Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “kidlit”

The Big Six (review)

The Big Six (Puffin Books)The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When I was a child, books by Arthur Ransome were the kind of children’s books that adults thought that children ought to read, but which I found rather boring. Our school library was well stocked with them, so I read a few, but if I’d been on Good Reads back then I’d have given them two stars, three at the most.

I can remember little of what I read, and perhaps I read Coot Club, of which this is a kind of sequel, and I suppose my main memory is knowing what the Norfolk Broads were — the kind of knowledge that comes in useful when watching TV quiz shoes like Pointless, until you’ve seen them so many times that you stop trying to work out the answers, and rather try to remember which question is going to come up next and which of the very familiar contestants gets the right answer. But yes, reading about that di help to me form some kind of picture of the place, which recurs in other books, such as The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

I also read Missee Lee, from which I learned that typhus was a serious disease, but when I grew up I found that its cousin typhoid was more common.

Arthur Ransome’s books were great for children who liked messing about in boats, but the closest thing we got to that was paying an exorbitant fee for half an hour rowing round the island in Joburg’s Zoo Lake, or the slightly less crowded Germiston Lake.

The Big Six has boats, lots of them. But it is also a whodunit, and that adds to the interest. I don’t remember reading it as a child. I do remember reading a couple of Enid Blyton‘s Secret Seven series, where a group of children outwit the criminals that have the local police foxed.

In this one it is not difficult to guess the culprit, but the child detectives are themselves accused of the crime, and so in order to exonerate themselves they have to find the real culprits. The crime is casting off moored boats, and stealing some equipment — not major crimes worthy of Interpol, but serious enough in a small village where the children’s fathers are boatbuilders, and a bad reputation could harm their livelihood.

Though it takes a long time for the children to identify the suspects, that is not the main problem. The main problem is to collect evidence that points unambiguously to the perpetrator, because so much of the evidence they do manage to collect is open to different interpretations. So as a children’s whodunit, this one is quite sophisticated. Finding a suspect is one problem, getting enough evidence to convict is another.

In addition to being a whodunit, there is an undercurrent of environmental concern, perhaps of wider concern now than when Ransome wrote it in the 1930s. One is conscious of such concerns throughout the book, that, and the price of things. The idea of a lawyer’s fee being 66c makes the mind boggle.

I don’t think I read this one as a child, but if I had, I wonder if I would have been able to grasp that point at the age of 9 or 10. But as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The house on Falling Star Hill

The House On Falling Star HillThe House On Falling Star Hill by Michael Molloy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read an earlier book by Michael Molloy, The witch trade, and was not at all impressed. The blurb made this one sound a bit more interesting, and as I had nothing to lose I took it out of the library anyway. I could alwasys dump it after a couple of chapters if it didn’t look interesting.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised tom find that it was a considerable improvement on The witch trade. The characters are more interesting, if somewhat stereotyped.

A boy, Tim Swift, meets a girl, Sarre, from another world, called Tallis. According to the Chronology of the story they are both about 11 years old, Tim and his dog Josh get unexpectedly dragged into Tallis where Tim discovers that Sarra is a Chanter, with special powers. Tallis has some similarities with Earth, and some differences. Jewels are plentiful but flowers are scarce, which makes a lucrative trade for some. There are also power struggles between the king and a would-be usurper., which makes for interesting adventures and excitement, in which Tim and Sarre, as somewhat precocious brats, play a significant part.

There are also hints of a romantic interest, especially on the part of Sarre, which at some points looked as though it might turn it into a rerun of His Dark Materials , but fortunately it didn’t. But while His Dark Materials appeals to adults as much as to children, I think The house on Falling Star Hill will appeal mainly to children, and rather younger ones at that.

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Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett

The Last DragonslayerThe Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second dragon book I’ve read this month. The first was The dragons of Ordinary Farm).

Both books are about the last dragons on earth, and both of them feature an older girl and a younger boy, so they invite comparison. Both satirise commerce and corporate greed. Of the two, I think this one was better. The plot was less repetitious, it had more humour, and the dialogue was a lot less stilted.

But the biggest difference for me was that while in both books the children (a girl in her early teens and a pre-teen boy) had to outwit adult authority, in The Last Dragonslayer the reason and need for doing so was clear, whereas in The Dragons of Ordinary Farm it wasn’t.

Having said that, however, I also don’t think that this is one of Jasper Fforde’s best books. Jennifer Strange and her sidekick Tiger Prawns are running a dying business of managing magic. The owner of the business is missing, and they find themselves looking after a bunch of retired and semi-retired wizards in the Kingdom of Hereford which is about to go to war with the Duchy of Brecon over who gets to control the Dragonlands when the last Dragon dies. In addition to the political aspect, there are commercial interests at stake, with commercial firms vying with individual speculators to grab the biggest and best bits of real estate. The satire on this it a bit heavy-handed in a Mad magazine kind of way.

I found Jasper fforde’s earlier books much better, and this one seems a bit slapstick: Harry Potter meets Terry Pratchett, if you like that kind of thing, but not really as good as either.

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The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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Five Children and It (book review)

Five Children and itFive Children and it by E. Nesbit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I had heard about, but never seen, until my eye lit on it in the library this week. It’s good bed-time reading, because each chapter is almost a self-contained story.

I suppose coming so late to it, probably many people have had an opportunity to read it before me, and it is too well-known to need much children — four children and their baby brother discover a Psammead, a very ancient sand fairy who grants wishes. And, as I’m sure many others have said, the theme “be careful what you wish for” runs right through the book. In each chapter the children spent most of their time, energy, and, sometimes, money, trying to undo the damage that their wishes have caused.

It is interesting that most of the best books for children that have lasted have been fantasy books. Most of the children’s books from before the First World War have probably been all but forgotten, but many of those that have lasted and been reprinted have been fantasy books.

Another thought is that the children in the story, and therefore many of the first readers of the book, would have been of the generation that fought in the First World War. They grew up in a kind of idyllic world that was to vanish in their generation.

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Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons (Swallows and Amazons, #1)Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s almost exactly 50 years since I last read this book, and I’ve given it another star. I think I’ve read it three times, and found it better each time. I tried reading it as a child, and I think I also read Coot Club and Missee Lee as a child, but did not find them particularly good. And after 50 years I had forgotten most of the plot of this one.

So reading it the third time round it was almost like seeing it with fresh eyes, not least because about halfway between my last reading and this one, in 1993, I had read The Life of Arthur Ransome, and found that his life was much more interesting than the books he wrote.

For those who don’t know it, Swallows and Amazons is about four children of the Walker family, aged from 7 up, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who go camping on an island in a lake in Cumbria, and sail there in a boat. I suppose that a book that featured a girl called Titty was one of the things that put me off as a child. And also that a camping holiday that involves going to an island in a boat would be far more interesting to do than to read about. Reading it this time, I realised that Titty was by far the most interesting character in the story.

And thinking about it, it seems to me that children’s books of that era (between the world wars) seem to have been the kind of books that adults think children should like, but adults actually enjoy them more. These children had imaginary adventures in the middle of their rather prosaic and humdrum life. Most children do, I suppose, but would prefer to read about the real adventures of fictional children than imaginary ones, because they already have imaginary adventures of their own.

I had the same problem with the “William” books by Richmal Crompton, which belonged to the same period. I read several of them as a child, but always found them rather unsatisfactory. Some of them were written in war time, and William and his friends would imagine themselves capturing German spies or themselves spying on Quislings, but there usually turned out to be a more prosaic explanation. As a child, however, I did learn the significance of words like “Quisling”.

I once picked up one of the “William” books as an adult, and read a couple of the stories in it, and was initially surprised at the language. Richman Crompton did not write in simplified Enid Blyton language for kids. She wrote adult prose. But I was also struck by the adult view of children. There was a thread of adult amusement at the antics of children running through all the stories. They were laughing at children, not with them.

Arthur Ransome does better than that, but his books still strike me as an adult’s idea of what children like than what children actually like. There are books about children written mainly for adult readers that take that a bit further; Lord of the Flies, for example, which is also about children camping on an island, but viewed somewhat differently.

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The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton)

I’ve just reread yet another Enid Blyton story from my childhood. I’d already read The Enid Blyton Story, about her life and work, and reread The Secret of Killimooin (the first Enid Blyton novel I read), and, as I noted there, while there are some children’s books that adults enjoy reading, Enid Blyton’s books are not generally among them.

So should kids read Enid Blyton? I say yes, because her books can encourage a love of reading.

A blogging friend, Clarissa, recently asked about something related to this. She quotes someone as saying:

If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.

Clarissa goes on to ask if this is true, because she might be inclined to say the same thing.

I’m not sure if it is true that the really good students were the ones who read Dickens as children, but I am fairly sure that the really good students I’ve had to teach were the ones who read books as children, because they were the ones who were able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. An important stage in that transition is reading for pleasure.

Our middle child (who is now 30-something) wanted to go to school and learn to read because he desperately wanted to read The Lord of the Rings for himself instead of having it read to him. He was rather disappointed that he wasn’t able to do so after his first day of school.

Some years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They came to the training centre for one weekend a month, and then for 10 days at the beginning of each year. Their previous education levels varied tremendously — from four years of primary school to university graduates. Because they were part-time students, much of the training was based on reading, and I soon discovered that many had not made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. About half of them sere school teachers, and their reading skills were the poorest of all the occupations represented. A grade 7 Maths teacher, for example, had a Grade 6 reading level.

We got some reading training equipment and spent part of each training session in trying to improve reading skills, but also moved the emphasis of the training from book study to other forms of instruction, which put them on a more equal footing. Those who could not read well were not stupid. They could talk just as intelligently as the readers. So yes, I could say that thinking that students who read Dickens were the best students could be elitist.

So how would it have helped them if they had all read books like The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield as children? (Both books have donkeys in them).

The Mountain of AdventureThe Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first book by Enid Blyton that I actually owned. It was given to me as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I loved it. It featured children riding donkeys in the mountains, a mountain with caves and secret passageways, a mad scientist conducting sinister experiments, and a helicopter. I read it several times.

I also read several other books in Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but none were as interesting or exciting as this one. The Valley of Adventure came close, but didn’t quite make it, though it did teach me about stalactites and stalagmites and the difference between them.

Now I’ve just reread The Mountain of Adventure as an adult, and several things stand out, including many of the same faults that I had noted in The Secret of Killimooin. There was the over-use of exclamations (What a surprise!) in both the text and the dialogue. The food porn. The constant pointing out of the obvious.

Yet, for all its faults, to my 10-year-old self the story was interesting and exciting.

I notice some other things in reading it as an adult, however. One of its effects on me as a child was that if familiarised me with idioms that could probably be called literary cliches. They are things that people rarely say in real life, but often say in books, and they came with a flash of recognition — so that’s where I learnt that phrase!

Here are some of them:

  • you’ll come to a bad end
  • the coast is clear
  • while the going’s good
  • it will be the worse for you
  • beside himself with rage
  • taste of their own medicine
  • a coward, like all bullies
  • if looks could have killed
  • smell a very large rat
  • spilt the beans

I was aware of all those idioms, but it was in rereading The Mountain of Adventure I became aware of where I had learnt them.

So would the self-supporting ministry trainees have benefited from reading The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield, and would either have made them elitist?


One of the criticisms of Enid Blyton is that she was elitist, and her characters were all middle class.

I think of Wilson Mthembu, one of the Zululand self-supporting ministry trainees. I know nothing of his childhood or where he went to school, but he had got as far as Standard 2 (Grade 4), and he was a shopkeeper. How well could he identify with four middle-class English school children in the book?

Well, the children are not at home in the suburbs, but on holiday at a Welsh mountain farm, where the life is not all that dissimilar to rural Zululand, where there are donkeys, like those the children ride. And having some people speak English and some speak Welsh is not all that different from the English-Zulu divide in Zululand. And, as a shopkeeper, Wilson Mthembu is a member of the bourgeoisie.

The mad scientist might be a bit out of place, but that’s the essence of adventures — strange things happening.

Then there’s the helicopter.

And I recall that around the time that Wilson Mthembu was attending the training course, they were filming Zulu Dawn not far away. One of the stars, Burt Lancaster, broke his arm, and was taken by helicopter to the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital to have it strapped up. He got out of the helicopter and there was a crowd of kids rushing towards the famous film star, but they ran straight past him and went to look at the helicopter.

And David Copperfield? Well he may have ended up as middle class, but he didn’t really start off that way. So I don’t think that is very elitist either.

A friend gave me a copy of David Copperfield for my 12th birthday. I think he’d told his parents that I liked reading, so they thought I’d like that. But I put it on a shelf and carried on reading Biggles (I’d graduated to that from Enid Blyton by then), and only read David Copperfield years later.

What’s the difference between Blyton and Dickens?

Most 10-year-olds can appreciate Enid Blyton because she tells a simple story. But Dickens is more complex, and it is not the books that are difficult so much as the understanding of human nature. Reading Dickens requires children to have an understanding of adult human nature which most children do not have. It is not reading difficulty, but experience of life that makes the difference. Blyton’s adult characters are crude and over-simplified, but they are fairly easy for children to interpret with their experience of adult behaviour. Dickens’s characters are much more complex, even though they do sometimes seem to have exaggerated characteristics, almost like caricatures. But it is easy for children to miss the irony

When I was at university one of our English set works was Northanger Abbey. I had not a clue what it was about, and missed the whole point. I read it again later, after having read a few books in the genre that Jane Austen was satirising, and only then did it make sense. It was like reading it for the first time, because that was after I had read Melmoth the Wanderer.

So no, I don’t really think it’s elitist to think that students who had enjoyed Dickens as children might be better students. But I think they might also be better students if they had read Enid Blyton.

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The Secret of Killimooin

The Secret Of Killimooin (Enid Blyton's Secret Island Series)The Secret Of Killimooin by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some children’s books that adults enjoy as much as, or even more than children do. But Enid Blyton’s books are not among them. I’ve just finished reading The Enid Blyton story, which examines her life and work, and it also makes this point. Most children love her books, and most adults don’t. So I thought I’d re-read a couple of books by Enid Blyton to refresh my memory.

This one is the first Enid Blyton book I ever read, at the age of about 8 or 9 or so, and I’ve always thought it was one of her best, though when reading it again as an adult it looks somewhat different. One of the first things that one notices about many Enid Blyton books is what is nowadays called “food porn”. She goes into ecstatic descriptions of food. But then so does C.S. Lewis in Prince Caspian and in some of the other Narnia books. But Lewis is usually making a point about feasts being associated with celebration and community. In his descriptions of feasts there is usually some element of that, so that most of them have overtones of a Messianic banquet. In Blyton there is less of that. It is more food for the same of food.

Many books of advice to would-be authors of children’s books say that one should not “write down” to children. But Enid Blyton does “write down” to children. In The Secret of Killimooin almost every second sentence ends with an exclamation mark. She writes in exclamations: “…he had a surprise that was most unexpected!” Adults tend to notice such redundancies and to be rather annoyed by them, but children don’t.

In her dialogues Blyton even sometimes makes characters speak in exclamations, which real children rarely do — Oh, I say!… What a marvellous surprise!… golly, it will be grand! — yet real children also don’t seem to notice it much.

Yet I also have some vague and rather disturbing memories –that when I was younger and read a lot of these books I thought that perhaps I ought to speak like that, because that was the way proper children spoke, especially those who were destined to have adventures. Or is that just “false memory syndrome”? Or perhaps another grey moment.

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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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The Moon of Gomrath

Moon of GomrathMoon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having just read it for the 5th (or is it the 6th?) time, I think I notice some flaws I did not spot in earlier readings, but would still give it 5 stars for the tension, the excitement, the facing of strange dangers. Though the blurb describes it as “Celtic”, the Einheriar of the Hearlathing sound pretty Anglo-Saxon to me, and the “old straight track” is anything but old, and was concocted by a 20th century businessman, but it still makes for a good exciting story, not of other worlds far away, but other worlds impinging on this one.

The flaw I noticed this time, however, was the heavy commuter traffic between Alderley Edge and Shining Tor. They rush the 9 miles to Shining Tor, on horseback or sometimes on foot, only to discover that they have to rush back again to consult the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow about something. This shuttling back and forth makes it seem that something is happening, but it isn’t really. It gives it the feel of one of those comedy films or stage shows where people are rushing from room to room in a house looking for someone who is looking for them, each one looking in the rooms that the other has just vacated.

I still like it, though. I think Alan Garner’s first three books are among the best and most exciting fantasy books I have ever read. I like his style, I like the excitement and the tension, I like their link to real places.

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