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 . . . .

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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.

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The first book in this fascinating true series about a pioneer existence as told by a young girl who lived it. I’ll get through all of them eventually on here, but will start with the first.

The book is set in the 1870s; Laura is five and lives with her parents, Pa and Ma, her older sister Mary and her baby sister Carrie, in a log cabin in the seemingly endless and uninhabited woods of Wisconsin, far from any kind of society and entirely dependent on themselves for everything they need to live.

The contrast between Laura’s childhood and my own was so huge and yet her life was so appealing. Even as a small girl I was intrigued by the family’s self sufficiency and their skill at so many jobs which we don’t do, like pig slaughtering, smoking meat, making bags out of buckskin, cheese making . . . the list is endless. I wouldn’t actually have wanted to do many of these jobs but learning about them made me feel I could if I had to!

Reading back now, as I often do, the seemingly idyllic life is coloured with considerations which didn’t occur to me as a girl, just as they wouldn’t have occurred to Laura. The loneliness of a life where you rarely saw anyone other than the immediate family; Laura and her sister Mary had only each other for company. The constant heavy work undertaken by Ma just to keep the home going, along with the needs of three small children and no domestic appliances! The dangers faced by Pa whenever he went off hunting in the woods, the deep cold in the winter, and the lack of any kind of medical care should any of the family fall ill, or during childbirth.

Instead, reading as a child, you get a palpable sense of the security that her family life gave Laura, and the anticipation as the highlights of a life governed by the seasons come round, such as butchering time, Christmas, and ‘sugaring off’ when the maple sap rises. The excitement when something out of the ordinary occurs seems heightened by the contrast to the daily grind, and you feel this sense of occasion at the dance given by Laura’s grandparents to celebrate ‘sugaring off’. Laura is brilliant at describing small details, the sort of things we all remember as children. The feeling of space and brightness at her grandparents’ big house, the tiff with her cousin about whose baby is the prettiest, the crunch of the maple sugar, the aunts hauling at each other’s corsets when they dress for the dance. Laura’s gentle but nevertheless heartfelt rivalry with the good-as-gold Mary is also beautifully portrayed and something any child with siblings can instantly relate to.

Laura’s enjoyment at what we would consider to be fairly mundane things, like frost patterns on the window and playing with paper dolls, was infectious. I actually wanted to own a corn cob doll like hers, and at one stage tried to cut out some paper dolls but the results were clearly not in Ma’s league. And I wouldn’t have been very happy with a Christmas stocking containing just a pair of mittens and a candy cane, that’s for sure, although at the same time there was an undefinable feeling of admiration tinged with envy at a life so simple and uncluttered! There were few possessions but a common and constant purpose to life which came across in a hugely positive way.

The Garth Williams illustrations are wonderful, nearly all of people busily occupied, with very effective facial expressions. One of my favourites is picture of Grandpa, James and George on their sled having just inadvertently collected a pig on their way down the slope. I would have loved to see the pig’s expression too but unfortunately you can only see its backside. Pig expressions are probably more tricky.

Little House in the Big Woods is a particularly detailed window onto a vanished way of life; it’s a wonderful, gently meandering book in which nothing particularly major happens but in which the mundane and everyday is made interesting and exciting.

If you haven’t read it, whatever your age, go and read it!

If you have read it, do add your thoughts on it below . . . .