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Archive for the tag “childrens books”

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Tales of Alderley, #1)The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just been re-reading some Alan Garner books. This time I read them in reverse, starting with The Owl Service, then Elidor followed by The Moon of Gomrath and now The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

I still rate them pretty highly as children’s fantasy novels, but perhaps reading them in reverse order puts them in a different perspective. The first two, the “Alderley” tales, both end in scenes of confused violence. In the case of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen it wasn’t as good as I remembered it, because of that. And I became aware of more of the plot holes. I still give it five stars though.

It’s about two children staying on a farm, and one of them, Susan, has a bracelet with a magic stone that holds the key to the reserve forces of good being held in a cave under a hill. The forces of evil want to get the stone to destroy the reserve force and increase their own power, so they conspire to steal it.

A common feature of quite a lot of children’s fantasy novels is the underground tunnel sequence. Quite a lot of non-fantasy stories also have it. A good many of Enid Blyton‘s “Adventure” and “Secret” series feature underground tunnels and caves. They are present in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis and in the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. I am sure one could find many other examples. But The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has absolutely, incontrovertibly, the most terrifying, claustrophobic and horrific underground cavern sequence I have ever read.

When I was 11-13 years old, perhaps inspired by reading such stories, I explored stormwater drains. The first ones were the ones that drained the sports fields at our school (St Stithians, Randburg, in case you were wondering). Others had explored them — they emptied into a stream and a small dam, and they had climbed up the round concrete pipes, which, I think, were about 2ft 6in in diameter. The told stories about people getting claustrophobia in there, and having to slap their faces (how? you couldn’t turn round) and encountering a scorpion. So it was with some trepidation that I first climbed up them. You couldn’t crawl on all fours, there wasn’t room for that. Just the thought was scary before I tried it. Alan Garner’s novel is ten times scarier than that. Later I explored the stormwater drains of Sandringham, Johannesburg. The lower broader bits were big enough to ride a bike up, but they got narrower when they reached the Sydenham border, and there we used to sit and frighten pedestrians and cyclists with hollow booming tunnel-amplified voices that came from beneath their feet. And one still occasionally reads news items about kids who were doing that and got downed when a sudden thunderstorm struck and they couldn’t get out in time. Rushing rainwater travels a lot faster than a crawling child. But Alan Garner’s book is much, much scarier than that.

Apart from that there’s a lot of running and hiding and trying to keep the stone out of the hands of the bad guys and a deus ex machina or two.There are quite a lot of allusions to mythology. The blurb’s like to describe this as “Celtic”, but that, I think, is because of the glamour that has been ascribed to the epithet “Celtic” in recent Western culture. In fact a lot of the mythology is Norse. Back when the book was fir5st published there was no Google, and one of the things that seemed to be missing was any explanation of the name Brisingamen. Perhaps Garner was hoping to provoke a generation of school children to be curious enough to find out for themselves, even though the only tool at their disposal was a card cataloge. And perhaps he succeeded in that aim too.

It’s a good tale well told, and well worth reading, I think. One can’t say much more without plot spoilers. But yes, the violence at the end is a bit much.

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Elidor: children’s fantasy

ElidorElidor by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Elidor for the seventh time (or is it the eighth?), and was quite surprised to see that it was nearly 25 years since the last time I read it.

What prompted this reading was that someone wrote a rather nice review of my children’s book Of wheels and witches, and I began to wonder if it was worth trying to write a sequel, and I began to re-read Elidor to get me in to mood to think about it.

That’s because Elidor is, in my view at least, a kind of paradigm case of what a children’s fantasy novel should be.

It’s a bit like a combination of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Though Lewis wrote stories for children, Charles Williams never did, but I imagine that if he had he would have written something like Elidor. The first 50 pages are like Lewis — some children are snatched away into another world, the devastated dying world of Elidor. But the rest of the book is like Williams — the other world irrupts into this world.

The protagonist of Elidor is Roland Watson, the youngest of four middle-class siblings who live in Greater Manchester. In various parts of the story Alan Garner satirises bourgeois tastes and values and contrasts their tameness with the wildness of Elidor, which only Roland really appreciates until, in the end, the wildness of Elidor overwhelms them all.

We are not told how old the children are, though, because of the time that elapses in the story, a little over a year, they would be a year older at the end than the beginning. The one clue is that at the end the eldest, Nicholas, buys bus tickets for the four of them and asks for “one and three halves”. If Manchester was anything like Johannesburg, then children started paying full fares after they turned 12. So Nicholas is about 12, his sister Helen about 11, David about 9, and Roland, the protagonist, about 7 or 8. And they would all have been a year younger at the beginning of the story.

What I find interesting about this is that we are told that children like to read stories about children slightly older than themselves, and are less interested in ones about children who are younger. Yet in Elidor the protagonist, the one who takes the initiative, is the youngest. When my son was about the age of Roland in the story he tried to read it, and gave up because he found it “boring”. He was, however, quite happy to have it read to him. I think that may have been because he found it difficult to read. The reading level is more for 10 or 11 year olds.

So I wonder whether any children actually liked Elidor. Or any adults, for that matter. Perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I’m looking for inspiration in all the wrong places.

But then I looked at the GoodReads lists that Elidor is on, and it is on quite a number of them. And perhaps the most telling, in the light of what I have just written, is:

Books for an 8-yr old boy with an older reading age

That pretty much says it all.

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Postscript

I originally posted this on 3rd April 2017, right after I had finished reading Elidor. As I usually do, I posted a basic review on Good Reads, and copied it to this blog with a few additional comments.

Three days later, at our literary coffee klatch, Prof David Levey raised one of the points I had made here — about Alan Garner’s fantasy stories being as much about this world as about other worlds, and the other worlds entering this world, rather than people leaving this world to go to other worlds.

I wanted to share the link to this post on Facebook to draw it to Prof Levey’s attention, but Facebook would not show the illustration of the book cover in the link, but rather something in the sidebar, linking to a Facebook group for a network of South African bloggers.

It seems that the people at Facebook, preferring people not to click on links that would take them out of Facebook, gave preference to an illustration linked to Facebook, no matter how irrelevant, rather than one in the article itself. In the past Facebook used to give one a choice of what illustration would display in links, but now there is only their arbitrary choice.

Eventually I deleted the widget with the link to the SA Bloggers Network, and copied this entire article into another blog post, and deleted the original. Then, and then only, did the link appear in Facebook with the book cover illustration. All that is to explain why this article is dated three days after it was actually written and posted, and why the link to the SA Bloggers Network on Facebook has been removed.

 

The treasure hunters

The Treasure HuntersThe Treasure Hunters by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jeffery, Susan and John Greyling go to stay with their grandparents, who are being forced to sell the family home, which has been in the family for generations, because they can no longer afford to maintain it. The children discover a hidden map showing the whereabouts of the family treasure, which had been lost for many years, and if they can find the treasure, their grandparents will not have to sell the house. But there is already a potential buyer, Mr Potts, who is also after the treasure, and is determined to get the map from the children.

I can’t remember when or where I first read the book, but I must have been about 9 or 10 years old, and it was a copy that belonged to someone elee, so I wasn’t able to re-read it. Jeffery, the eldest of the children, made a big impression on me — so much so that when I wrote a children’s novel of my own many years later (Of wheels and witches), I borrowed his name, and something of what I had imagined his character to be.

On rereading it as an adult, more than sixty years later, I am struck by different things. I can see why there was a period when librarians didn’t like Enid Blyton. There are some things about her style that I found annoying as an adult, though as a child I didn’t notice them. There is an over use of exclamation marks. The children are always telling each other how clever they are and exclaiming about the obvious. There is the usual Enid Blyton food porn. This gives the impression that Enid Blyton is writing down to children, and I was struck by the contrast with, say, the Harry Potter books, where the style is so much better.

susanBut after the first couple of chapters either the style improves, or else one gets caught up in the story so that the defects are less noticiable. There are a few reminders of how society has changed since the book was first written, assumptions about gender roles, for example. The children discover an abandoned summer house, and when they decide to clean it up, “Susan took charge of the cleaning, because she was the girl.” But at least her brothers helped her.

It’s a simple story with a simple plot, but still an enjoyable read after all these years.

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Apartheid and racism in children’s literature

A couple of years ago I reviewed a book on Apartheid and racism in children’s literature, and commented on how I had tried to deal with that theme in a book I had written, Of wheels and witches.

wheelscovSince my book has now been published, I thought it might be good to link it with the blog post that deals with how I tried to deal with those themes in writing it. If you’re interested in reading it, you can get a free 20% sample at Smashwords, with the option of downloading the whole thing if you haven’t already been bored by it.

There is at least one review of it on Good Reads here, and I hope others may be moved to post reviews of it there or elsewhere, either before or after reading the linked post on apartheid in children’s literature.

There’s one other thing.

Good Reads has lists of books of various types, and there didn’t seem to be any list for children’s or young adult books set in southern Africa, so I created such a list, and added this and a couple of other books to it. Please feel free to add more books to the list, and to vote for this book if you liked it, or for others in that category that you have liked. Please add it to any other lists on Good Reads that you think it may belong to.

 

The nightwatch winter (book review)

The Nightwatch WinterThe Nightwatch Winter by Jenny Overton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thirty years ago, when our children were small, we subscribed to the Puffin Book Club, and every month a new book arrived, and was put on the shelves. I don’t know how many of them the children read, but the other day, looking for some light reading, and not having seen anything I hadn’t read on our general fiction shelves, I looked on the old children’s books’ shelf, and found this.

It’s a very ordinary story about some school children in a village in the south of England. In the Christmas holidays they get bored, and go exploring the neighbourhood, in the course of which they encounter a reclusive woman who lives alone with her cat. When the Lent term starts at school they get involved in preparing for a play.

The children are of indeterminate ages, though as the youngest is 11, I assume that most of the others are somewhere in the age range of 11-14.

I think it is the kind of book I would have hated as a child.

The problem is that it is so ordinary. It describes things that children do, like climbing up drains and acting in school plays, and being jealous over who gets the best parts and so on.

It was published 40 years ago, and so describes a vanished generation. There is only one mention of a computer in the whole story, and no one would have had one at home. And the play they produce is an Easter play, and the children seem to be familiar with the plot. Even back then, that might have been quite unusual (though the girls were at a church school, run by nuns). I recall a Church of England bishop of about that period describing how he took his nephew and niece to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, and being somewhat disconcerted to find that they didn’t know the plot.

But in spite of its ordinariness, I found the story quite moving in a way. I wouldn’t buy it for a child to read, though. I’d be afraid that they would have been as horribly bored as I would have been.

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New health and safety lunacy: banning books

It seems that in the USA they are planning to ban children’s books published before 1985, on the ground they they might, just possibly, contain too much lead.

New federal law bans children’s books printed before 1985 – National Civil Liberties | Examiner.com:

Until 1985, it was legal for trace amounts of lead to be used in the inks and paints used in children’s books. But the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (PDF), which went into effect February 10, bans the sale of any children’s products containing more than 600 parts per million (ppm) total lead, no matter how unlikely it is that the items will feature at a toddler buffet. The Consumer Products Safety Commission has ‘clarified’ the issue with contradictory guidance that has thrift stores and even libraries disposing of mountains of books published before the magic date — and hoping that a stray copy of The Wind in the Willows doesn’t bring down the wrath of the regulators.

Is this the law of unintended consequences, or health and safety concerns gone mad? Ot is it censorship “for your own good”?

The paganism of Narnia

The post-Christian man of our day differs from pagans as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin, said C.S. Lewis. Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for the link.

Comment: The paganism of Narnia:

‘When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads.

‘If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin.’

Muslim parents ask UK schools to shelve pro-homosexual storybooks for 5-year-olds

Muslim parents ask UK schools to shelve pro-homosexual storybooks for 5-year-olds: “Two primary schools have withdrawn storybooks about same-sex relationships after objections from Muslim parents.

Up to 90 gathered at the schools to complain about the books which are aimed at pupils as young as five.

One story, titled King & King, is a fairytale about a prince who turns down three princesses before marrying one of their brothers.”

The mind boggles.

Will the gay “community” now burn down the Bristol mosque?

I wonder how this will affect the “Buy Danish” community?

Remember, those are the ones who put little stripes in their blogs saying “Buy Danish” after a Denish newspaper published some anti-Islamic cartoons.

And what will the 5-year-old community do?

The bated-breath community is on tenterhooks.

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