Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

I adored all Noel Streatfeild’s books as a child, particularly the ones involving children training for the stage because I had rather a hankering to do that myself at the time. Ballet Shoes was the first one I read and I found all the stage school bits fascinating; the discipline, the auditions, life at the theatres, the sheer hard work of it all.

The charm of the book was hugely increased for me by the lovely, simple black and white illustrations by Ruth Gervis. She had a wonderful knack of capturing character in a few lines and draws children, with all their earnestness and awkwardness, beautifully.

The way that quite young children in the book were earning money, not to spend on themselves but to keep their families afloat financially, was an eye opener. Streatfeild writes brilliantly about the constant counting of every penny, how the children have to borrow, lend and improvise, even ‘pawning’ all of their treasured necklaces to raise money to buy Pauline an audition dress, so that the family wouldn’t have to bear the shame of her wearing her old, much-darned velvet.

The ‘family’ in the book is a rather fascinating and wide-ranging one, consisting of the three adopted but unrelated sisters, Pauline, Petrova (which I always pronounced PeTROva but never actually knew if that was correct) and Posy, plus Sylvia and Nana. As ever with Streatfeild’s child characters, the sisters are believable and very human, both as individuals and as siblings. Nana is a traditional and very splendid nurse; I was always amazed that Nana referred to Sylvia as Miss Brown to the children. It seemed extraordinarily formal. Sylvia is a less developed character but nevertheless the best sort of guardian, barely turning a hair as, out of the blue, her great-uncle drops three babies in her lap in quick succession, something that would surely make most single young women run screaming for the hills.

The rest of the ‘family’ consisted of the various lodgers in the house, all delightful and helpful and never appearing to hog the bathroom, throw loud parties or fall behind with the rent. I think actually that one of Streatfeild’s many attractions to a child reader is the fact that she makes so many lovely and sympathetic adults. In Ballet Shoes the teachers are firm and fair, the lodgers treat the children like their own, and any extraneous adults are in the same mould. How easy it would be, I used to think as a child, to be well-behaved if all adults were this delightful . . . .

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Katy and the bunch of siblings who trailed in her irrepressible wake were always great fun to spend time with. Katy loved writing and was always reading so I felt we had a lot in common, plus she was impulsive and funny and full of ideas which frequently got out of hand. I love the two games she invented which caused mayhem. There was Kikeri, during which the nursery was turned upside down and left in complete but unintentional chaos, and after which all the children (except Elsie, asleep in two seconds flat in the trundle bed) were in serious trouble for foregoing bedtime and running riot. And then there was the Game of Rivers, even noisier and more chaotic, which left Katy’s school classroom with furniture overturned, ink everywhere and even a crowd of people at the door wondering what the appalling noise was. Clearly in those days a teacher’s remit did not extend to break duty!

After a visit from her saintly cousin Helen, who is bedridden, Katy dreams of becoming something amazing and being an ‘ornament to the family’. Instead she has a terrible fall from a swing and injures her spine with the result that she too is unable to walk. How she comes to terms with this is the subject of the second half of the book. Reading it back now I feel quite sad that Katy, through the trials and tribulations of her illness, changes so much. But then maybe she would have grown out of childish pursuits at roughly the same sort of time anyway. Prior to the accident she writes wonderfully imaginative stories, invents games, and her overactive brain is constantly thinking up things to do; plan a picnic, hold a literary ‘fete’, make friends with all sorts of unusual people, plan her weekly magazine. By the end of the book she has lost the impetuosity and, seemingly, most of her creativity as well. She has become a young woman, keeping house for the family, being the ‘heart of the home’ and finding it a very rewarding job. But it is not quite as interesting to read about, and I prefer Katy breaking things, falling over things and getting into scrapes.

However as a child I found Katy’s transformation terribly impressive and rather to be emulated (although preferably without the rather drastic catalyst) and I found it just as interesting to read about this Katy as I did about the previous one. I wondered whether I could become quite as useful and good if I put my mind to it. I couldn’t and I didn’t, and all these years later I still haven’t, but the ideal seemed to be an admirable one.

I just wish Katy had carried on with her writing. I would have loved to hear more of ‘Edwitha of the Hebrides’ or ‘The Fairy of the Dry Goods Box’. I bet they would have got her a few five star Amazon reviews . . . . . .

Frost in May by Antonia White

This is one of those books which can be read by both adults and older children with equal fascination but only as an adult can you begin to appreciate the psychological effect that her class-riddled Catholic schooling had on the creative and sensitive Nanda. It is quite beautifully written and contains some wonderful characterisation. The individual nuns, particularly Mother Frances and Mother Radcliffe, Leonie the philosopher, the feverishly searching Clare; all are so vivid and finely drawn that you feel that if you look up from the book they will be there in front of you.

The tragedy of the book is that Nanda tries so desperately to fit in, but as a middle class convert from Anglicanism, she is outside the experiences of the other girls, who are steeped in aristocratic Catholicism not only from birth but from the bloodlines of centuries. Try as she might, cloaking herself in ritual, absorbing the liturgy and the history, she can’t help but question and withhold.

‘Frost in May’ is a school story, in that it is set in a school, but it is so much more than that. As a child I found the descriptions of strict convent school life at the beginning of the twentieth century fascinating. Bathing wrapped in long white calico cloaks, folding stockings in the shape of the cross, annual retreats, mortification of the senses, the total emphasis on eradication of a sense of self and the sense of living ‘all day long in the presence of the court of heaven.’ There is also the glamour of the intense international friendships and the strange beauty and richness of the daily routine, but it is Nanda’s heroic efforts to become what she never can be which are so compelling.

The all-consuming Catholicism both repels with its rigidity and attracts with its certainty, and it is this dichotomy which leads to Nanda’s downfall. She knows, in spite of the fact that the church had ‘grown into every fibre of her nature’, and she could never ‘break away without a sense of mutilation’, that it does not and cannot fulfil her in the way she has been taught that it should.

The build-up to the final disaster is agonising and the denouement shocking. If you haven’t read the book though don’t let this put you off. A children’s book which doesn’t end happily is a rarity but you realise afterwards that this was the inevitable and only possible outcome.

White’s writing is Keatsian in its sensuousness. The reader can almost smell the hot beeswax, lilies and incense, and hear the chanting of the litany.

I re-read this book regularly; it is nothing short of brilliant.

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

I saw last weekend that Cressida Cowell in her column on books for children in the Telegraph was recommending this book, and quite rightly so. It has humour, problematic magic, very believable children, and a really very lovely ending.

In a step family where two sets of siblings are locked in fierce rivalry, each is given, by the ‘ogre’ of the title (actually the stepfather), a chemistry set. But the chemicals turn out to be magic, with riotous results. Among other things, the house is flooded and covered in toffee, the children swap bodies and get stuck on the roof trying to fly, and as the story progresses the rivals grow closer together as they try to keep the magic a secret from the ogre.

I wish chemistry had been like this when I did it at school. How much more fun it would have been to animate the dolls’ house people and swap bodies with different classmates. The children’s approach is rather random, and they arrive at their results somewhat unscientifically by either spilling the chemicals, mixing them wrongly or splashing them on themselves. This just makes the ensuing chaos more enjoyable.

Diana Wynne Jones writes brilliantly about how children feel and talk and behave. The fits of silliness, the sense of fairness and the way they muddle through mishap after mishap is exactly the way you feel you would have reacted when you were that age. Her descriptions of the pigsty bedrooms are very reminiscent of both my childhood bedroom and my child’s bedroom, where you have to wade through an encroaching sea of clutter to get to anything, and where with every step comes the sharply painful possibility of treading on a Lego brick . . .

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

So who, on reading this book, didn’t spend hours tacking round the garden? I did. Right arm up, left arm out – ready about. I was Captain Nancy. I didn’t let the fact that I had never sailed a boat in my life interfere with the enjoyment.

Here is another wonderful story of childhood self-sufficiency, the sort of thing that simply wouldn’t happen now, because any mother who let her children camp out on an island on their own for days at a time would probably be reported to social services for neglect. Conversely, how many children now would actually be able to manage to camp out like this, or even want to? No mobile signal, no wifi; the list is endless. When I read this book as a child, before there were any electronic considerations, camping on Wild Cat Island as the children do sounded idyllic, and later as an adult you can still revel in the children’s freedom, whilst thinking you’d never let yours do that, duffers or no duffers . . . . .

The delight of this book is that although it is a perfectly normal island, the imagination of the children creates a fabulous world of natives, pearl diving, treasure, and endless seas containing both active and retired pirates. It is a world where the everyday and the imaginary run usefully in parallel, as summed up by Captain Nancy: ” . . . . we’d have given you broadside for broadside till one of us sank – even if it had made us late for lunch.”

Finally, I know many people feel that Ransome’s line drawings add to the charm and simplicity of the books, but I was never that keen on them and found them too basic. I don’t think he can have been very confident in his ability to draw faces as nearly all the illustrations show the children from the back, the side, or too far away to see the faces properly. There is a beautiful and very detailed illustration of the parrot at the end of chapter 25 though!

The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley

Abu Ali, Prince of China and son of Aladdin (yes, THAT Aladdin) sets off on a quest to find the Land of Green Ginger, collecting on the way two travelling companions, a small djinn still sporting his magic lamp L plates, and a somewhat waspish but eminently resourceful mouse.

This is one of the best books ever for reading aloud, and also one which gets better and better as you get older. It’s real laugh out loud stuff and immensely cheering reading if you’re ill. I don’t think anyone could resist a story with two princes called Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud, and a djinn called Boomalakka Wee. Particularly with Edward Ardizzone’s beautifully expressive illustrations.

Chaos abounds, the two princes squabble and generally make themselves ridiculous, Abu Ali comes across his future bride, Silver Bud, and also a conversational but rather underhand dragon, wicked uncle Abanazar who has rather gone down in the world and is reduced to selling carpets in the middle of the desert, a clairvoyant called Nosi Parker and two very well-spoken and dignified Phoenix birds, among others. It’s a mark of Langley’s writing that the perfect Abu Ali comes across as charming and likeable and not a complete prig, and the two princes are a tour de force of comic dialogue. So many phrases from this book have passed into our family lexicon, such as; ‘ “No Pencil!” said the Lord Chamberlain’, ‘I have Friends who will Become Anxious,’ and ‘I’m off to Yokohama to hunt Yak.’

The other major attraction to my mind is the ingenious insertion of emphatic capital letters at every conceivable opportunity. I am usually to be found muttering crossly when proofreading things and removing extraneous capital letters with a large red pen. But this is so cleverly and deliberately done, and it adds so hugely to the humour and eccentricity, that it is not only entirely forgivable but completely right.

If all that is best about British pantomime could be captured in a book, this, by an American writer, would be the one. It’s an absolutely wonderful read for anyone from eight to eighty. Rush out and buy a copy, but I urge you to try and find one published in 1966, as I gather, in complete astonishment, that a later version in 1975 removes the capital letters and therefore most of the theatricality and charm. Sheer literary vandalism.

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The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

I adored The Secret Island, it had everything a child would find exciting; running away, hiding, an island, self sufficiency, danger. The children were barely ten years old and they could catch and gut fish, get cows to swim, build willow houses, you name it.

Looking back now I do wonder about a number of things . . . . . . . what were the lavatorial arrangements? One assumes a small latrine, but it is never mentioned. When the children pack all the provisions in the hollow tree they put in a sack of potatoes, a wooden plank, all sorts of things, but no loo roll – and they live on the island for ages on one bar of soap and two roller towels and then the soap runs out! Horrors! Not even a teeny bottle of anti-bacterial handgel, and with all the fish gutting too. And while they bathe in the lake all through the summer, there is no mention of the washing arrangements in the winter. Best to pass over that one I think.

Anyway, as a child you don’t think about that sort of thing, you just see the charm of a life without parents telling you what to do, where the sun shines nearly all the time (where exactly in the UK was this island?!) and no-one gets ill or has a huge tantrum or points out inconvenient things like lack of loo roll.

It is an astonishingly perfect island. Not only does it have a spring for fresh water, it has a grassy area for the cow, caves for the winter, a willow copse to make the house, a seemingly never-ending supply of fish, and even wild raspberries. The children are also pretty perfect. There is one minor hiccup when Nora lets the hens escape and the others are a teensy bit cross with her, but there are none of the usual fights and fallings out that most ten year olds experience on a daily basis. Jack, who is firm but fair in the best tradition of Blyton’s head boys, is a sort of miniature adult with quite extraordinary intelligence, patience and leadership skills. Just occasionally, I wish he would say something really rude, like damn, or have a fist fight with Mike over the last basket of mushrooms.

As is usual with Enid Blyton the gender roles are rigidly defined; the boys catch fish and milk cows and the girls cook and sew and wash up the crockery. It all seems to run like clockwork, and of course there is the obligatory happy ending which is really quite touching when Jack becomes part of the family. Even on my first reading though I remember thinking that it was a tad risky to adopt a child one had only met a couple of hours ago. Luckily Jack is a decent chap so it all turns out perfectly.

I think it’s by far the best of Blyton’s ‘Secret’ series and I still enjoy a quick gallop through it occasionally.