Category Archives: Children’s fiction

Jolly good fun: London Pride, by Joanna Cannan (1939)

I bought this book as a Christmas present for one of my nieces, and sad person that I am, read it before wrapping it. I had to make sure it was suitable after all. Canaan is an author who has previously passed me by, not having been into pony books as a child (she originated the genre). This is the second of two of her children’s novels so far re-issued by the wonderful Fidra Books who seem set to do for children’s books what Persephone have done for women’s books.

This is a sequel, and I hadn’t read the first book. Normally I would find the style of direct address providing catch up extremely irritating, but here it only adds to the charm. The book reads very much as if it was written by an eleven year old telling a tale to a friend, which goes to show what an accomplished writer Cannan was.

In the first book, (We met our Cousins) two London children (Antonia and John) go to the Highlands of Scotland to visit their cousins and have a whale of a time. In this book the cousins visit London, and once again we have the usual fish out of water scenario, only this time the narrator is an observer. Set the Christmas following the events of the first book, it is an entertaining adventure as the children adopt a maltreated pony, (the London Pride of the title) hiding it in the gardens in the square where Antonia and John live with their ghastly aunt and uncle, their own parents being in India. Antonia’s aunt is attempting to bring her up in a proper ladylike manner, but Antonia is more interested in her pet ferret and having adventures.

No feedback from my niece so far, but I’m sure she loved it. I did.

There is an article about Cannan on Wikipedia here.

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The giant under the snow, John Gordon (1968)

I must have been about ten or eleven when I first read this novel; it scared me silly then, and it’s still very powerful all these years later. In fact, on re-reading it now, I suspect the brooding atmosphere and dank landscape have influenced my own writing. The dripping trees and bare branches of the wood surrounding the barrow and the decaying backstreets of the un-named city are reminiscent of Alan Garner (another childhood favourite), and Gordon clearly draws on similar folklore.
On a school trip to a dark age barrow, the three protagonists, Jonquil, Arf and Bill find part of an ancient belt buckle. This is the trigger for the appearance of the terrifying leather men, bent on recovering the buckle. They discover that if it is reunited with its other half it may be used for great evil or great good. Its original owner wants it back, and guess what he would use it for.
Gordon is a masterful storyteller, whose effortless prose style convinces the reader of the most unlikely scenarios. I never found any other novels by him, as a teenager, but I see from the bibliography below that he has produced a regular output for young adults, since his debut with TGUTS in the late sixties.

John Gordon, a bibliography

Interview in Ghosts and Scholars

Reviews by young people

Arrr, Jim Lad: Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

It’s been years since I read this; I think I must have been in my teens. I’ve read Kidnapped more recently, but I’ve never paid that much attention to Stevenson’s adventure tales. This is the archetypal pirate adventure, a real swashbuckling story of buried treasure, double-dealing and murder, and it sparkles as much today as it did when first published. It is equally popular, as evidenced by the huge number of sites devoted to it on the web, and by the number of catch phrases from it that have moved into popular consciousness and the language at large. Extraordinary for a Victorian novel. In fact, so successful has it been, that a genre which might have died with Queen Victoria is still spawning descendents, as such entertaining farragoes as the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean ultimately owe their existence to it.

While it operates at one level as a coming of age story, it is also a quest story. The two often go together. The plot follows the standard format for such tales – at the start the hero, Jim is a child, but by the end he has matured to the extent that he has outwitted the most bloodthirsty of pirates and secured the treasure. As with all quest stories there is the call – the discovery of the map, the gathering of companions, and then the journey through increasingly difficult experiences to the final confrontation with the villain. As in many such quests, one of the companions proves false and this gives impetus to the plot. It is of interest here as this false companion, the villain, Long John Silver, is not as black as such villains usually are, but is a more morally ambiguous character, and indeed for part of the novel acts as a role model for Jim. Unusual for a Victorian children’s novel. Of course, Jim is ultimately triumphant, overcoming this false friend and finding the treasure by himself. Thus the group of companions owe their success in their venture to him.

This is an eminently readable novel, with marvellous characters and a zippy plot, if not quite in the modern style. I love it.

You can download the complete text at Project Gutenberg, or here among many other places.

Wikipedia has an excellent synopsis and literary assessment, but there are many similar resources available.

Horns of a dilemma: The Betrayer by Violet Needham (1950)

This is the fourth of Needham’s novels that deal with Richard Fauconbois, and it takes place several months after the end of the House of the Paladin. In it a former member of the dissident party that Dick worked for, decides that things are not going as they should and that the young Emperor must be removed. Working with a hired assassin and a woman seeking revenge for her brother’s death, they begin to stir up trouble. However, Dick’s mentor, Far Away Moses is concerned about his old friend, and Dick is soon involved. He is faced with the unwelcome need to reconcile loyalties to various groups of old friends and his determination never to betray them brings tragedy in the end.

As an adult, I began to feel more sharply than ever the lack of an ideological context to Needham’s various revolutionary groups. These conspire to replace various bad monarchs with good ones rather than do away with monarchy altogether, which would ring more truly. However, at least with earlier novels there really was a bad monarch to be dealt with. Here, the entire conspiracy seemed very artificial, and although the dilemmas faced by Dick are a sign of his maturity, I was left feeling somewhat dissatisfied with this book.

This book is not as easy to come by as earlier novels, and this was the first time I had read it.

See also
The Black Riders
The Emerald Crown
The House of the Paladin

Due North: Susannah of the Mounties, by Muriel Denison (1936)

The fish out of water or lonely orphan being sent to stay with strange relatives is a common trope of children’s literature. Here Denison gives it her own spin. Susannah is not an orphan, but is merely being sent to stay with a relative while her parents are posted elsewhere in the British empire of the 1890s. It must have been a common occurrence for the children of middle ranking administrators of the British empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this case the relative with whom Susannah is sent to stay (with virtually no notice whatsoever) is a bachelor army officer posted in the wilds of Canada. She is not welcome.

However, despite a sad habit of disobeying the rules, Susannah soon wins the hearts of minds of those around her, including those of both her uncle and the fort commander. There is also a sub plot or romance between ‘Monty’ a young man Susannah meets on the train to Regina where he joins the Mounties, and Vicky the commander’s daughter. Since he’s only a trooper things don’t look too great for them, but in traditional style he turns out to be an aristocrat, so it’s OK.

Apparently the book was made into a film starring Shirley Temple, but the storyline seems to have been drastically if the synopsis is anything to go by.

I first read this when I was eight or nine, I think, and I enjoyed it then. I never realised Denison wrote a number of sequels. I would have enjoyed reading them also. While apparently no longer in print, Susannah is readily available second hand. My paternal grandfather did not approve of Susannah. I recall that he gave me a copy of Psmith in the City to wean me away from such rubbish. I won’t pretend it’s on a par with Wodehouse, but children should still find it entertaining.

Knights and Ladies: The House of the Paladin, Violet Needham (1945)

I always liked this novel; Needham was getting into her stride much more, and the characterisation, particularly of Anastasia, the heroine, is much more believable. In some ways it is a continuation of Needham’s earlier Ruritanian novels featuring the Empire and Flavonia, but the two main characters are new although old friends do appear.
Continue reading

Utterly fabulous: The boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne (2006)

book cover
I hesitated before I tagged this as historical, because I’m not sure that it is. It describes itself as ‘a fable’ and I think that is probably correct. It is also one with a very strong message. I’m reluctant to dilute the force of that message by giving away too much information about the plot of the book, which makes writing a review of it very difficult.

Even the blurb gives little away:

Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case, we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.

I think they are right. I only had a vague idea about the subject matter prior to reading, but even then it coloured how I approached the novel. Sadly adult readers are far less likely to come to the novel with little understanding of the subject, so in a sense that is where the book falls down, because it is inevitable that over time, readers will know what the subject is.

The hero of the book is a nine year old boy called Bruno, although as the blurb points out, this is not a story for nine year olds, and I think most nine year olds would find the story disturbing. Bruno lives with his family – an elder sister who is a Hopeless Case, his mother and his father – who has a Really Important Job. He’s a very naïve boy. On reading the book, my adult sensibilities felt that Bruno is really far too naïve to be credible, that surely any child would have been more aware of what was going on. But then I think it’s part of the narrative – a story of “innocence walking into darkness” – that wouldn’t work if Bruno was a more knowing child, a story of friendship, and of a horrible disastrous loss.

Written from Bruno’s POV, with only the occasional slip into someone else’s head, the voice of the narrative is firmly that of a nine year old. Bruno’s concerns are those of children – he observes only those things children observe, and if he seems to lack curiosity, again I think that is necessary for the story to work. And it does work. Horribly.

This is not a novel for the historical nitpicker, but I did nevertheless pick up one minor error.

I won’t say I enjoyed it – the experience was too wrenching, but it is extremely well written and I read it at a sitting. I would however, thoroughly recommend it.

I was curious as to what other reviewers had to say about it. Be warned, there will be spoilers if you follow the links.

This reviewer had the following interesting opening to his discussion.

“It’s important – crucially important – not to lose sight of the dual function of historical fiction. It is not its sole preserve to document historically accurate fact – that position is held, to lesser or greater degrees, by history books. Historical fiction aims to make an artistic statement brought into rapid relief alongside the backdrop of history. It’s indisputable value then is that it triggers within readers a shift in perspective.”

Others were less positive:

The Telegraph: “There is something exploitative about this book.”

The Observer: “But after reading, I felt ambivalent. [This] subject insists on respect, precludes criticism, prefers silence. It will be interesting to see what children make of it. One thing is clear: this book will not go gently into any good night.”

And some just hated it: “To set an admittedly important message in this hideous, historical context [ ] is one of the worst lapses of taste to have emerged since Carlo Bellini’s film, “Life is Beautiful”. [The subject matter is] hardly the appropriate vehicle to use for a fable, however heartfelt its moral. The author [ ] has in fact merely produced a cheap, shallow little book.”

See what you make of it.