Vipont said about her book: 'Kit's experiences are not my experiences: this book would be a thin travesty of a photograph if they were. Fiction is not autobiography. Nevertheless, to re-read the book now recalls for me a host of memories—the essence is there but not the substance.'

I very much enjoyed The Lark on the Wing. The experience was like looking thorough a window onto a vanished world. This book is set partly in post-war London (although you wouldn't know that the war was so recently over), a world of Corner Houses and Milk Bars. It is, slightly terrifyingly, a world which I can just remember. It's also set in various small towns and cities, but always among Quakers. Everyone seems to be related (fortunately the author provides a family tree at the start), and most people seem to be employed in Quaker businesses and organisations. A Quaker grocery business in a seaside town employs musical performers to play in the cafe, and it is the descriptions of musical performances that I enjoyed most in this book. One of them reminds me of a story that I will tell you shortly. But first I must mention the odd fact that this 'children's book' has no children in it.

All of the young people in the story are at work or university, living independently in shared flats or student halls of residence. Some are married already, with children. Where the book is not about music it is about love. Kit, the central character, is utterly focused on becoming a singer and has no notion that the young men around her, like Terry in the excerpt above, have any romantic interest in her. In her unawareness of sexuality Kit is still a child. Lotte, her singing teacher's cook, sings her a 'cradle song of my country'

' . . . it's going to be one of my songs, I know it is,' (Kit) said. 'Won't you give it to me, please?'

'Not yet, my little one, not yet!' insisted Lotte, shaking her head. 'I tell you, it is not the time. The heart is not awake.'

This is enough, I think, to indicate the kind of book this is. Whether or not Kit's heart is awakened, I leave you to guess. And so to my story.

Kit is invited at one point to sing at a charity fundraiser in the home of Lady Hilbery-Wapentake (there are some great names in the book). 'Tea was being served in the ante-room . . . "Not so much as a sandwich!" commented the dance-band leader in a disgusted tone. "Never mind, we'll make up for it afterwards. I've had a word with the butler."'

This has the ring of bitter experience, an experience I have had many times in many different places and, as we move into another lockdown, I'd like to take you back to another vanished world, the world of crowded receptions and canapés. The year was 1994 and I was playing in a kind of flamenco/jazz improvised guitar duo with my friend, Glenn. The year before, I'd quit my full-time teaching job to start writing children's books. We'd recently played for a theatre performance at the University of East Anglia and we were asked to provide music for the grand opening of the new Drama Studio. There would be crowds of people, good food, and best of all from Glenn's point of view, the Studio was to be opened by one of his heroes, Harold Pinter. I think we imagined we'd play for a bit and then stop to have some food, at which point we'd be introduced to Harold Pinter and we'd have a chat about music and theatre and Pinter would learn that Glenn wrote plays and  . . .

It wasn't like that. The room filled with people. We played. People talked. They talked very loudly. They probably didn't hear the music as we couldn't hear it ourselves. The event went on . . . and on. No one asked if we wanted to take a break. No one paid any attention to us at all. We were starving, and thirsty, watching all those people eating and drinking and talking. And then suddenly, weaving through the throng with a plate of canapés, I saw Hazel. She was the mum of one of my ex-pupils, a boy who had caused me some anxiety in my first year of teaching when I'd woken in the middle of the night panicking because I'd forgotten to give him his glasses at home time (he was 5). Hazel was also, wonderfully, working for the caterers.

UEA Studio

She sized up the situation with a single glance, maoeuvred over to us and popped canapés in our mouths as we continued to play our guitars. After that, every time she came out with a new tray, she came to us first. There is often a grim camaraderie between caterers and musicians at this kind of function, just like Elfrida Vipont's band-leader and the butler.

Oh, and we never did get to meet Harold Pinter.

The Lark on the Wing is out of print and a bit pricey on Abebooks, but not as expensive as others in the series. There is a biography of Elfrida Vipont which I'd like to read one day but I haven't been able to get hold of that either, and even though the British Library has been open I can't face sitting for hours in a mask with my glasses steaming up.

Originally published on ABBA

Some people don't like writing - plus bonus Carnegie winners

My grandson (aged 6) does not like writing stories. I was a teacher in primary schools for more than thirty years and I always wondered why such emphasis was placed on the ability of young children to write stories. This relates, I think, to Anne Rooney’s piece last month about the relative values placed on fiction and non-fiction both by schools and by parents. 


I am still wondering why we make little children write stories. I suspect it is because, when teaching five- and six-year-olds to do something which they would never need to do if they weren’t at school, (ie writing) you have to think of something—anything—for them to write. For this reason most tasks (‘learning activities’) given to children of this age are highly artificial. They don’t really need to write instructions on making a cup of tea, or a postcard home from a place they have pretended to have gone. They do not need to recount their visit to the safari park in writing, especially if it’s only going to be written in an exercise book and read by no one but the teacher.


But, sadly for all our futures, here in the UK we force our children into full-time formal education from the age of 5 and often younger, and if we’re going to teach them to read and write we have to think of something for them to write about. Imaginative teachers find ways to make this work by doing their best to make the children’s writing purposeful, by making books, by sharing and publishing the writing or, for example, by writing real letters to real people. 


But stories? Does a 6-year-old really know enough about people and life to start making it up? What they usually do if asked to ‘write a story’, is retell, with changes, stories they’ve heard or movies they’ve watched or computer games they’ve played, which is kind of OK if that’s what you like doing (and some would say it’s what all fiction writers do), but it’s like those display boards covered with Van Gogh sunflower copies you see in primary schools these days – isn’t it better to forget about Van Gogh and look at a real flower, any flower?


And the process of getting these young children to write a story can be so laboured and tortuous that it is hard to believe that it doesn’t put most of them off. Often it’s story writing with ‘scaffolding’, one paragraph or even one sentence at a time, following a pre-ordained structure and embellished with ‘wow’ words, so a character can’t be ‘sad’, or ‘big’ but has to be ‘melancholy’ or ‘gigantic’ in order to attract maximum praise, whether or not the child or even the teacher knows if the multisyllabic replacement means what they think it does.


Are the children’s lives enriched by this process? Is it increasing their chances of becoming a wealthy writer of fiction when they leave school? And where did it originate, this idea that ‘making up stories’ is a good thing for small children to do? This is not myth, or legend; it’s not folk-tale or fairy-tale, because these are things traditionally passed on orally, and while they may be embellished by the teller and changed subtly over time, they aren’t conjured out of thin air. 


I suspect that some time in the last 100 years a teacher was watching young children play make-belief games and reasoned that if they were so good at pretending to be mums and dads and dogs and babies and making up things for them to do, or if they were so totally absorbed int miniature worlds, then they’d be able to write stories. But writing, for me at least, is nothing like playing games. And isn’t it interesting that when engaged in role-play children so often revert to roles they know intimately (even when the ‘role-play area’ has been laboriously Star Wars themed by dedicated teaching assistants)?


For me, the act of observing the real world and the actions of people and creatures in it, comes before making things up to write on a piece of paper or a computer. The National Curriculum guidance for KS1 is actually balanced and sensible though it doesn’t, it seems to me, reflect what really goes on in schools, and also manages to sound daunting. If only I could ‘encapsulate my thought, sentence by sentence’. Maybe one day. Which reminds me that writing stories, making them up, is very, very difficult; way more so than describing what you have seen and done and thought, and goodness knows, that’s hard enough!


Frontispiece from Sea Change
by M Leszczynski 

And so to the Carnegie. I haven’t been neglecting my reading and can report that Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change, the 1948 winner, was the first YA title to win, although the category didn’t exist then as far as I know. It’s a straightforward coming-of-age story in which a sixteen-year-old boy becomes a man, saving a ship in stormy seas, recognizing his own misjudgements and mistakes and reaching the end of the story with ‘confidence in his stride and eagerness in his face.’ There is no sex in this book, and no women either. Not one. It is not Conrad and it is not Hornblower—the one more complex and the other more fun. It has a moral, too. It’s a serious piece of work, written with the best of intentions to prepare its readers for the harsh realities of the adult world, but I would not have read it as a boy and to a modern adult the writing seems laboured and the characterisation thin.


Lots of words from Agnes Allen

I also read Agnes Allen’s The Story of Your Home (1949). Hooray! It’s a non-fiction title! I enjoyed it in parts, but despite the illustrations by Allen's husband, Jack, it is very wordy indeed, and although it is good on the development of the timber-framed house it is vague about the huge developments in building technology in the 20th century. Allen makes a valiant effort to describe the homes and lives of the less well-off, but the central thread about the development of dwellings inevitably focuses on those historical buildings we know most about, mostly the homes of the wealthy.

More words but better ones

I also found the tone of the book off-putting, as it constantly addresses the young reader with ‘I expect you . . .’ ‘You see . . .’ ‘I’m afraid you would have had rather a rough time . . .’ I know it's of its time, but the Quennels’ books about Everyday Life in England are far less 'teachery' despite being written thirty years earlier, and R J Unstead’s slightly later history books are much more accessible. Unstead's writing style and layout feel far more modern, even though the history itself is suspect. Try looking for 'slavery' in the index of A History of Britain. It is entirely absent, and you will read that Britain's wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries was based on 'trade.' 

Marcus Crouch thought that Agnes Allen was ‘neither condescending nor aggressively didactic.’ He also pointed out that there was a very real danger of ‘crowding the story with detail and confusing the reader with a multiplicity of facts.’  He thought Agnes Allen avoided this pitfall, but I'm not so sure. Maybe children back then had a greater thirst for knowledge and a greater tolerance for this slightly cloying mode of address, but if any child ever read this book (‘easy to read and as absorbing as a story book’) from cover to cover, I will eat my hat. 

A more welcoming spread from
Unstead's Looking at History (1955)

Here are a couple of extracts from The Story of Your Home that indicate both the tone of the text and the way in which the book has dated.


“I am sure you have all read exciting stories of the Middle Ages in which people have hidden behind the arras and heard things they were not meant to hear.”


“What a difference such a simple thing as a box of matches has made in our homes. We wonder how people ever got on without them.” 


It occurs to me that these would make perfect cartoon captions—perhaps in the style of Glen Baxter or the New Yorker magazine. 

Originally published on ABBA



Monday, 7 September 2020

Walter de la Mare 's Collected Stories for Children

 In 1947 the Carnegie Medal was awarded to Walter de la Mare for his Collected Stories for Children. This marked the start of the second decade of the Carnegie and was the first winning book since 1940 to have nothing to do with the Second World War. It has nothing to do with the war because all the stories were written during the 1920s and 1930s and this is another of those awards which were made, not for the book itself, but in recognition of the author’s contribution to children’s literature.

Walter de la Mare c.1924


However, even had Walter de la Mare composed all of these stories in wartime it is doubtful whether the war would have had any influence on their content. Current affairs do not find their way into de la Mare’s work. What interests him is the boundary between this world and the various alternate realities of his imagination. Or, to put it another way, de la Mare believes there is something more than this material world; something just glimpsed on the edges of our perception; a spectre, a fairy, a land beneath the sea. He likes places and times where the borders are permeable—empty and abandoned houses, graveyards, twilight. These stories are complex – always more so than they at first appear, and I would have had no trouble devoting this whole post to any single one of them. 


It would, in particular, be worth giving lengthy consideration to the story Sambo and the White Mountains, a story about a black servant boy who is desperate to turn his skin white and which was excluded from the later editions of Collected Stories. There are many odd things about this story, which appears to be set half-way between an English country town and the deep south of the USA. Although there are many examples of racial stereotyping within it, I don’t think the story is intentionally racist but, in its attempt not to be so, it reveals how deeply the ideas of white purity and superiority ran unnoticed at the time, and no doubt still do. To illustrate: the old lady in the story makes a death bed speech in which she says ‘a black man whose mind is free from darkness and his mind from cruelty is in truth whiter than any one whose soul is in the shade.’ That’s to say, white is good, and black can be good too, but is likely to be tainted with darkness and cruelty. I don’t think there’s much doubt that this is de la Mare speaking, and it seems he feels he’s saying something enlightened. The Carnegie judges didn’t see a problem here either. It’s because of this embedded assumption of white superiority that I wouldn’t give this to a child to read today, but I think it’s valuable to an adult reader as a snapshot of English attitudes at this moment when the Empire was starting to crumble.



Sambo and the White Mountains is not a typical de la Mare story—if indeed there is such a thing, given that the stories in this collection vary greatly both in length and in setting—but ‘The Scarecrow’ is much more typical. This was the title story of a collection of four stories published in 1945, but it had originally been published in the miscellany ‘Number Three Joy Street’ in 1923 as ‘Old Joe’.  The stories are far more digestible in small collections. I can’t imagine that many children managed to read the Collected Stories straight though in one go. At the end of ‘The Scarecrow’ Letitia asks her uncle: 


‘And . . . and you never saw the – the fairy again?’

            ‘In a way of speaking,’ old Mr Bolsover replied, ‘I have never, Letitia, really seen anything else. It’s a question of what one means exactly by “seeing”, I suppose. Words are no use. It can’t be done, can it?’


This is the kind of uncertain territory we are in, and de la Mare believed that these boundaries between worlds were faintest, more like a transparent veil, in childhood, which was for him a kind of ideal state. He hated the books of E Nesbit because, as his biographer Theresa Whistler remarks, ‘he bitterly resented any portrayal of children which snipped off the trailing clouds of glory and presented them as little schemers, scoring off their elders.’


‘The Scarecrow’ tells us a lot about de la Mare. Letitia is a small girl visiting her Uncle Tim, Mr Bolsover, and at her prompting he tells her a story which he had started to tell her the year before about the old scarecrow in his garden. This is a technique de la Mare also uses in the story ‘Miss Jemima’ and it achieves several effects at the same time. It allows a reader to identify with either the young girl or with the boy who Mr Bolsover once was. And Letitia is uncomfortably aware of growing older herself: 


‘. . .to think it is exactly a whole year since I was here before! Yet you wouldn’t believe a single pink was different. Isn’t that funny, Uncle Tim? We are. And why, yes,’ she went on hastily, twisting her head on her slender neck, ‘there’s that curious old Guy Fawkes creature over there by the willows. He’s not changed a single bit either.’


This ‘story within a story’ technique also allows the author to impersonate himself, or perhaps even to mock himself a little. Either way, the avuncular tone is directed to the little girl, rather than to us, the readers. And when, after a paragraph dedicated to a lengthy description of landscape, Uncle Tim says: ‘But I hate descriptions, don’t you, Letitia?’ we know that de la Mare is having rather a good joke with us. Because this story is full of description, as are most of his stories, since another of his techniques is to be very particular. Every detail is described, to the extent that settings seem almost hyper-real.


I think it’s also reasonable to believe that Uncle Tim’s is a fair approximation to Walter de la Mare’s own storytelling style. De la Mare did not read aloud to his own four children, rather choosing to tell them stories that he made up. No one in the family helped the children to learn to read. The following passage from Theresa Whistler’s biography is revealing:


Over the next few years his habit of telling them stories at bedtime, or in his chair after Sunday dinner, developed more than one imaginary companion, as important to their childhoods as Tatta had been to his own. One such was ‘Peter’. For this de la Mare would ‘go to sleep’ in his armchair after the meal, and then soon the voice of a little boy would begin. Another compelling person, who came through in a similar way, like a spirit possessing a medium, was ‘the Waterman’, whose business was to go from room to room saying goodnight to the children in their beds and offer them a drink of water. He spoke in a wheedling, drawling, broken English, and in old age de la Mare could still summon up his tone and accent. He was a good actor as well as inventive, and no one else could transport the children as completely into a world of fantasy . . . The game hovered on the edge of the alarming and sinister, nicely judged not to overstep the border.


Illustration by Irene Hawkins

This last sentence would be a good summing up of Walter de la Mare’s stories for children. He always hovers on the edge—between the seen and the unseen, the describable and the indescribable. And who actually is the narrator of this story, de la Mare or his mouthpiece Uncle Tim? There is so much detailed description in the story but then we have this:


‘And the odd thing is that I can’t – can’t possibly describe [the fairy]. This is perhaps partly because the light wasn’t very good, and partly because my eyes were strained with watching. But mostly for other reasons. I seemed, you see, to be seeing her as if I were imagining her, even though I knew quite well she was there.’


What would a child make of this? I really don’t know. I was originally going to write a very different piece about the sheer wordiness and indigestibility of these stories, but I changed my mind. By the time I had read all the stories, two of the novels, the biography and the poems for children I had decided that de la Mare is not easy, but worth the effort. These are not attributes likely to endear him to most children however, and others before me have found de la Mare difficult. James Campbell remarked in 2006 that de la Mare ‘fitted himself out in velvet jacket and foppish cap during the later years of Victoria’s reign, and refused to take them off again.’


This is amusing but a little harsh. One might equally say that de la Mare remained true to himself and his vision. But I do think he was fond of the sound of his own voice, or voices. The length of many of the short stories in this collection can be daunting and as for the novels . . . But we should remember that Angela Carter said of his Memoirs of a Midget (1921) that it ‘sticks like a splinter in the mind.’ And despite its arcane language and its oddness The Three Mulla-Mulgars (1910) must surely have influenced Tolkien and all who came after. I noticed particularly de la Mare's use of songs and poems in this book, and here he has the advantage over Tolkien that he is a far better poet. I always ignore the songs in Tolkien but I actually read these. 


Originally published in 1910 as The Three Mulla-Mulgars

De la Mare’s occasionally circumlocutory prose style can also be a problem. He caught this habit from his youthful admiration for Henry James and never quite shook it off. His poems are quite a different matter and have survived much better than his prose. No one who had only read that prose would ever suspect this talent for brevity. Only the other day someone on the radio selected The Listeners as the poem that helped them through lockdown.  De la Mare and James only met twice and my favourite story from the biography concerns the second of these encounters, which took place on the Thames Embankment:


As de la Mare and Naomi were walking one dark wintry day along the Embankment that portly presence loomed suddenly out of the twilight mist . . . Naomi recollected listening for a pious ten minutes to the conversation of ‘two variously labyrinthine minds’. Not much real contact was achieved.


Walter de la Mare’s Short Stories for Children edited by Giles de la Mare includes all the stories and a bibliography.

This post originally published on ABBA.


Thursday, 6 August 2020

Elizabeth Goudge's Little White Horse

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge won the Carnegie Medal in 1946, the year of its publication, and it is just as much of a wartime book as We Couldn’t Leave Dinah and Visitors from London. It was written in the heart of the Devon countryside that forms its setting and Elizabeth Goudge wrote that ‘those were the war years and it was good to escape sometimes from the fearful realities of that time into a world where a unicorn cantered behind the trees.’


This is a pastoral novel. The action takes place in the bucolic semi-paradise of Moonacre, a country estate hemmed in by hills and the sea, entirely separate from the rest of the world, in the year 1842. As I read it, I was reminded of many other stories. The unicorn theme suggested Alan Garner's Elidor, a book that didn't win the Carnegie, apparently because the judges, astonishingly, didn't like the Charles Keeping illustrations. Then that pastoral quality made me think both of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale and of the Ahlbergs' Each Peach Pear Plum.

The Winter's Tale element includes a shepherd for the heroine, Maria, to fall in love with and marry. Humbling her pride to marry a common shepherd is one of the things she has to do to redeem the sins of her ancestors. Except that this shepherd is not a prince in disguise like Florizel, but possibly a god or a hero from the past. He's called Robin, but he also has echoes of the god, Pan, as he makes his first physical appearance: 'Maria . . . was aware of a slim brown figure bounding towards her, of a curly head lowered like that of a butting goat, and then over went the Black Man flat on his back . . .'

The Black Men are not black-skinned, but like Tolkien's Black Riders or the Arthurian Black Knight are dressed in black and carry black cockerels on their shoulders. Their blackness is a symbolic absence of colour which is contrasted with the heightened colour of everything else in Moonacre—this really is a very colourful book. And it's not just the colours; all the senses are enhanced, and feelings too. People take one look in each others eyes and love each other instantly. There is magic in the air. 

At first, because everything in Moonacre seems so lovely and so perfect, I found myself thinking of Ursula LeGuin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. That story concerns a city where everyone lives in unimaginable happiness, but at a cost. In a windowless room somewhere in the city a small child is imprisoned in misery. ‘If the child were brought up out of that vile place . . .all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.’ All the residents of Omelas know about the child. They are shown the child at a certain point in their adolescence and told of the bargain: the happiness of thousands depends upon the misery of one. And some of them, having been shown, walk away.


Illustration by C. Walter Hodges

Well, The Little White Horse isn’t that kind of a story, it turns out, but the darkness is there all the same. Moonacre is a genuine paradise, rather like the Garden of Eden, into which people have brought their own trouble. This trouble takes a variety of forms – greed, cruelty, deceit, envy, curiosity (strange one that) vanity, and being aggravating. The task of the heroine, Maria Merryweather, is to purge the evil from Moonacre through courage and self-sacrifice. I think that Elizabeth Goudge was probably influenced in her plotting by Shakespeare’s comedies, and it’s no coincidence that a lot of marrying goes on at the end.


This is, like LeGuin's, a moral story. It appears in places to be explicitly didactic, although it is the characters rather than the author who make such statements as this: ‘That’s our family motto, my dear . . .It is also, perhaps, a device for linking together those four qualities that go to make up perfection – courage, purity, love and joy.’ But the high moral tone is usually slightly undermined in some way, in this case thus: ‘Sir Benjamin paused a moment and then with intense relief suddenly bellowed, “Sausages!!!” For a moment Maria thought that Sausage was another thing that one must have to attain perfection . . .’

That mention of 'purity' is important. There are several references in the book to the Virgin Mary, and Maria's name is no coincidence. The myth is that only a virgin can tame the unicorn, and this must have been in the author's mind, but in the end, having sown all the seeds (and this is a very plotty book) she seems to have decided not to go down this route, the route which Alan Garner did take in his novel.


On another occasion, Loveday Minette warns Maria, 'Don’t make my mistakes, Maria, whatever you do.'

    'What were your mistakes?' asked Maria

    'Too many to tell you,' said Loveday, 'but they all grew out of being aggravating and losing my temper.' 


     'I’m like Lady Letitia, Loveday,' Maria says, a few pages later,  'I don’t like pink either.'

     ‘What?’ cried Loveday. ‘You ride there beside me, Maria, and dare to tell me that you don’t like pink?’ And Loveday drew herself up, and her eyes flashed cold fire and she seemed to be freezing all over.’


I think it’s this kind of thing that makes the moralising acceptable. Even the vicar, who delivers damning moral judgements on his parishioners, is not above reproach. All the characters, including our heroine, have their flaws and contradictions, and in this self-contained world the bad people are bad for understandable reasons and are willing, in the right circumstances, to be reformed. Marcus Crouch says ‘The Little White Horse is a ‘moral tale’, an allegory, in which an acceptable lesson is carried through the medium of an enchanting story. Children, who in any case are less averse to a moral than their elders, have shown no wish to complain that this story, with its excitement, its vividly realised setting and its many colourful characters, is concerned with the nature of good and evil and with the importance of self-discipline.’


I think that’s right. Reviews on Amazon and Good Reads are a real mixture of praise from modern children and from adults who loved the book when they were young and still reread it today. There's very little  'I bought this for my granddaughter and she seems to love it'. And a whole new audience has come to the book after J K Rowling said it was one of her favourites as a child, and acknowledged its influence on Harry Potter, chiefly through its extravagant descriptions of food.


Elizabeth Goudge

I have a feeling that this book might also have influenced Joan Aiken in her creation of the alternative England of James III, the setting for the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. Can anyone suggest a sensible reason why Joan Aiken never won the Carnegie? She was shortlisted once in 1968 for The Whispering Mountain, but that's all.

And, come to think of it, Loveday Minette's bit of relationship counselling is really quite sound and I will try to take it to heart. 'Don't be aggravating and keep your temper.'

Paul May's website