Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “kidlit”

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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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.

 

Where the rainbow ends

Where The Rainbow EndsWhere The Rainbow Ends by Clifford Mills
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1965, at the age of 24, I wished I’d had it to read when I was younger. Even though I was preparing for final exams at university, I bought as many of the other Narnia books as I could find, and shared and discussed them with friends, and bought them as Christmas presents for children that I knew.

One day a group of us were discussing the genre of children\s fantasy, in a wood that reminded us of the Lantern Waste, and we tried to recall such books we had read as children. One friend mentioned The Princess and the Goblin, and I was sad that I had not read any of the ones the others mentioned. The only such book I had read as a child had “rainbow” in the title, and it featured children looking for their parents, and being helped by St George and hindered by the dragon, At one point there were two forests, one bright and good, and the other dark and evil, where the dragon tried to distract the children from their quest. But I could not remember the title or the plot, so I wanted to re-read it. I knew only that one of the children was called Rosamund.

The following year I was in London, and knowing that the British Museum was a copyright library, supposed to receive a copy of every book published in the UK I spent a couple of days there searching for books with “rainbow” in the title, without success.

Eventually I found a copy on a secondhand bookstall in Woolwich Market. I grabbed a copy, and read it. It was a huge disappointment. It was nothing more than imperialist propaganda. It featured a lion cub called Cubby, who always got sick when he wasn’t dosed with a patent medicine called “Colonial Mixture”. St George was no saint, but was a mascot of the British Empire.

All those passed me by as a child, at least consciously, thought it may have brainwashed me into being a closet colonialist. But in 1967 is stuck out like a sore thumb.

So why did I read it a third time?

I was taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and the novel I was writing featured St George, so I re-read it to remind myself how St George was handled in fiction.

I suppose, when I read it as a child, I would probably have given it three or four stars. But now, it’s somewhere between one and two. And I still wish I had had The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read as a child.

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