Walter de la Mare – Collected Stories for Children

Old stories, but deliciously living language in Walter de la Mare’s 1947 Carnegie win

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Collected Stories for Children
Jacket for 1957 edition of ‘Collected Stories for Children’ by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Robin Jacques.

The 1947 award marked a new departure for the Carnegie Medal: it was the first time the Medal had gone to a collection of short stories. Walter de la Mare’s Collected Stories for Children was stretching the definition of ‘published in that year’, for it was a collection of 17 stories produced throughout de la Mare’s career. The decision to allow such previously published material, provided ‘a subtantial part of the contents’ had not ‘already appeared as a complete book’, had been taken only in 1944 (Library Association Record Nov 1944, p. 196). It’s possible that this revision was made with de la Mare in mind, for the opportunities to honour this grandee of children’s literature were likely to be limited. Certainly Eileen Colwell notes that the award itself was made partly because the committee felt that de la Mare’s contribution to literature should be recognised.  In a sense, then, this award was one which sought to consolidate part of Britian’s existing heritage of children’s literature.

The collection itself fits strongly within the trend for texts which deal with ideas of heritage and nationhood, since although the stories are original to de la Mare, they have the ‘feel’ of traditional tales. Some are explicit reversionings of well-known stories:  the opening tale, ‘Dick and the Beanstalk’, is a charming ‘making new’ of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, in which Dick, ‘what is called a lively reader’, discovers Jack’s beanstalk and sets out to find out the truth of the story, only to get considerably more than he bargained for.  Others create folk tales for particular areas, such as in the ‘The Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire’, the story of three maltreated chimney sweeps who fall into an enchanted sleep after their master attempts to entrap the, in their dreams in order to make them into more passive workers. (As far as I’ve been able to tell, the story isn’t based on any actual local legend.)

The ‘magicking’ of the British landscape which is evident in The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse is evident throughout de la Mare’s writing. Each story is lush with description: who can resist Griselda’s seaside home by which:

On calm summer evenings unearthly dancers had been seen dancing between the dusk and the moonlght on the short green turf at the edge of the sands, where bugloss and sea-lavender bloomed, and the gulls had their meeting place, gabbling softly together as they preened their wings in the twilight.  – ‘A Penny a Day’

Throughout the collection, the beauty of the landscape retains a numinous quality, whether or not it is peopled with magical creatures.

Walter de la Mare is of course best known for his poetry, and the great joy of this collection is in the language. His description of a scarecrow, ‘nothing but a dumb, tumebledown, hugger-mugger antiquated old hodmadod’, is absolutely delicious, full of words you want to roll around in your mouth, and I love the description of Myfanwy’s possessive father, whose ‘dark brows loured at the very thought’ of losing his daughter. de la Mare often employs the quite formal, slightly archaic tones which are common to many Victorian tellings of fairy tales, but this is language which lives. Although the tone and the amount of description might initially be offputting to children more accustomed to the quick pace of contemporary children’s books, I think that the sheer joy of de la Mare’s language would win them over, especially if the stories were being read out loud.

The one uncomfortable aspect of this collection is the story ‘Sambo and the Snow Mountains’, which features a black British child who is consumed with a desire to be white. The story is more nuanced than this bald summary makes it sound: Sambo’s desire for whiteness is prompted by the racist comments of other chldren, which trouble him even though he knows that in his own country, ‘to be black was bliss […] it was white boys who would be laughable there’. He sets out on a journey to the snow mountains, where he believes he might become white through exposure to the white landscape, and poses as the doctor for a dying old lady who loves all things white, having disguised his black skin with whitewash. The old lady ultimately affirms the value of blackness, telling him:

White gives back all colours; black welcomes them in […] A black man whose mind is free from darkness and his heart from cruelty is in truth whiter than any one whose soul is in the shades.

Sambo responds ‘de blackest ob all dings, lady, dat is a lie’, and washes off the whitewash, resolving to tell the lady the truth about himself. But she dies in the night, leaving him all that she has with the wish that he ‘never put on anything but white for me’. We can assume she means him to wear white clothes, but Sambo interprets this as an injunction to once more whitewash his skin. He lives out his life as a rich man, and a kindly master, but always with whitened skin. But from time to time ‘a voice would cry out on him as if from the very recesses of his being. “O but for a moment, to be black again!”‘. In many ways, then, this is a tragedy about race and racism, and it’s clear that de la Mare’s ntentions were to decry racist attitudes. I think from the point of view of the Carnegie committee in 1947, it may have seemed relatively progressive. It’s marred, though, by the racist caricature of Sambo. As the quote above shows, despite being third-generation British, Sambo speaks a pidgin English, and he’s characterised as ‘slow’ (indeed, he suggests that being white would make him ‘quicker at his tasks’). As is the case with other stories of this type (such as Hoffman’s ‘Story of the Black Boys’) the binary of white as good and black as bad is largely preserved. Ultimately I think it’s hard (especially for a white writer) to write a story about a black child’s quest to become white without it ending up somewhat racist, whatever the intention. On the whole, this isn’t a story I’d be keen to share with contemporary child readers, at least not without some serious discussion. (I would be interested to hear the thoughts of other readers, especially those more equipped to discuss issues of race.)

Sambo aside, I think this collection was a worthy winner of the Carnegie Medal, albeit one which was clearly aimed at celebrating a tradition of children’s literature rather than promoting something new.

The Library Association Record which announces de la Mare’s win also includes a poem he inscribed in the copy of his book he presented to the LA. It’s rather lovely and I’m not sure that it’s very widely known (I’m not very familiar with his poetry but it doesn’t come up on a Google) so I’m reproducing it here:

 

The Harebell

In the clear sunshine, hour by hour,I’ve toiled, but toiled in vain, to paint this flowerBrushes, and box of colours from this shelf,And nought else with me but the flower itself.Nothing alive – so steadfast yet so frail – Could ever bloom on paper, I know well;But poor and clumsy though the copy be,I could not wish for happier company. 

It seems it might, if I gazed on and on -That wiry stalk, those petals, blue yet wan.The solemn beauty of that marvellous cup -At last, for very love, give its strange scent up.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I couldn’t immerse myself in this in the way I can with some other winners, but SUCH delight in the language

Plot: 9/10 – This varies from story to story, but in general there’s the plottiness and suspense of a good folk tale

Characterisation: 7/10 – Folk tales aren’t necessarily character-focused, as a rule, but these characters do really live. de la Mare has a particularly good eye for his child characters, who could easily end up a bit twee but have a zest that makes them more realistic.

Themes: Magic, countryside, morality, evil, folk tales

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Brother John
Robin Jacques’ illustration of a disgruntled-looking brother John playing his bassoon, from the story ‘The Dutch Cheese’.

Illustrator: Robin Jacques illustrated the edition I had – I love the image of poor brother John in

‘The Dutch Cheese” trying to drive away the fairies by playing his bassoon – but the first edition was illustrated by Irene Hawkins

Author’s nationality/race: White English

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little White Horse

The Carnegie Medal moves back into fantasy worlds with The Little White Horse.

Book jacket for Elizabeth Goudge's "The Little White Horse"
First edition cover of The Little White Horse

I was excited to get to the 1946 winner, Elizabeth Gouge’s The Little White Horse. I remember watching the TV adaptation, Moonacre, as a child, but I had never read the book and at the time didn’t even realise that there was a book. I don’t remember anything about the TV adaptation either, except the sense of something magical and exciting. The book certainly is magical and exciting, but what I enjoyed about it even more is its wry humour. The introduction of the protagonist (Maria), her governess Miss Heliotrope, and her dog Wiggins is a delight: contemplating her beautiful boots gives clothes-conscious Maria ‘a moral strength that can scarcely be overestimated’, virtuous Miss Heliotrope is afflicted by indigestion that has the unfortunate side effect of giving her the purple nose of an alcoholic, and as for Wiggins…

 

[I]t is difficult to draw up a list of Wiggin’s virtues… In fact impossible because he hadn’t any… Wiggins was greedy, conceited, bad-tempered, selfish, and lazy. It was the belief of Maria and Miss Heliotrope that he loved them devotedly because he always kept close at their heels, wagged his tail politely when spoken to, and even kissed them upon occasion. But all this Wiggins did not from affection but because he thought it good policy.

There’s a real savour to these descriptions that I love, and it carries on through the rest of the book. This, I think, is what makes this book really successful; it is also deeply concerned with questions of virtue and in the wrong hands this story could have become sickly, but the humour lifts it out of danger.

The Little White Horse returns to some of the themes we have seen in previous Carnegie winners, notably the emphasis on the pastoral and the interest in heritage. At the start of the book, recently orphaned Maria is travelling to live with her uncle in the West Country, a prospect she regards with dismay. Predictably, none of the discomforts she associates with country life materialise: in fact, she is stepping into a picture postcard world in which:

The cottages all looked prosperous and well cared for, and besides the gardens the gardens had beehives in them. And the people looked as happy and prosperous as their homes. The children were sturdy as little ponies, healthy and happy, their mothers and fathers strong-looking and serene, the old people as rosy-cheeked and smiling as the children.

Although she is ‘a London lady born and bred’ Maria fits perfectly into this rural world, so much so that she finds she has a bedroom with a door so small only she can enter, where she daily discovers clothes and other goodies which fit perfectly. Furthermore, she has a destiny to fulfil: she is the ‘Moon Princess’ who has the chance to right the wrongs and heal the old rifts which have marred the happiness of her ancestors. Just in case there should be any doubt about the symbolism attached to her healing of the land, she is assisted in her quest by a lion and a unicorn.

This is, then, a book which is concerned with national identity, and with a vision of Englishness (and I think in this case we are dealing with Englishness rather than Britishness) which is rooted in a particular rural idyll. The world that Maria is seeking to preserve is  also distinctly old fashioned – the book is set ‘in the year of our grace 1842’ and Maria is invested in ensuring that Silverydew ‘should never change’. By the end of the book, everyone is happily and heteronormatively paired off, religion rather than personal gain is in the ascendancy, and there’s a sense of happy stasis. This seems in contrast to some of the earlier books I’ve looked at where there was a strong sense of futurity.

At the same time, the book isn’t necessarily conservative. I was interested in the legacy of conflict Maria needs to deal with, which reaches back to the ‘Men from the Dark Woods’ (French – so certainly reproducing some age old British xenophobia) and her ancestor who may have tricked them, and has echoes in the generation immediately before hers. Although the ‘Men from the Dark Woods’ are clearly presented as a dark force, it’s also clear that Maria’s own ancestors have behaved badly and that children inherit the failings of their parents. Reading it as a metaphor for national identity suggests that the rural idyll isn’t an entirely innocent one and acknowledges the possibility of negative histories as well as positive ones. Although I’ve said that this book is not very future focused, it is concerned with resolving and atoning for past crimes in order to move forward. These are concerns that will recur (in a much more hard-hitting way) in a later Carnegie winner, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.

This isn’t a book for everyone, although it’s very much a book for someone like me – everything from the fantasy elements, to the humour, to the recurrent descriptions of delicious food are calculated to please me. (They also pleased J.K. Rowling, who cites this as one of her favourites.) It’s slower and more descriptive than a typical children’s book today, which might deter some contemporary readers, but I think it does hold up for the right kind of reader. I’m certainly happy it is still in print.

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 8/10 – I really enjoyed this, and I suspect if I’d read it as a child my rating would have been even higher – all the fantasy elements would have seemed even more magical.

Plot: 8/10 – This is plottier than a lot of the other books I’ve read so far, and the plot is handled well, although I found the pairing off of everyone at the end a bit uncomfortable (Maria doesn’t actually get married, but I wish her eventual marriage hadn’t been quite so settled as it was)

Characterisation: 9/10 – As is probably already apparent, I love the characterisation in this. I particularly loved the fact that all the characters are quite flawed and that we’re supposed to recognise that. She does lose hold of her focus on character as the plot gets going, though.

Themes: Magic, countryside, nationhood, morality, evil

Publisher: University of London Press

Illustrator:C Walter Hodges (but mostly absent from my edition, alas)

Author’s nationality/race: White English

No suitable book? 1945 passes with no Carnegie winner

A few musings on the books which didn’t win the Carnegie Medal in 1945.

1945 was the second year in which no Medal was awarded. As in 1943, the impact of the war on the publishing industry as whole was probably a significant factor – relatively few new books for children were published in 1945. Nevertheless, there were a few eligible titles and I was curious to see whether an award could or should have been made.

Jacket image first edition of Enid Blyton's'Fifth Formers at St Clare's'The indefatigable Enid Blyton published several novels in 1945: there were new adventures in her Famous Five, St Clare’s, Naughtiest Girl and Five Find-Outers series, as well as a number of standalone novels. There’s certainly some room for debate about whether Blyton should have been honoured – the fact that I was reading a new edition of Fifth Formers of St. Clare’s as a child in the 1980s is a good reminder of her enduring appeal to child readers – but it’s probably fair to say that if the Library Association hadn’t regarded her as worthy of a Medal in earlier years, there was nothing about her 1945 titles that was likely to make them revise this attitude.

There were some other interesting possibilities. Kim Reynolds identifies David Severn (Unwin), son of the publisher Stanley Unwin and brother of the illustrator Nora Spicer Unwin, as one writer active through the 1940s. His book Hermit in the Hills, part of his series of ‘Crusoe’ books, would have been eligible for the 1945 Carnegie Medal. The book is aligned with many of the trends that are apparent in earlier Carnegie Medal winners: the series fits into the same ‘camping and tramping’ genre as Arthur Ransome’s work, focusing on several families’ rural holidays and the children’s exploits outdoors. Reynolds argues the Severn is considerably more radical than Ransome, however, placing him within a tradition of aesthetic radicalism. Hermit in the Hills is one of  the later titles in the series; Reynolds observes that ‘painting, primitivism, abstraction, folk culture, experiments with rendering time, and the importance of being out the natural landscape to the process of purifying and enlarging perception have become dominant themes’ (Left Out, 2016 p. 138). Having read the book, though, I have to say that while these themes are interesting, as a story it does not stand up well against Ransome’s work. Interestingly, I realise that where it really falls down compared to Ransome is in the characterisation – I say interestingly, because Ransome’s characters have often received flak for being boring or unconvincing (John Rowe Townsend called John and Susan the two dullest characters in the history of children’s literature). He gives them such real inner lives, though, that I understand and sympathise with them and really care about their concerns. In Pigeon Post, the eight children are all very different and all equally convincing and memorable. By contrast, I finished Hermit in the Hills yesterday and I am finding it hard to remember who was who. The book finishes with an emphasis on living in the moment, on really seeing the natural world, and on the idea of storing that experience up while you live with the more mundane aspects of life. These are ideas that are much more in tune with my personal interests than the passion for sailing which is such a part of Swallows and Amazons, but they never quite come off the page in the same way. I sometimes felt that I was reading a manifesto rather than living these feelings with the characters. Despite this, it was an engaging read with some fantastic description, and if it had won the Carnegie I think I’d be characterising it as a lacklustre but not a completely unworthy winner.

The Magic of Coal: jacket imageAnother place the Committee might have looked for possible award winners was Picture Puffins. Noel Carrington’s distinctive picture book series was well-launched by 1945, and there were several titles published that year. Since non-fiction titles were eligible for the Carnegie, and since there was as yet no Kate Greenaway Medal to honour illustrated books specifically, there is a good case for considering these as eligible titles. Peggy M. Hart’s The Magic of Coal is one worthy contender: its striking illustrations alone are certainly worthy of some award (although there was no provision for this within the Carnegie criteria). There’s a pleasingly futuristic quality about the scenes of mining magic-of-coalcommunities therein, which are all very clean and well-organised. Although the details of mining itself are accurate, there is quite an idealistic portrayal of these communities – as someone who grew up in a mining area, I’m not convinced by her assertion that the advent of pithead baths meant it was difficult to tell a miner on his way to work from his neighbour on the way to the pictures. This is part and parcel of the politics of the book, though, which is subtly utopian in its portrayal of this community which is apparently working together for the common good (the book was published a year before the nationalisation of the coal industry). The book is engagingly written and certainly stands up well against other non-fiction winners of the Carnegie.

I wrote in my post about 1943 that Mary Norton’s The Magic Bed-Knob would have been a contender for that year, but in fact it was published in 1945 (I got my ‘no award’ years muddle up). As I said in that post, that book would have been another good pick, but on the whole I am glad Norton was honoured for The Borrowers, which is a true gem.

On the whole, then, I can’t say that I’ve turned up any obvious title which really should have won in this no award year, although I think several of these could fairly have won. I’m interested to dig into the archives to see if there were any other contenders.

 

 

 

 

Little Grey Men

1941 offers a rural odyssey with BB’s little grey men.

littlegreymen
The Little Grey Men – first edition jacket

I had a somewhat unplanned summer hiatus from this blog, but as the autumn term beckons I am back in the blogging saddle with the 1942 Carnegie winner, The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’. ‘BB’ was actually Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a Northampton-born naturalist who produced beautiful nature drawings. He also illustrated The Little Grey Men; my copy carries black and white illustrations by him, but is missing the watercolour plates that were in the first edition. (It also replaces his jacket illustration with one by Edward Ardizzone, which I have to say I like a lot more.)

The book focuses on Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Dodder, ‘the last gnomes in England’:

Rather surprisingly, [Baldmoney] was extraordinary like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books, even to the pointed skin hat and long beard. He wore a short coat and waistcoat of mouse-skin with a strip of snake-skin round his middle; moleskin breeches tied in below the knee, but no shoes or stockings. He had no need of these, for gnomes are hairy little folk; in summer time they sometimes dispense with clothes altogether. Their bodies are not naked like ours, but clothed in long hair, and as to their feet, if you had not worn boots of shoes since you were born, you would have no need of them either. He carried a hunting knife in his belt, made of hammered iron, part of an old hinge which he had found in the stream.

However extraordinarily like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books these particular gnomes may be, the book is pretty far from the kind of book that suggests to me. This is definitely not a fairy story, and apart from being very small, the gnomes do not really resemble fairies in terms of supernatural qualities. In fact, they’re a kind of cross between small woodland creatures and rural working men: the charcoal burners in Ransome’s books would definitely get on well with them. As you might expect from Watkins’ Pitchford’s biography, this is intentional: the introduction to the book explicitly tells us that ‘the birds and wild animals are the Little People’, and the book as a whole is clearly very interested in the idea of an enduring country heritage which is embodied in these gnomes who have been there ‘since before Julius Caesar’. So there’s a definite return here to some of the concerns we’ve seen in earlier Carnegie medallists. There’s a much more prominent environment concern, though: there are frequent allusions to the way human beings are impacting on the environment, such as the effect of tarred roads on the stickleback population (the runoff poisons the water, apparently).

There are some quite pleasing details at the beginning about the gnomes and how they live (Dodder has a prosthetic leg which is based around an acorn cup, and they consult the kingfisher on the best material to use to replace the twig which forms the actual leg). Then the main conflict of the plot kicks off: their brother Cloudberry departed some months ago on a journey to find the source of the stream, but never returned. The rest of the novel follows their (successful) quest to find Cloudberry, a quest which takes then away from their sanctuary in the woods and into territory controlled by men. The main drama takes place when they reach a wood controlled by a gamekeeper, the ‘Giant Grum’, who kills all the small creatures who enter his territory and who, they fear, may have killed Cloudberry. This precipitates the strangest part of this book. The gnomes and woodland creatures call on the God Pan to help them kill the Giant Grum, who obliges by providing Dodder with 6 oak leaves which he stuff into the Giant’s gun barrel, causing the gun to explode and kill the Giant (who is of course the gamekeeper).

This incident is… weird. From the point of view of the gnomes and the other woodland creatures, it’s completely justified. The Giant Grum is a wanton killer who they all live in fear of. And from the point of view of the naturalist, the ecological monosystem which the Giant Grum seems to be creating with his policy of ‘kill all life except pheasants’ is also clearly a problem (although the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust claim that pheasant woods are actually quite good for ecological diversity) – I’d be interested to know if this is the common view today). But the sudden murder of one of the only human characters in the book is a bit startling, coming in the middle of a fairly gentle children’s books, and it’s made more startling by the way Giant Grum is presented immediately beforehand:

Giant Grum had no appetite for breakfast, and his wife was worried. All night he had tossed and turned in his sleep, muttering, groaning. His wife wanted him to stay in bed.

‘You have the flu, I’m sure; lie still and let me send for the doctor.’

But he would not. ‘No, the fresh air will do me good; I must go down to the pens. It’s fresh air I want. Perhaps this hot weather has got me down a bit.’

[…] He strode along with his dog at his heel. Two hundred yards from the house was a clearing and here the pheasant pens were ranged row on row. At intervals were poles from which were suspended the bodies of crows, jays, and magpies, who came to rob him of his precious chicks. As soon as he came within sight of the clearing he stopped short. Something was wrong, not a pheasant was to be seen! Usually they came running to him like chickens to be fed, but the place was deserted.

Giant Grum is clearly not just a giant, but a perfectly ordinary man who is doing his work conscientiously. This section is so sympathetic that I wonder whether Watkins-Pitchford doesn’t want us to direct our anger elsewhere, but if this is the case then the book as a whole fails. The gamekeeper, after all, is just an employee who is maintaining a pheasant wood for the benefit of his wealthy employers. We briefly meet these employers later on, but they are infinitely more sympathetic than Giant Grum. Indeed, insofar as there is a focalising child character it is the small son of the landowner, who is conveniently also afraid of the gamekeeper and relieved to learn he has gone away for a long holiday from which he is not expected to return. So we’re not encouraged to lay the sins of Giant Grum at his employers’ doors where, presumably, they really belong.

These inconsistencies in tone are particularly interesting if you read this book against its historical context. The idea of a violent struggle for access to the land makes sense when read against the birth of the Ramblers Association, notably the mass trespass of Kinder Scout only a decade before this book was published. The title of the first chapter in the game wood certainly seems to situate the book within this context: it’s called ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted!’ But that struggle was closely connected with issues of class and the question of whether landowners have a right to fence off land which is part of the common heritage of the people, so if Watkins-Pitchford was intentionally alluding to that it would make more sense for the actual landowners to come across in a more unsympathetic fashion. If anyone knows more about where he stood in relation to this movement I’d be most pleased to hear about it.

The other interesting historical context for this book is, of course, the war. It’s only briefly mentioned, but the very forceful return to a narrative which intensely treasures the wild spaces of Britain I think partly reflects the sense of the country as a precious space which is to be defended. Owen Dudley Smith sees the violence of the gamekeeper’s death as reflective of the war, but I’m not really convinced by that reading.

This is one of those books where my adult reader and my child reader don’t really align. As an adult, I find this book fascinating, because it’s so clearly engaging with lots of ideas about land and heritage and rural tradition. But I did actually read this book as a child, and I did not like it at all. I remember being quite unsettled by it, in fact – I don’t remember Giant Grum’s death, but it may have been this that bothered me. I think, though, that it was more that the presence of gnomes made me thing I was going to get a more fantasy oriented book, and in fact it’s much more interested in nature and fishing and so on. It’s certainly quite a slow book by modern standards, and I suspect for this reason it would be less engaging to many contemporary children. However, it’s still in print, so someone is buying it!

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I think this is a better book than We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, but I liked it less.

Plot: 8/10

Characterisation: 7/10

Themes: Countryside, heritage, land, fantasy

Publisher: Eyre and Spottiswood

Illustrator: Watkins-Pitchford

Author’s nationality/race: White English

 

 

 

 

 

We Couldn’t Leave Dinah

Another wartime story, this one with ponies: We Couldn’t Leave Dinah. Needs more gymkhanas.

Caveat: I read this fairly recently, but couldn’t find my copy this week to refresh myself, so this might suffer slightly from the vagaries of my memory. Also (ironically), this post is even more spoilery than usual, so don’t read if this will bother you.

1941 saw the Carnegie Medal continue its focus on war with Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, a pony story cum wartime adventure set on the Channel Islands. Caroline, Mick and Thomas Templeton – English residents of fictional island Clerinel, and all members of their local Pony Club – are faced with evacuation to the UK as fears of a German occupation of the island grow. The Germans invade the same night as the evacuation, and in the chaos Caroline and Mick manage to get themselves left behind, and end up concealing themselves and their ponies in a cave originally meant as the new headquarters for the Pony Club. With the help of their French friend Peter, they manage to organise a way off the island for themselves, though not before Mick is forced to teach the daughter of the German general occupying their home how to ride (he masquerades as their French servant). In the process, he uncovers some information which can be used against the Germans. They depart the island in possession of this information, but leaving behind their pony Dinah, who they conclude will be safe with the Gernam child Nannerl until they can return for her.

Mary Treadgold was inspired to write the story after reading many terrible pony books  while working as editor of Heinemann, and this is generally referred to as a pony book. I was quite excited about this, because I had my prescribed horsey phase as a small girl and can still get excited about winning the gymkhana with the pony tricked out in lovingly restored tack found in the old stables. As the summary above demonstrates, however, there’s quite a lot more going on in this book and I found it rather lacking in pony detail. Even though the children are obsessed with the Pony Club, it felt more like a plot device than a central focus. I liked the book less as a result, although this says more about me than about the virtues of the plot. The drama of the plot focuses around the danger that the children will get caught and their accidental involvement in an English spy ring operating on the island, and while I’m willing to accept this in theory, in practice I’m more excited about who wins the gymkhana.

The most interesting part of the novel (to me, anyway) is the way that it explores changing identities and allegiances in the context of war. The book begins with a fancy dress party organised for the Pony Club by the new President of the Pony Club, Peter, who is one of the French residents of the island. The party provides an excuse for a group of Germans to land in disguse and take over key strategic points on the island, thus facilitating the invasion. This sets up a running tension through the book: Caroline sees the Germans and later puts two and two together, and so the children are faced with the prospect that Peter’s father – and possibly Peter himself – are in fact German collaborators. At the end of the book, it’s revealed that Peter’s father did collaborate with the Germans, but only because they have family in Germany who are being held hostage against his cooperation. The genuine sympathy with which Treadgold portrays this character is important given that she was writing shortly after the establishment of the Vichy government in France: it’s made clear that this has been an agonising decision. The introduction of the German child, Nannerl, is also key: although they imagine she will be a horrible Nazi, she turns out to be a small, rather comical figure who shares their love of horses and desperately wants to learn to ride.  They find her desperately annoying and inconvenient, but in the same way as they are annoyed by their younger brother, and during the course of the book they win her over. At the end of the novel, they are not only sure that Nannerl will take good care of Dinah, they make her an honorary member of the Pony Club and look forward to the possibility that they might meet again as fellow members of the Club in happier times. There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that the wartime committee chose a book with such a clear message about the potential for unity across nationalities, and with such a sympathy for those caught between what was moral and what was safe.

Despite these good qualities, Treadgold’s portrayal of the actual non-English characters is rather clunky, and there is just a shadow of a sense that whatever the good qualities of other nations there’s something special about being English. There’s also a bit of a gendered quality to the characterisation: once the two children are living in the cave Caroline is largely quite anxious, while Mick gets drawn into the discovery of a possible spy ring and becomes much more brave and adventurous. There are some nice bits of characterisation in this section (when my copy eventually reappears I’ll come back and add a quote), but this story does feel more gendered than any of the previous winners.

Plotwise – lack of gymkhanas aside – this does clip along well and there’s a reasonable level of realism. Based on the title, I had always imagined this was a story in which the children actually refused to be evacuated, but in fact although they’re sad about leaving their pony, it’s pure accident that they don’t make it onto the boat and they’re pretty panicked about it. And despite my quibbles about the gendered nature of it, I like the fact that hiding out in a cave is not portrayed as all a jolly good adventure – it’s all a bit nervewracking and uncomfortable.

This is the second winner I’ve come to which is out-of-print, but it survived much longer than Visitors From London: the last edition in WorldCat is 1982, two decades later than the last edition of Kitty Barne’s book. I find this surprising in terms of quality: this isn’t a bad book, but it’s nowhere near as vivid or interesting as  Visitors from London. I suspect that the pony story aspect helped a lot here, since it lends itself to marketing – I’ve noticed that other stories with a pony element tend to have that played up on the jacket, however slight the focus on ponies within.

1941 was slim pickings for children’s publishing, which probably helped Treadgold: Ransome’s Missee Lee came out this year, but was ineligible since at this time authors couldn’t win more than once (not sorry about this, Missee Lee is the most problematic of Ransome’s books by a long chalk), and P.L. Travers also published an evacuation story, I Go By Sea, I Go By Land. I haven’t read the latter, so I’m not sure how We Couldn’t Leave Dinah holds up in comparison (cue yet another book purchase, whoops). I’m not convinced it is really an outstanding book, but on the whole I’d rather have this one celebrated than no award at all. Marcus Crouch, though, suggests that the award was premature in terms of Treadgold’s writing career – I enjoyed this one enough for that to pique my interest in her other works.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 6/10

Plot: 6/10

Characterisation: 5/10

Themes: War, evacuation,  ponies, nationhood, adventure, spies

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Stuart Tresilian (but my paperback edition had none of the illustrations, so I can’t comment on these)

Author’s nationality/race: (A new category, I realised the other day I’d like to keep track of this, and also not note race only when the author was non-white. Not that this is likely to be an issue for a while.) White English

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visitors from London

A forgotten treasure: Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London

The first Carnegie Medal winner published during the war years (The Radium Woman having slightly predated the start of the war) tackled the war itself: Kitty Barne’s Visitors From London  is an evacuation story. It’s actually a sequel to Barne’s earlier novel Family Footlights, which is about the same family, but since I haven’t read Family Footlights I can say with some confidence that it stands alone. This is a summer holiday story with some genetic similarity to Arthur Ransome’s books, but with a wartime twist. The book takes place in the first months of the war, when Operation Pied Piper was put into action. The four Farrar children are spending the summer in the country with their Aunt Myra, but what promises to be a peaceful holiday is interrupted by the news that evacuees are to be billeted at the nearby farmhouse, Steadings. The Farrars and Aunt Myra are roped into preparing for the evacuees and taking care of them: hijinks ensue. By the end of the summer, the evacuees have mostly retreated back to London (as many did during the ‘phony war’) and the children return to their boarding school.

This is the first of the winning novels which isn’t still in print; according to Keith Barker it was the first of the Carnegie books to go out of print. Both Barker and Pat Thomson (writing in Carousel) seem to find this unsurprising and regard the book as rather dated. This baffles me, because I found it utterly fresh and engaging. One of the criticisms often levelled at children’s books of this period is that their child characters are preternaturally goodtempered, well behaved, and respectful to their elders. It’s a criticism I previously took at face value, but reading this book really underlines how lazy a characterisation of the period it is. All Barne’s characters are very distinct, realistic, and not above a bit of family discord: I particularly enjoyed the youngest girl, Sally, who has frequent burst of outrage when things don’t go her way. I also loved the evacuee Lily, an enormously competent twelve-year-old who has cared for her two younger siblings since the death of her mother. Barne does a great job of depicting the complex jockeying for position between the evacuees and the Steadings people, between members of the different families, and between children and adults. Typically, it’s the children who win out in these scenarios, often by subtly manipulating the adults – as when 10-year-old Jimmy succeeds in deflecting the wrath of a local warden bent on accusng them of breaking the blackout by informing him in a concerned manner that he’s left his car running – an offence during wartime.

Barker suggests that the book is rather patronising towards the evacuees, but although they are certainly a source of humour I found Barne’s treatment of all the working-class characters both respectful and (as far as I can judge from this historical distance) realistic. Lily is comical in her role as miniature mother, but Barne also makes it clear that she is in fact a very competent parent who loves her siblings and does a good job of looking after them. She has a moment of triumph right at the beginning of the book when it’s discovered that despite all the talk of ‘iron rations’ she is the only person who has had the sense to bring a  tin opener, and there’s also a nice indication that she is smart and has potential to do more than work in a factory (the fate she expects once she turns 15). Along with Lily – an honorary ‘mother’ there’s Mrs Fell, ‘pretty free with her slaps’ and deeply suspicious of the country; Mrs Jacobson, ‘dark, plump, good-humoured, inclined to make the best of things’; and Mrs Thompson, controlled by her husband, terrified of the bombs and just about everything else; all accompanied by their children. In other words, we don’t have a generic portrait of the working classes here, but a much more nuanced portrayal of diverse people from very subtly different backgrounds who respond in different but understandable ways to the strange situation in which they find themselves.

Some of the themes which were present in the other books I’ve written about so far resurface here. There is a strong sense of the value of the countryside as a source of enduring stability and tradition. At the start of the book, Gerda (the eldest Farrar girl) imagines the farmers’ wives who have inhabited the old house ‘whisking in and out of the doors, hanging up their bacon on those hooks, making their cheeses in that small dairy’, and the book is full of such details of country life. The knowledge of the shepherds  – Old Tolhurst and Young Tolhurst (like Ransome’s Billies, both are old men) – is given special respect both by the characters of the book and by the narrative voice. One of the evacuees, Fred Fell, is immediately drawn to the shepherds and proves to be a natural at keeping sheep; in an interesting linking of place and race, Young Tolhurst suggests that the name ‘Fell’ suggests it is in his blood. Yet the book is not solely backwards looking. Barne pokes a little fun at middle-class attempts to revive ‘traditional’ ways through the character of Mrs Meredith-Smith, who vainly attempts to persuade children to play the ancient Sussex game of stoolball, and is generally portrayed as well-meaning but rather sentimental. More fundamentally, the success of the whole community is derived not from a return to ‘traditional’ ways of being but from a willingness to accept change and work together. I share Kim Reynolds’ view (in her forthcoming book Left Behind) that Barne presents the Steadings community as a sort of democratic experiment: everyone has to work together and accept one another’s peculiarities in order to achieve a greater good.

Ruth Gervis, who illustrated the first edition, also deserves credit for her charming and lively pencil drawings. Her contribution to this means that the Carnegie Medal in its early years had something of a family quality: as I mentioned in my Ballet Shoes post, Gervis was Noel Streatfeild’s sister, and Kitty Barne was their cousin-in-law. (The literary connection, however, was that they were published by Dent.) She’s a brilliant illustrator, and surprisingly for a wartime book was given quite a bt of latitude: there are 40 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Why did this book not ‘stick’ when it’s so lively? The last reprint by Dent seems to have been 1960, and then there was one by Cedric Chivers (who seem to be largely a book binding firm – anyone know more about them?) in 1972. This is about the time that books by people who were children in the war started to appear – Carrie’s War came out in 1973. So perhaps this didn’t quite chime with the vision of the war which was being created in retrospect. Or perhaps the impulse to create a new literature in the 1960s contributed to this being mischaracterised as rather more staid and nostalgic than it really is. Whatever the reason, this seems to me to be a prime candidate for a reprint.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 9/10

Plot: 9/10 – a little episodic

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, modernity, war, evacuation, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis

 

 

Sampson’s Circus

One of the first books highly commended for the Carnegie Medal proves to be justly consigned to the dustbin of history.

In the running for the 1936 Carnegie Medal was Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus. Unlike the other highly commended book of that year, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, Sampson’s Circus hasn’t stood the test of time: it’s out of print, and few people now remember Howard Spring as a writer for children. As a result he isn’t among the writers that I encountered as a child, and I was curious to see how Sampson’s Circus would compare to the two more famous books in the running that year. The answer is… not well.

In terms of genre, Sampson’s Circus is a kind of hybrid of the other two books. It features two adoptive brothers: Jo, and his Belgian foster brother Jack, the orphaned son of a Belgian refugee. At the start of the book, they set off on a caravanning holiday, a device which sets the book  in the ‘camping and tramping’ genre alongside Ransome’s and lots of others of that period, and wind up travelling with a circus, which provides some of the artistic flavour for which Streatfeild was known (indeed, she was to win two years later with a circus novel). This plot is spiced up by the addition of a mysterious stranger bound on kidnapping Jack, who turns out to be the heir to a fortune in Belgium. It also shares some of the same concerns as Pigeon Post: there’s a real affection for the rural landscape (descriptions of the countryside are the best writing in the book) and the theme of belonging is even more explicit here. When Jack discovers the existence of his inheritance, he rejects it and insists on his British identity, something which the reader is clearly supposed to accept and approve of.

From the vantage point of 2016, it’s hard to believe that this book was ever considered a serious contender: it lacks the nuance and characterisation of Pigeon Post, and is far less realistic or ground-breaking than Ballet Shoes. It feels much more dated than either book, more similar in tone to nineteenth century boys’ adventure stories. (Having said that, it’s also not unlike Enid Blyton, who was just getting started at this point, so it wasn’t that out of step.) The plot itself is muddled: living with the circus could have been a story in itself, and the kidnapping theme adds a lot of complication without ever really paying off in terms of creating tension or threat. There’s a fairly sympathetic portrayal of a working-class character, although the fact that he’s named ‘Charlie Chaffinch’ and Spring’s phonetic transcription of his Cockney accent are quite painful. Much worse than this is the racism: I wasn’t thrilled by the first mention of ‘n- minstrels’ among the circus characters, but wrote it off as an unfortunate period detail which you might easily edit out of a modern edition. When we actually meet a black character, though, it’s not possible to shrug off the problems with his portrayal: unlike Charlie Chaffinch, Buzack never really comes across as a real person.  Spring has him speak in pidgin English which resembles faux ‘Red Indian’, and describes him as constantly grinning, then ramps things up to eleven by having Jo and Jack disguise themselves by blacking up and wearing the same costume because it will be ‘impossible’ for anyone to tell the difference between the three. Oh, and they cheerfully refer to themselves throughout a large portion of the rest of the book as ‘Three Little N- Boys’. The book is deservedly out of print, and I like to think that even in 1936 some of these factors weighed against it with the Carnegie Committee.

Despite all this, there are some good elements of the book. The opening description of the Belgian refugees fleeing their home country is genuinely powerful. I enjoyed the competence of Charlie Chaffinch: there’s a running subplot about his desire to have an act in the circus and the ring master’s resistance to this based on the fact that Charlie is so good at runnnig the circus (it’s Charlie himself who explicitly makes this claim, but nothing in the text actually contradicts him).   I also very much enjoyed the curate who shows up towards the end of the book, beats Charlie in a boxing match, and proves to know how to pick locks. He achieves all these feats while maintaining a very mild-manned demeanour and constantly muttering about how staid the vicar is. Spring went on to write novels for adults, and I’d be interested to read them: he has the feel of an author for whom the genre of children’s fiction proved a constraint rather than an inspiration. However, I’m definitely glad that the inaugural Carnegie Medal went to Pigeon Post and not to Sampson’s Circus.

 

My overall rating: 4/10

Plot: 3/10

Characterisation: 4/10

Themes: Adventure, circus, home, camping and tramping

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier