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Decades Projects 2019 and 2020

Eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January, all children’s fiction, all by women – that’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2019. I have so much enjoyed choosing, revisiting or discovering the books for 2019. In previous years I have looked at fiction and nonfiction by women in the same way, enjoying the historical perspective. Here is a review of the eleven choices of children’s fiction and a preview of the theme for 2020. 

The Decade Project in 2019

Some book choices were treats as I revisited pleasures and treasures from my childhood. I so much enjoyed Ballet Shoes, for example. And then had the pleasure of finding my original copy, now coverless, when later in the year I inherited my mother’s books. The Eagle of the Ninth is a book I have enjoyed as a child, a young history teacher and again in my mature years.

I had never read The Little White Horse, but it turned out to be a favourite read of many of Bookword’s followers. Goodnight Mr Tom was another book I was pleased to read for the first time.

From 2013

All these books were written by women. It is a very special kind of closeness to read to a young person, and I was reminded of my pleasure at reading to my daughter and more recently to my two grandsons. That one of my grandsons helped with the final post for 2019 was a happy bonus.

An early theme to emerge was the number of children in these stories who lacked parents. They were dead (The Secret Garden) or absent (Five Children and It) or plain incompetent (Goodnight, Mr Tom). The young people found themselves adopted (Ballet Shoes), or in boarding school (Joan’s Best Chum), or in care (The Story of Tracy Beaker), or in magical lands (The Little White HorseA Wizard of Earthsea).

The absence of parents allowed for freedom, discovery, growing up, the exercise of imagination and the development of a certain amount of self-confidence. Some children began as spoilt brats but all ended as reasonable human beings. Some children learned early to face hardships in life, being orphaned, being black in a racist society, physical abuse, abandonment, mortal danger.

And the young people in these stories met some very interesting characters: the Psammead, the archaeologist, a unicorn, wizards, old people, dragons.

The virtues that are encouraged by these stories have not changed much since 1900: resourcefulness, imagination, empathy, resilience, risk-taking. These are all good things and long may children’s fiction encourage them. 

Here are the links to the posts for the 11 choices in this year’s Decades Project:

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (2003)

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)

The Decades Project in 2020: 

I have enjoyed each of the three historical projects so far undertaken, so I will continue with a new project in 2020. This year I will return to fiction and to my pleasures at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am going to use the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago.

And I will start, as that collection does, with My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901).

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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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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