Tag Archives: children’s literature

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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The Librarian by Salley Vickers

No sooner the word than the deed. Recently, somewhere in response to my blog and this year’s Decades Project, focusing on children’s literature, my friend Jennifer mentioned The Librarian by Salley Vickers. She had not read it herself but she has children’s librarians in the family. She thought it would fit my project. Almost immediately I found a copy on the shelves of the local RSPCA charity shop. Rather strangely when I bought it for a pound the person on duty asked me if I wanted change for the car park, implying, I think, that one would only buy one item for £1 to get change.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers 

You may have read other novels by Salley Vickers: Miss Garnet’s Angel and The Cleaner of Chartres come to mind. If you have you will know that her style is very readable. Her protagonists appeal to many women readers of my age group and are popular with many other readers as well. The current book is a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller.

The story of The Librarian is set in 1958 and young Sylvia Blackwell has taken on the job as children’s librarian in a market town in Wiltshire called East Mole. She has high ambitions for the children of the town, of engaging them with her love of literature. It is that time after the war when publishing was taking off. Many of the books for children featured in The Librarian will be familiar: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, the Narnia series and so on.

Sylvia is naïve but things initially go well. She befriends many of the local children and some of their teachers and parents but she lives in dread of a neighbour, the Librarian and the Library Steering Committee. Many of the children do gain from reading; one, Lizzie, gains entry to the Grammar School with help from Sylvia’s coaching for the 11+. From the children Sylvia learns about the local wildlife and from their parents she sees the difficulties of bringing up children at any time.

Trouble soon begins as some of the children behave badly, and Sylvia’s informal manner with them is implicated and soon leads to blame. Sylvia starts an unwise affair with the married GP, and some of her neighbours are spiteful (no reason for this is ever discovered) while others remain kind.

The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is discovered in the possession of one of the children when it was supposed to be locked away safely in the Restricted Access collection. Now the restricted and prejudiced attitudes of many people in the town have free reign and Sylvia looses her job while other also suffer.

In a brief second part of the story, set in the 21stcentury, we learn of the fates of all the main characters, including Lizzie who has become a children’s writer. Attitudes to literature have become freer and for some people all ended happily.

Children’s Literature 

While I enjoyed the nostalgia of returning to the books of my past, this novel did not reawaken the sense of wonder that reading brought me (and so many others). For that I think I would revisit Bookworm: a Memoir of childhood reading (2018) by Lucy Mangan, which I reviewed on this blog in the summer. You can find my comments on it here. In The Librarian books appear as objects, like the stolen book, or the piles of late returns that arrive periodically. The children respond with enthusiasm when the choice is right, but they do not appear to enter the worlds created by the novels they read. And I think I must remark that Sylvia herself, an enthusiastic reader of children’s literature, has not gained a great deal of wisdom from her literary experiences. 

But there were pleasures to be had, especially in being reminded of such a wealth of experience to be had in children’s fiction. So do join in the Decades Project for 2019 on Bookword to be reminded of your early reading.

The Librarianby Salley Vickers (2018) Penguin, 385pp

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Five Children and It by E Nesbit

I always thought Five Children and It was a curious title – what on earth could it be? Five children I got. I was from a large family. There were probably five of us when I first came across E Nesbit, but later another one was added. The itwas a strange character for a children’s book – a Psammead (aka sand fairy). Five Children and a Psammead would not have been so intriguing, in fact a little difficult, for how do you say that word and what on earth is a Psammead?

Welcome back to the wonderful world of children’s literature. This is the first post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I plan to explore changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury over the next eleven decades through my monthly choices. A sadness is that this project leaves out At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, a book my grandfather gave me in 1957, and which I treasured. It was published in 1871 so does not qualify. I can of course reread it at any time. My choices for the Decades Project will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

Five Children and It  – the story

Five children and their parents move to a new home. It is ideal for an adventure, being in the country. The novel is set in the early 20thcentury, when it was written, yet these children are going to be allowed to explore, not come home for lunch. 

The best of it all was that there were no rules about not going to places and not doing things. In London almost everything is labelled ‘You must not touch, and though the label is invisible, it’s just as bad, because you know it’s there, or if you don’t you jolly well soon get told. (13)

Almost as soon as they arrive the parents are called away and the children left with the servants. In the gravel quarry they find a Psammead (pronounced sammyadd by the children) and he has the power to grant one wish each day that will last until sunset. 

Illustration by HR Millar

The children have different characters. The two oldest are Cyril and Anthea and then there is Robert and Jane and Baby. They are brave, bossy, inquisitive, imaginative, daring, problem-solving, problem-creating and occasionally quarrelsome.

Without adult supervision but well brought up, the children set about making wishes. They wish first for beauty, which causes a problem as no one at home recognises them and they are simply admired but not fed. It is a warning that making wishes is more complicated than they imagined and when they wish for money they discover that they have not been specific enough. The Psammead grants them gold that is not legal tender and it gains them little. 

They have further adventures as they try to find satisfactory wishes and avoid making accidental ones. They sprout wings, find their home transformed into a castle under siege and have Baby coveted by gypsies. And each time they land themselves in difficulty they must be creative about resolving the situation. Bravery, ingenuity, theft and even lying are called for. These present the children with moral problems to resolve.

In the final scene the Psammead reveals himself to be an arch conservative. He begs the children not to reveal his existence for grown ups would do terrible things with the wishes: 

… and they’d ask for a graduated income-tax, and old-age pensions and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that; and get them and keep them, and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy. (205-6)

Edith Nesbit 1858 – 1924

Edith Nesbit wrote many children’s novels, including the more famous The Railway Children  in 1906. She published under the name E. Nesbit, perhaps to hide her gender. Altogether she wrote more than 40 books for both adults and children. Her fiction for younger readers combined realism, sometimes with a bit of magic.

She was a co-founder of the Fabian Society and her personal life was with fellow socialists. She married Hubert Bland, a man who believed in free love (or who was an infamous libertine and antifeminist according to some sources). He had already made his landlady’s daughter pregnant when Edith married him. She was 7 months pregnant. Edith’s friend Alice Hoatson came to help her and she too had children by Bland. They lived in this unusual household until Bland died in 1914.

Edith then married the captain of the Woolwich Ferry, Thomas Tucker. She lived most of her life in Eltham in south London.  You can find out more at the Edith Nesbit Society.

Five Children and It by E Nesbit was first published in 1902. I used the edition from Penguin Popular Classics (1995) 207pp Illustrated by HR Millar.

Jacqueline Wilson updated the classic as Four Children and It in 2012. I have not read it, have you?

The Decade Project in 2019

This is the third year of my Decades Project. This year I plan to choose a children’s book each month from successive decades, starting with 1900-1909 in January. Next month it will be a choice from 1910-1919. I plan to read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett first published in 1910. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.

To read more about the Decade Project in 2018 please follow the link to the final post: The Second Year of the Decades Project. This post listed all 11 choices of nonfiction by women. The previous year it was fiction by women.

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