Category Archives: The Decade project

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Here is my final choice for the Decades Project on Bookword in 2019. Having explored children’s fiction from each decade from 1900 I have reached 2000-2010. And my choice can only be How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

My previous choices for this series have drawn on my mother’s books, my own reading and my daughter’s. How to Train Your Dragon and the following series were the obvious choice because for several years they had been the favourite books of my grandson, Oli, now 11 years old. I went, so to speak, to the dragon’s mouth for his comments.

How to Train Your Dragon

I had planned to interview my grandson about this book, but time was running out as half term was coming to an end. We were on the train last Friday. Oli was sitting behind me, so I wrote down some questions and sent my pad of paper back for his answers.  Here’s how that interview went.

Me: How old were you when you first read HTTYD?

Oli: 6

Me: How did you know about it?

Oli: Films. 

[The DreamWorks Animations use the ideas but not the illustrations of the original books. They have also been loved by my grandson.]

Me: What did you like about Hiccup? [the hero]

Oli: His confidence to learn and do the right thing.

Me: What did you like about Toothless? [Hiccup’s dragon]

Oli: His childish craziness.

Me: What did you like about the stories?

Oli: How unexpected they are.

Q&A Caro / Oli

Me: Would you recommend the books to a younger reader?

Oli: Yes, younger than I am now.

Me: Anything else about HTTYD?

Oli: I really enjoyed how each character had particular skills and characteristics.

Me: And how are the films and books different?

Oli: The storylines are different. Also Toothless is big enough to ride [in the films].

Me: Do you like Cressida Cowell’s pictures?

Oli: Yes.

Me: Why?

Oli. I like them because they can be crazy but also majestic and detailed.

Me: What are the stories about (books)?

Oli: About restoring the king’s lost things in order to bring peace to the Dragon Rebellion and stop a war between the humans and the Dragon Rebellion.

Me: What have you moved on to since reading HTTYD?

Oli: Harry PotterDiary of a Wimpy Kid.

Me: And what’s the best book you have ever read?

Oli: Now: Harry Potter, before: How to Train Your Dragon.

An endorsement I think for Cressida Cowell and her creations. Thank you Oli. And here is her Children’s Charter, for Cressida Cowell is currently the children’s laureate.

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, published in 2003 by Hodder Children’s Books. Illustrated by the author.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Projects, I have been exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices. Next month I will be looking back at the children’s fiction choices and forward to next year.

Here are the links to the previous choices in this year’s Decades Project:

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

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The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

My choice for the 1990s in the Decades Project is Tracy Beaker’s own story  about being a child in care in the 1990s, looking for foster care. This is the tenth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Tracy Beaker is the most successful character created by Jacqueline Wilson. There are three books with her name, and a television series among other indications of success. What is it about this spirited young girl that endears her to readers of all ages?

The Story of Tracy Beaker

Tracy tells her own story, which is as it should be for a ‘looked after’ child. Tracy is her own heroine, which is also as it should be. 

She is 10 years old and does not have a great deal going for her. She is in care and no one wants her, despite attempts to find suitable foster parents. She lives in a children’s home (Dumping Ground) and has a social worker (Elaine). She is not an attractive kid and Nick Sharratt’s illustrations aptly show her as a tangle-haired girl in ordinary clothes. Usually she has a smile on her face. 

Nick Sharratt and Tracy Beaker from his website

Tracy writes her own story in a vivid and clear style, as if she is writing in a social services workbook: Who am I? Clear-sighted as regards others, she is blind to her own faults, finding excuses for them, like hay fever (not crying), and that her mother is a Hollywood actress and will visit next Saturday. (It is likely that her mother has lost touch with her.) She is fierce and loyal, beastly to her enemies and grudgingly respectful of the residential social workers who have to deal with her tantrums.

The reader quickly sees that she is a child who will stand up for herself and at the same time she is a sulky child with poor behaviour because she has been let down by her mother, foster carers and the world. Those around her find it difficult to get on with her, but ‘dopey Peter Ingham’ persists. He shares a birthday with her and is also a resident in the children’s home. The story of how they become friends is an important subplot.

It is the search for a decent home that drives the story. Poor Tracy has been a ‘chid of the week’ in the local paper. This is how she would advertise herself.

TRACY BEAKER

Have you a place in your hearts for dear little Tracy? Brilliant and beautiful, this little girl needs a loving home. Very rich parents preferred as little Tracy needs lots of toys, presents and pets to make up for her tragic past. (61)

This is what appeared in the paper, written by Elaine.

TRACY

Tracy is a lively, healthy, chatty, ten-year-old who has been in care for a number of years. Consequently she has a few behaviour problems and needs firm, loving handling in a long-term foster home. (62)

Tracy’s reaction is over the top, of course.

I ask you!

‘How could you do this to me, Elaine?’ I shrieked when I saw it. ‘Is that the best thing you can say about me? That I’m healthy? And anyway I’m not. What about my hay fever?’ 

‘I also say you’re lively. And chatty.’

‘Yeah. Well, we all know what that means. Cheeky. Difficult. Bossy.’

‘You said it, Tracy,’ Elaine murmured. (62-3)

And then along comes Cam, a writer who is trying to write something about children in care for a magazine. Tracy, who also has aspirations as a writer, decides to adopt her although Cam finds that this is not plain sailing. Tracy tested her to the limit.

Absent parents in children’s literature

Almost all the books featured in this year’s Decades Project have been stories about children whose parents are absent or dead or completely inadequate. From the Fossil orphans of Ballet Shoes and Mary in the big Yorkshire house in The Secret Garden, to Willie in Goodnight Mister Tom parents who are present and good enough are in short supply.

The job of fiction is to explore a different reality, and in this way children can see that others may be less fortunate than them, and it allows them to face their fears about their parents.

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson, first published in 1991. I used the Corgi edition (Puffin Books) published in 2018. 217pp. This edition contains an additional story Tracy Beaker’s Thumping Heart. Illustrations by Nick Sharratt.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 2000-2010. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

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Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

My choice for the 1980s in the Decades Project is a story of an evacuee in the Second World War. A neglected boy from Deptford in East London is sent to the country and is billeted with a lonely and reclusive older man. How did this combination work out?

We have reached the 1980s. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorianwas published in 1981. This is the ninth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

Goodnight Mister Tom

William Beech (8) is an evacuee in 1939, sent from Deptford in London to a rural village, and lodged with an older man (in his 60s). This is Tom Oakley, who has been a bit of a recluse since his wife and baby son died 40 years before. Will is in a pitiful way: beaten and neglected by his mother and unable to read or write. Frightened of everything, he has been threatened with dire consequences if he strays outside his mother’s strict code. Despite it being September he has been sewn into his clothes for winter.

The old man has a loft room that he prepares for the boy. It emerges that Will has never slept in a bed. He is so anxious that at night he wets the bed. In order to care for the boy Tom has to learn discretion and gentleness. And he must work with his neighbours to clothe the boy and deal with the harm resulting from Will’s mother’s  physical abuse. And when the boy goes to school another outsider makes him his friend. This is Zach, a Jewish evacuee. The two boys form an adventurous friendship with three local children which brings Will out of himself.

Both Tom and the boy gradually become absorbed into the transformed community. Will learns to read and write and his talent at drawing is uncovered.

All goes well until Willie’s mother demands his return and in a disturbing turn of events it is discovered that she has had a baby. I was genuinely shocked by the moment when Will finds the baby with her mouth taped to keep her quiet. Will has developed more confidence in what is right and wrong which is a provocation to his mother. 

Not having heard from the boy Tom goes to London to find him and bring him home. Tom has been severely abused again and now the villagers bring him back to life.

Reading Goodnight Mister Tom

This is a great story, really well told. Some aspects of it are challenging as I have suggested: physical abuse of children, deaths and a child finding himself quite alone in an alien environment. 

On the other hand, Will is clearly assisted by adults and friends (including the dog) using common good sense and decency, sympathetic care, encouragement, acceptance into a community and the unconditional love of a dog and an adult. Despite the dark context of the story ultimately it is positive and hopeful.

Goodnight Mister Tomby Michelle Magorian was first published in 1981. I used the edition from Puffin Books (1983). 358pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1990-99. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

I was pleased to find two of my choices featured in the current edition of Slightly FoxedThe Eagle of the Ninth  and Ballet Shoes.

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor

I was teaching in a school in north London in the 1980s and it seemed that every student in Y8 was reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is easy to see why. There is a very engaging main character, Cassie, telling the story, a family suffering injustice and violence and a caring set of adults who explain the world and make it as safe as possible. But to be black in Mississippi in the Great Depression was to live in a violent and unsafe world.

We have reached the 1970s and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor was published in 1976. This is the eighth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project focusing on children’s literature. 

The original cover, by Jerry Pinkney

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Cassie lives with her family on a small piece of land in Mississippi in the Great Depression. It is unusual for such a family to own land, even a small parcel of land, because they are black. Her father works away, as does her uncle, because the income from the cotton crop does not make enough to sustain the family. Cassie has three brothers, her grandmother and her mother who together make up her loving family. 

Cassie first notices racial segregation when she and her brothers have to walk through the mud to their school, while the white school children have a bus and go to their own school. What’s more, for sport, the bus driver frequently runs them off the road into the muddy ditches. The boys in her family plot to teach the bus driver a lesson. They succeed in breaking the school bus axle, and are not caught, although at about the same time there is trouble for some black families. This is a time of lynchings, burnings and violent racism.

Cassie’s family try to operate a boycott of the plantation shop, to use economic pressure to stop the exploitation of black families. But as they are the only black family with land they cannot muster enough support. Tensions rise. Cassie falls out with a rude young girl in a neighbouring white family, and is forced to apologise for standing up to the girl’s superior behaviour. Her father has his leg broken in a skirmish with some white men.

Finally, their friend TJ gets himself involved with some badass white kids. The three of them break into the local store, and the manager and his wife are badly injured. TJ is blamed and the white men come for him. He flees to Cassie’s family and then tries to get home. He is brought out of the house and his parents and siblings are violently manhandled. A friendly white lawyer tries to intervene, and only when a fire threatens the cotton crop does the community avoid violence and come together to save their common livelihood.

In the process of these events Cassie learns a thing or two about growing up and taking responsibility. There is a fair amount of sermonising and wise guidance by the adults. She must learn when to speak up, when to disobey, when to take action.

The readers in the 1980s would have been aware that the threat of violence was real, and that racial segregation and injustice was ubiquitous in the southern states. Cassie takes the role of the innocence who must have the behaviour and the injustices explained. Cassie asks the reader’s own questions. The threat of violence grows throughout the novel and culminates in a thunderstorm. We learn that despite great strength and size of each of the three black men, Papa David, Uncle Hammer and Mr Morrison, they choose the path of peaceful resistance.

Mildred D Taylor in the Author’s note that precedes the novel suggests that from her father

I learned a history not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and slavery and of the days following slavery: of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved … (7)

The first page suggests that the novel is based on the author’s own experiences.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cryby Mildred D Taylor, first published in the USA in 1976. I used the Puffin Books edition from 1980. 220 pp. My copy has the London school and English department stamp inside the cover. It’s on an extended loan. 

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1980-89. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

I cannot remember how I came across this tale of wizards and dragons. It must have been soon after it was published, and it made a great impression on me. I was already an adult, but I found the metaphor of naming to be very powerful. In the ancient lore, Ursula Le Guin tells us, being able to speak someone’s true name means having power over them. Giving your true name is an indication of trust.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin was published in 1968. It is the seventh post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. 

This story concerns a young lad growing up, confronting his own weaknesses and learning how to deal with them. It is also full of adventure, friendship, ingeniousness, acts of courage and mystery. It was very popular and two more novels featuring Sparrowhawk, the great wizard, were published and collected as a trilogy by 1979. There were yet more Earthsea stories later.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Note the title, which, like the story itself, makes it possible for the reader to see themselves here. 

Sparrowhawk, true name Ged, is born on the island of Gont in the north east of the Archipelago. 

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns on its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. (13)

Sparrowhawk’s mother died soon after his birth and his father had little interest in him. The boy had no special features until he stumbled upon a form of words that summoned goats to him, a spell.  A local witch showed him a number of other spells and he was able to confuse and confound an invading horde of Kargad warriors and so save the village. Now his powers were noticed by the local wizard who provided him with an apprenticeship until the boy decided to go to the wizard training centre far away on the island of Roke.

[There is a great deal of sailing about the seas in this novel, and I made frequent use of the map of Earthsea. It was drawn by Ruth Robbins who also designed the first cover reproduced above.]

Sparrowhawk is ambitious and proud and during his training comes to resent another high achiever called Jasper. In an effort to outdo his rival Sparrowhawk unwisely initiates a forbidden spell, calling from the depths of the earth one who has long been dead. A dreadful evil is released into the world by this act and the rest of this first story is an account of how the shadowy evil tries to hunt Sparrowhawk down, and how the young lad learns to turn and become the hunter himself and how he eventually defeats his nemesis.

No wonder that adults also enjoy this story. It celebrates what we know to be good: determination, hard work, patience, friendship and doing right by others. It identifies what we know will unbalance us, that is ourselves. For Sparrowhawk it is his pride. 

Some Themes

There are few female characters in this first story, but in other respects Ursula Le Guin promotes the importance of diversity among peoples: their languages, appearances, beliefs and rituals. Her parents were anthropologists and she had absorbed their interest in how different societies work, where their fault lines are, how communities explain human actions. Difference is not a matter for aggression. In this novel aggression and violence arise from individual human failings.  

The love of the natural world also shines through this novel. There are invented animals, vast seascapes, and islands of great beauty. Everywhere people make the best of what they find to enhance their lives. 

Wizards, witches and mages are largely beneficent people. Those who help Sparrowhawk are modest, generous, and loving. Their wisdom has a great deal in common with the philosophy of Lao Tzu: playful, apparently contradictory, and thought-provoking. The importance of balance or equilibrium features too in this story.

Only in silence the word,

only in dark the light,

only in dying life:

bright the hawk’s flight

on the empty sky.

 – The Creation of Ea  (12)

See Ursula Le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s philosophy.

Ursula Le Guin and the imagination

Fantasy novels did not attract me much as a child, nor yet as an adult. The same can be said of science fiction. But in her novels I have learned to enjoy the best of both, mostly because she uses imagination to explore different worlds, different, places, different ways of being and shows us a way to proceed. I recommend this book and The Left-Hand of Darkness to any adult reader. 

The conceit of naming seems to me to be very important. We need to be able to speak our fears, our hopes, our failures to deal with them. The power to name, to write, is therefore essential for a civilised world.

And it comes to me that spells are magic words, so spelling is the act of magicking words, or simply put writing is magic. 

A Wizard of Earthsea  by Ursula K Le Guin, first published in 1968. I read it in my copy of the Earthsea Trilogy published by Penguin in 1979.

Other Bookword posts on Ursula Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula Le Guin

A Tribute to Ursula le Guin, on her death in January 2018

Imagination and the Writer, on the necessity of training the imagination

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1970-79. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I loved The Eagle of the Ninth when I first read it as a child. And I enjoyed rereading it two years ago, the Romano-British adventure, the sassy female character and Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling. Later I went on to study history at university. I wonder how much this book contributed to my interest in the subject. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff was published in 1954. This is the sixth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I did not do this on purpose, but like the previous 5 choices, this novel has an orphan for its heroine. The heroes show qualities of courage and principle. The heroine has patience.

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila grew up in Italy in the second century AD. Marcus’s father had commanded the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion when it disappeared having marched north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD. Marcus follows his father into the army and does well. He is posted to his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort: the Eagle of the Ninth. 

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall to the safety of established Roman rule. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

I have these novels written by Rosemary Sutcliff on my shelves

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and she is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.  

In the Introduction toThe Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism by the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire. 

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations do not spoil the reading.

Film

And, there is of course a movie called The Eaglestarring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I caught a short part of it some time in the last two years. It was so far from my understanding of the novel that I did not see it through. I think it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted for the film because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand I saw enough to appreciate that Donald Sutherland was an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press. 

This is largely a recycling of an earlier post.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1960-69. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

It is a surprise to me that I had never heard of this fantasy novel for children until I was researching for a book from the ‘40s to include in the Decades Project. I’m sure it would have appealed to me a decade later, full of the necessity for patience and sacrifice, ideas current when I was a girl. I would have lapped it up. I enjoyed my first reading, but with a more critical eye than my 12 year-old self would have brought.

This is the fifth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I did not do this on purpose, but like the previous 4 choices, this novel has an orphan for its heroine. 

Original cover by Walter Hodges

The Little White Horse

The story is set in 1842, when 13 year-old Maria Merryweather, an orphan, must leave a comfortable life in London to live with a cousin in the West Country. She travels with her beloved governess Miss Heliotrope and her faithful but self-indulgent King Charles spaniel called Wiggins. 

Naturally she is anxious about her new home but she finds that it is an idyllic place, called Moonacre. Her cousin is the flamboyant, huge and welcoming Sir Benjamin Merryweather. There are other strong characters who are pleased that Maria has come to live there, including Wrolf, a kind of huge dog/lion, a horse (Periwinkle), the Old Parson and the even older retainer Digweed. The little white horse of the title makes just three appearances, offering hope to the young girl.

But this place is menaced by the Men from the Dark Wood. There is a tense and unhappy relationship between these Men and the Merryweathers having its origins in a centuries-old feud. And the adults of the place seem prone to separation from their life partners, often through their own quarrelsomeness.

Maria is determined to set all this right, which of course she does. But first she must overcome her own weaknesses, a fiery temper, a hot headedness and a little vanity. Above all she must make sacrifices to learn patience and perseverance. 

She is helped in this by the Old Parson, and by the kindness and hopes of the people and animals she meets. Maria brings reconciliation between the branches of the Merryweather family, peace to the valley and reunites two couples years after they were separated. It is not an easy path, but the adventures she has, especially when she strays into the halls of the Men from the Dark Wood led by Monsieur Cocq de Noir, are enough to keep one reading.

Themes

The many characters in this novel are all described in detail, each one having some characteristics that mean that have a special part to play in the story. 

Maria, though decidedly vain and much too inquisitive, was possessed of the fine qualities of honour and courage and fastidiousness, and Miss Heliotrope was entirely made of love and patience. (13)

Maria sees Sir Benjamin Merryweather for the first time.

But her cousin was really odd to look at, and once she started looking at him she found it very difficult to leave off. He was so tall and so broad that he seemed to fill the big doorway. His face was round and red and clean-shaven, and his big hooked nose put Miss Heliotrope’s entirely in the shade. He had three double chins, a large smiling mouth, and twinkling eyes of a warm tawny-brown, almost lost beneath bushy white eyebrows. His clothes, most scrupulously cared for, were very old-fashioned and most oddly assorted. (19)

And each person’s clothes are also described in detail, for they too reveal something of their attitude to life, including our heroine’s vanity.

In addition to sartorial details, we read a great deal about food. One of the worst sins of the Men from the Dark Wood is their theft of the food and cider of the villagers. Sausages for breakfast, picnics for the children and animals on their expeditions and the celebration tea. Marmaduke Scarlet, the magical chef, dreams of the menu he will conjure for feast. And Marmaduke does produce all this.

‘Plum cake. Saffron cake. Cherry cake. Iced fairy cakes. Eclairs. Gingerbread. Meringues. Syllabub. Almond fingers. Rock cakes. Chocolate drops. Parkin. Cream horns. Devonshire splits. Cornish pasty. Jam sandwiches. Lemon-curd sandwiches. Lettuce sandwiches. Cinnamon toast. Honey toast …’ (221-2)

If you need an explanation for this great list of delicious, mostly sugary food, remind yourself that the novel appeared at a time of war-time and post-war rationing and austerity. The Second World War is the backdrop to this novel. Maria is following the path of many children evacuated from London and the cities, to live in an unknown place, with unknown people for an unspecified length of time. Many children would have identified with her exile.

In addition, the Men from the Dark Wood (from Germany?) must be forgiven if the future is to be more peaceful. Reconciliation is required, and who better than the young to make this happen? 

Elizabeth Goudge knew the power of imagination and old stories to help with that healing. 

As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself. [The source of this quote is the Wikipedia page on Elizabeth Goudge.]

Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) was the daughter of an academic theologian, so it is not surprising that her novel was threaded with Christian themes. But hers is a very humane and generous outlook and the Old Parson one of the most delightful characters in this novel. Especially as he sings and plays the fiddle with great gusto!

I was pleased to discover that Elizabeth Goudge was living in Marldon, near Compton and Berry Pomeroy Castles, when she wrote this novel – only 5 miles from where I live. She and her mother had come to Devon in 1939 for a holiday, and when war broke out they decided to stay. They lived here for 12 years.

Elizabeth Goudge was another prolific writer, of adult as well as children’s literature and her novel The Rosemary Tree (1956) was the subject of a plagiarism case in the 1990s. 

JK Rowling is quoted on the cover of the edition I used saying ‘I absolutely adored The Little White Horse. It had a cracking plot… It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.’ And she says that she followed Elizabeth Goudge by including the food her characters eat.

A footnote: The book was dedicated to Walter Hodges, who illustrated the original edition.

The Little White Horseby Elizabeth Goudge first published in 1946. I used the edition published by Lion Hudson in 1988. 238pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1950-59. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Fossil girls have talent and are enrolled by Madame Fidolia in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. The three girls have been adopted by Great Uncle Matthew and left in the care of his niece Sylvia while he goes off on another expedition. He is absent a long time and the money he leaves runs out, so their guardian takes in boarders and the girls find work on the stage. How will this work out for them? Published in 1936, Ballet Shoes  is a classic of children’s literature.

This is the fourth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme has emerged and is continued in this classic. This theme is the absence of parents. A second theme is the economic precariousness of girls’ lives in the inter-war years.

Ballet Shoes

The novel is set in London in the period between the world wars. Three orphan girls are collected by Great Uncle Matthew like fossils (after whom he names them). He leaves them in the care of his niece, Sylvia, who is helped by Nana, Cook and the maid, Clara. Pauline was rescued from a sinking ship, has acting ability and very good looks; Petrova’s Russian parents left her to GUM, and she can act but prefers cars and aeroplanes; Posy’s mother cannot look after her while following her career so she leaves her a pair of ballet shoes and gives her to GUM’s care. Posy is an exceptionally talented dancer.

GUM expected to be away for 5 years, but his absence extends much longer. When the money he provided runs out the girls and their guardians must make difficult decisions. All along they have known how important it is not to show that you are poor, but now they have to face losing their home. The girls find they must decide to do things they don’t want to do, like accept parts they don’t want or approach adults about parts they need.  

Each has lessons to learn about not getting too bumptious (Pauline), or finding ways to follow her interests (Petrova); or to seize every occasion to further her passion (Posy). 

The girls are assisted in their struggles by the boarders that Sylvia takes in: Theo who introduces them to the Dancing Academy and assists with their practice sessions; the two female academic doctors who teach them what they are missing by not being at school; Mr and Mrs Simpson who own a garage and a car and ferry them about from time to time. The sewing skills of Nana are frequently called upon for outfits for classes and auditions.

In the final pages, after several years of penury, taking parts for the money, scrimping and making do, the girls go their separate ways: Pauline to Hollywood with Sylvia, Petrova to learn about aeroplanes with GUM and Posy to Prague to study with a ballet master accompanied by Nana.

Ballet Shoes  reveals to young readers that hard work, loyalty to your aims, not being selfish and willingness to learn are essential to achieving your ambitions.

Ballet shoes in a shop window near Covent Garden

Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild was another prolific writer, like the others in this series, producing nearly 30 books for children and 16 novels for adults as well as many non-fiction books. She lived from 1895 – 1986. She spent time in the theatre but later turned to writing. She also did war work during both wars. 

Ballet Shoes was her first book for children, and it was an instant success. It has never been out of print. 

Despite what my spellchecker keeps telling me, that is how you spell her family name.

1st edition, 1936

Ballet Shoesby Noel Streatfeild was published in 1936. I used the Puffin edition from 2015. 326pp. Illustrations are by Ruth Gervis, who was Noel Streatfeild’s sister.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1940-49. Suggestions for decades are welcome.

Here are the links to the first three books in this year’s Decades Project, which were 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) And just a small note, that at one point Sylvia reads The Secret Garden  to the Fossils in Ballet Shoes

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

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Books and the pursuit of the new

I thought my blog was getting a little tired. And then I noticed that it was me that was getting a little tired of the blog. But I can see that the blogger who is tired of blogging is tired of … Later, it occurred to me that what I am actually tired of is the relentless pursuit of the new book. 

So here’s a slight rant and a resolution.

The Pursuit of the New

Early this year I wrote a post called Six ways to choose books to read. You can link to it here. I stand by these sources, but I have come to see that I might be unnecessarily chasing too many new books. Many of my ideas for books to read and comment on come from those who are obviously going to promote the new:

  • Publishers
  • Prizes
  • Reviews in newspapers
  • Bookshops
  • Lists of bestsellers.

For example, I look at the list in the Guardian Review of the bestsellers of 2018 called Chart of the Year. I amuse myself with the table. 27% of books in the chart are by women The #1 seller is one of those: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  by Gail Honeyman. I have only read three of the books on that magic 100 chart. And the feeling that I might be missing something was itself disappearing.

Then I listened to some comments from a group of travellers who expressed their opinion of much new fiction: “tosh”. I removed several novels from my tbr pile. And it felt good.

The enjoyment of the established

Elizabeth Bowen

And then I found myself doing the following

  • rereading some books
  • reading unread books by familiar authors, published some time ago
  • enjoying the blog’s Decades Project of children’s classics from 1900 
  • agreeing with the editors of the excellent Slightly Foxed periodical about the attractions of books published some time ago
  • enjoying perusing Persephone Books lists
  • Visiting second-hand bookshops
The Second Self

One bookshop I have been keen to visit is The Second Selfin Soho, London, specialising in early editions of women’s writing. I spent a very happy hour there recently and a lot of money. I was shown Jane Austen’s best friend’s copy of Sense and Sensibility. Very foxed, very beautifully bound in three leather volumes and very pricey of course.

My haul from The Second Shelf

Resolution

Muriel Spark

So here’s my resolution. I am going to read more Muriel Spark, some Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, some classics, Sanditon by Jane Austen, The Juniper Tree  by Barbara Comyns and as few new titles as the whim takes me. And of course, more children’s literature from the twentieth century. And you can expect to read more of the old on this blog.

Happy reading.

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Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil

School stories formed a significant part of children’s literature in the early 20thcentury, especially schools for girls. Angela Brazil is one of the writers famous for popularising this genre. Joan’s Best Chum, published in 1926, begins as a school story, but develops into a novel about surviving without parents or income after the First World War.

This is the third post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme is beginning to emerge. This is the third book in which parents have been absent. One could say that boarding school novels are predicated on the absence of parents. In this example parents are absent through death. Will this trend continue with books later in the series?

The story of Joan’s Best Chum

Joan is 14 and a keen tennis player. She wants to be in the school team, and even more she wants to board at Allendale School in Pemberton. She has an older sister Ursula, and brother, Rex. For several years Joan and Rex have been in the care of their sister, who depends upon a small legacy in the charge of their solicitor uncle. Looking to the future in post war Britain, Ursula sees that she will need to earn a living and so goes to train in the secretarial arts while the younger ones go to boarding schools.

Meanwhile Mollie, the best chum, arrives at Allendale and is nominated as Joan’s chum or buddy. She too has no mother and her father has only a sporadic interest in her. They have arrived from Australia and he leaves her in Pemberton. On her father’s death she becomes part of Joan’s family. When the boarding facility (hostel) is closed at Allendale School the girls have to live at home. But money is tight, the investments having disappeared, and eventually Rex runs away to sea and the girls move into the YWCA. The resourceful headteacher finds an occupation for Mollie, in Menton, near Nice. Here Mollie finds Rex and the truth about her origins.

It all ends satisfactorily with Mollie able to realise some worthy dreams everyone paired off. 

Being poor but middle class in the 1920s

Angela Brazil reflects on the independence required of young women in the years after the First World War.  

Ursula was working away grimly at the Commercial College, as determined as a female Dick Whittington to become a bread-winner and make the family fortune. She knew that post-war girls have to depend upon themselves. The old, easy, sheltered days of reliance for support upon fathers and brothers have passed away for all but a favoured few. The majority must shoulder their share of the world’s work, and trust to their own hands and brains. (54-55)

The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband.

The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Joan wants to become a tennis champion, and Mollie is good with delicate young children. They all do their bit at organising bike rides, a special pet day, encouraging friends who enter natural history competitions and so on. The adults are resourceful in helping the young people to solve their problems, and have limitations themselves (school governor’s decisions, absence through sickness for example).

Loyalty to friends is a major theme, and is reflected in the title. A chum is a close friend, mostly used in the UK. The origin of the word seem to be in sharing rooms at Oxford University in the 17thcentury, chum coming from chamber-fellow.

The middle class world is very safe. Twice Mollie goes off to France. She has care of two children even though she is only 15. Rex disappears quitting his opportunity for a career as a solicitor and leaving a note lacking in all specifics. Even though he is only 16 everyone assumes he will be all right. 

It is also a stratified social world, and even though Ursula, Joan and Mollie are so poor they cannot give each other presents, a trip to the very poorest part of Pemberton points up the contrast between their lives and those of the slum dwellers. In France there are servants in the hotels in Menton near Nice, and women who look after the mules. 

Despite a very small degree of liberation (women over 30 had been given the vote in 1918) the world favoured men, and if they needed to work young women trained, as Ursula had, to work in offices, servicing the men.

Angela Brazil

This prolific writer lived from 1888 to 1947. She had written 50 books, mostly set in schools, by the time she died and many short stories. She did not write for moral instruction, and believed in a liberal approach and a certain amount of freedom for young women. As a result, there were people who sought to ban her books, but they were popular with the readers. Her readership came mostly from the UK. She had already published 29 novels since 1904 when Joan’s Best Chum  appeared. 

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil, published in 1926 by Blackie & Son Ltd. 320pp

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1930-1939. I plan to read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.

Here’s the link to the first two books in this year’s Decades Project focusing on children’s literature, which were 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

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