Reading and place
The stories we need

The right books at the right time

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Here's another passage from The Pleasure of Reading on the importance "place" in a child's imagination -- in this case, not the place where the child actually lives, but the worlds conjured by a writer's words:

The Famous Five Have Plenty of Fun"Oh, the excitement of the latest Famous Five adventure," playwright Ronald Harwood reminisces, "with Biggles, Just William, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Long John Silver following close behind. I have not, except for Treasure Island, re-read them since childhood or adolescence and I've made it a condition not to re-read them now in case I am embarrassed by memory. I want to prevent the pompous adult, sensitive to what others may think, from inhibiting the impressionable child. I was, by the way, a late developer and only began reading intelligently when I was twenty.

"I should explain I was born and educated in Cape Town but my mother, born in London, led me to believe from an early age that England was the Promised Land and London Jerusalem so I was a good deal drawn to books which fed my hunger for Englishness, defined by me then, and now, as an ideal of gentleness, culture, countryside and justice.

"Enid Blyton, more than any other writer I remember, fulfilled much of that definition, those longings for England, but only in her Famous Five stories. (I could not abide Noddy or any of the others.) The Famous Five, as I remember, lived somewhere in the south of England -- Kent, I think -- and were amateur detectives who, in their summer holidays, stumbled on crimes and solved them just as it was time to go back to school. Gentle justice triumphed.

Eileen Soper

"But it was her ability to share her love of the English landscape which was, to me, her most endearing quality," Harwood continues. "Enid Blyton described the rural scene so vividly that I carry to this day what I believe to be her images of tree-tunnels and green hillsides and well-kept careless gardens. I am told now it was a sugary, middle-class idyll she created (a criticism as meaningless to me now as it would have been then), romantic, idealized, nostalgic.

"The fascinating aspect of her power, however, is that when, many years later, I went to live in a Hampshire village and walked the footpaths and climbed the hangers, my memory was jolted by her descriptions of the England in which the capers of the Famous Five took place and seemed to me accurate. I cannot say she influenced my own writing but as a reader I owe her an enormous debt; and I remember in the 1970s, when censorship was virulent in England, how shocked I was to read of librarians removing Enid Blyton from their shelves for being too middle-class or too twee or too something. They could not have known that to one immigrant, at least, she described a magical world."

Eileen Soper

Famous Five cover art by Eileen Soper

Doris Lessing lived in Iran until she was five, then spent the rest of her childhood on a farm in South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

"I began reading at seven, off a cigarette pack," she recalls, before progressing to the books on her English-born parents' shelves. "The books I responded to then are not those I would Anne of Green Gableschose as best now. You have to read a book at the right time for you, and I'm sure this cannot be insisted on too often, for it is the key to the enjoyment of literature.

"I read children's books, some unknown to today's children. The [North] Americans: L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did series, The Girl of Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter and its sequels. Louisa Alcott. Hawthorne. Henty. The English classics were Lewis Carroll, who I like better now than I did then, and Milne's Winnie the Pooh, which I adored then and feel uneasy about now. The hero is a stupid greedy little bear, and the clever animals are ridiculous: good old England, I sometimes think, at it again. But there was Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows cover atyThe Wind in the Willows,
and a wonderful children's newspaper, and a magazine called The Merry-Go-Round that printed Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, Lawrence Binyon, and other fine writers. Walter de la Mare's The Three Royal Monkeys entranced me then, and still kept some of its magic about it when I recently re-read it.

"I was lucky that my parents read to my brother and me. I believe that nothing has the impact of a story read or told. I remember the atmosphere of those evenings, and all the stories, some of them long-running domestic epics made up by my mother, about the adventures of mice, or our cats and dogs, or the little monkeys that lived around us in the bush and sometimes leaped about in the rafters under the thatch, or the interaction between our domestic animals and the wild ones all around us....Parents who read to their children or who make up stories are giving them the finest gift in the world. Do we too often forget that tale-telling is thousands of years old, whereas we have been reading for a trifling number of centuries?"

Early editions of three children's classics

Vintage Children's Books, a still life painting by Holly FarrellPictures: The pictures at the top and bottom of this post are by Holly Farrell, a Canadian artist whose paintings of old books and other objects are just wonderful. The classic Famous Five illustrations are by Eileen Soper (1905-1990). The first edition of Anne of Green Gables was illustrated by M. A. & W. A. J. Claus (1914). The edition of Wind in the Willows illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard came out in 1931, though the story itself, unillustrated, first appeared in 1908. The cover design for The Girl of the Limberlost is by Wladyslaw T. Benda, the cover illustration for What Katy Did is uncredited, and the cover illustration for Little Women is by C.M. Burd. The novels were originally published in 1909, 1872, and 1868/69 respectively. Words: The passages by Ronald Harwood and Doris Lessing above are from Reading for Pleasure, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors, artists, or their estates.

Comments

Yes, so true! I was delighted to read Ronald's experiences of The Famous Five, as they reflect my own. I started Blyton with The Land of Far-Beyond (which is why I am a fantasy writer) and graduated on to the Five. (This was before her books were banned by our library.) My grandmother always told me that England was Home (even though she'd never been there) - truly the heart of the world - and I was surrounded by English culture. It even went as deep as spelling - one always included the u, for example. But NZ is very far from "home", so the Famous Five allowed me to be there at least in my imagination. I guess I felt kind of homesick or displaced, and the books helped me manage that. Because of them, I spent half my life on a bicycle, pretending that suburbia was farmlands, eating sandwiches, and keeping an eye out for criminals.

The books are currently stacked in my hall cupboard, but I have never touched them again. I know something precious would be spoiled by the adult perspective.

Conversely, I came to Anne of Green Gables as a young adult, and that was exactly the right time for me to appreciate those books. Any younger and I would perhaps have found them boring. But by adulthood I had developed my own character enough to appreciate Anne's.

Life With Wonders

I went down the
Rabbit hole with Alice
With Cinderella dancing
In the Princes Palace.

I went up to Jo's attic,
With the thinking cap
And pen and ink. Not
Dead, Snow White's nap.


Older I veered to comics,
Loved Sheena the Queen
Of The jungle. What if soon
Magic books, all unseen.

But in the high school Library
I found James Stephens, Oh!
The Crock f Gold, not for kids.
Like a bridge, where I could go.

I found Shakespeare, first
The Midsummer-Nights Dream.
Slipped easily on to where I am
Now. I have it all. Words stream,,,,

Back to the beginning, read
Again, research the wide wild
Mix of love and hate, miracle
And never stiff, still some child.

All the Black Stallion books, Thornton Burgess' animals like Lightfoot the Deer, and the Bobbsey Twins.

Enid Blyton! Consummate storyteller. Because of her this working class lad from the English Midlands used the phrases and pronunciation of the pre-war and just post-war upper classes (until it was beaten out of me at the tough inner city school I eventually went to). Her lovingly detailed descriptions of food and eating helped to make me the fat, sedentary child I also became. But I have to say I regret it not at all! Her stories were wonderful from the Famous Five to her re-tellings of Brer Rabbit.

The small mindedness that banned her books from libraries and schools still hold sway in some quarters, and yes, they are less than politically correct by today's standards. But if the child who reads them is made aware that they simply reflect the attitudes of their times and are in effect, historical tracts giving us an insight on a world that no longer exists, then a rich treasury of storytelling can be made available again.

SAVE OUR ENID, and let her take her rightful place amongst the greats of Children's Literature. I SAY, WIZARD, TOP-HOLE, GOOD EGG, CRIPES AND WHAT A CORKER! As some of her characters might have said.


P.S. and a refined 'Woof' from Timmy the dog.

Here - solace for the world weary
Surprise for the jaded and a tear for the teary
Hope for the hopeless, delight for the old
and many a dream in the story that's told.

My school library had old books and I get such a warm feeling looking at those covers. I read What Katie Did and all the rest, including The Bobbsey Twins with the original illustrations. We had Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, every colour of fairy tale book and a lot of English boarding school stories. I read everything in the library.

Thank you for this post, Terri. My (late) comment on Wednesday of last week was precisely about this. I often read books to my children that I once cherished as a child. It's a complex and often frustrating experience for me, but there's something deeply meaningful about it too. I know my boys' experiences and difficulties will be different than mine, but I'm so grateful when I can give them stories that might help them navigate childhood, as stories once did for me. It's just a bit sad when I find that some of the books have lost their magic for me. That's all. Love to all.

I love this.

I particularly like the discovery of a "not for kids" book in this poem, Phyllis. A rite of passage for all readers, eh? Great job.

Woman With A Typewriter

( For Enid and others)

She puts her portable
on her left knee -- pausing
at the corner of breath and thought.

She closes her eyes
waiting to type. The keys
an iron fence
leaning toward admission.

A breeze lollygags
through the mint willows
bringing up voices from the beach,

a blonde girl, a sea gull
a freckled dog -- characters
that come to vacation
along the wild coast of her mind.

She hears a bicycle bell
in the distance. Someone
is returning to swim --
or something else?

The words roar. A restless surf
and her fingers dive in.
.

Hi Phyllis

Perfect title and a marvelous poem capturing the essence of books and how they help shape us through discovery and imaginative inquiry. I love the places you have been through these literary portals. In particular, I loved this

I went up to Jo's attic,
With the thinking cap
And pen and ink. Not
Dead, Snow White's nap.

because as a young girl I read "Little Women" and vicariously entered Jo's attic and her mind, loving every moment of the experience!

Thank you for sharing this!!
Wendy

Exactly Michelle!

this captures it perfectly; and I love the way you phrase or define it.

My Best
Wendy

I found Edward Eager's Magic Series of seven novels at my local (San Diego, California) library when I was about eight years old and at loose ends one summer. And fell in love, not only with his words, but with the illustrations of N.M. Bodecker. I've been in love for nearly 60 years now and, although they're "new" editions, these books are on my shelf and lend their magic atmosphere to my home. They're irreplaceable!

Thank you Wendy: we could probably find a club of young Jo's! We are legion

So much joy and love in a small space; Just lovely.

Oh how the words do roar! This is so what writing is. What is the gift if not what you found
was sent to you.

Great to read this working class lad grown-up. I am not sure if I am "working" class for all the times family didn't succeed at work. But enough of that. I think writing is work, magical work but work. Somebody listens to dreams and brings them forth as darn good stories
to make children and then, older hearty menus of books. Being robust. You've got that and it is all yours.

Likewise. I lived in many little towns and one city, and look for such books. Once, In one
of the last of country one room schools I found treasures I could take home. In high school I tried to read everything in the library, but these were novels, not always interesting. So,
skipping around among the ones I loved, were read many times.

Here's the refined draft, the first was written in the moment and needed minor change or adjustment.


Woman With A Typewriter

( For Enid and others)

She puts her portable
on her left knee -- pausing
at the corner of breath and thought.

She closes her eyes
waiting to type. The spiked gate
ready for admittance.

A breeze lollygags
through the mint willows
bringing up voices from the beach,

a blonde girl, a sea gull
a freckled dog -- characters
that come to vacation
along the wild coast of her mind.

She hears a bicycle bell
in the distance. Someone
is returning to swim --
or something else?

The words roar. A restless surf
and her fingers dive in.
.

I was lucky in that I spent enough time in England, at age 8, to become familiar with all those British children's writers and they've never left my shelves. Not only Blyton, but Streatfeild, Nesbit, even "Bunty" (there was nothing in my USA experience to compare with Bunty!) Professor Branestawm, too, The Family From One End Street, Fell Farm, the Chalet School. All the Edward Eager books too, of course, and the others everyone else has already mentioned. Loved the Famous Five. Those Puffin paperbacks are looking mighty worn out these days, but I still go back to them. Those books got me hooked on the illustrators, too... I learned to recognize the illustrator and know that if that person did the drawings, the book would be a good one!

Exactly Phyllis

the gift is sent and the gift is inspiration suddenly taking shape into characters, theme, images, words! Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I deeply appreciate it!

My Best
Wendy

It is quite interesting to think back on the books that shaped me, because shape they did. There is one book I loved throughout my pre-teen/teenage years and read every summer. I used to identify with the protagonist-an angsty girl who got to touch a bit of magic, have freedom during a summer alone with minimal duties, experience folkloric traditions, and have close tight-knit friendships. But the more I go back each summer to read it, the less I find I can identify with this wistful girl looking for an escape and a romance. The more I read, the more I've identified with her hippie-ish grandmother: a storyteller with a passion for garden folklore, keeper of traditions, hostess, clairvoyant, and server of fine English tea. I want to know more of her story, so I must fill in the blanks on my own through finding that in my own life.

I've not read any of the Famous Five books; my only exposure has been The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go Mad in Dorset! I will have to rectify this...😊

Half Magic is the most wonderful book! I discovered it as a child, and I read it now to my third graders and it never fails - even now in 2016, they love it. But of course - it's about magic and family and the long days of summer with no school, and these exist still.

Thank you Phyllis. I'm proud of my Working Class roots now. But so many of my friends come from a 'posh' background I sometimes I have to work hard to keep my signature 'flat vowels' of the Midlands and the North of England. It's only the refined southerners who pronounce 'bath' and 'grass' as 'barth' and 'grarse'

Bless you for keeping these books alive throughout the generations, Dona! I remember I could almost feel the thyme-scented ocean breezes when I read The Time Garden!

This is interesting to me. In the Northwest speech had some level of the old South and
cowboy talk, which we all had. My Dad loaned me an now ancient thin steel string gizmo to speak into. I wanted to speak well in plays, especially Shakespeare. My voice lowered some and I caught on. But I still say 'crick' instead of 'creek,' and other Idaho, east stage of Washington and Central Oregon language still hides out there. But I loved listening to my elders, and I use it in some of my "western" stories. I was in some Noel Coward plays, both posh and working class. And as I began to go to poetry readings, I rehearsed a way that wasn't singsong or peculiar. I'm OK with my 2 Youtubes and will get another one, next April.

Golly, and lashings of ginger beer! Yes, Secret Seven and Famous Five for me too, a small child just about as far away from good old England as it was possible to be. I understand Edith's experiences in reading our childhood favourites to our children. I want them to love them as I did, but they are not me, and this is not the mid 1970s, and sometimes it works but more often it doesn't. Though my youngest is slowly working her way through the FF boxed set that I bought for her (me!) a couple of years ago. But 'the right book at the right time' is just not something that can be planned, or orchestrated by a loving parent, so I must accept that 'The Dark is Rising' may never seize their imaginations as it did mine. They must find their own books.

Just browsing and found this poem. A charmer, the writer breathing in everything, all he senses, the moment, the fingers diving in, heart rising up like a surfer.

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