Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

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This is one of the sequels to Exile for Annis,  set at the Farm School which is one of several unconventional fictional schools inspired by Summerhill School.  The school has expanded, and amongst the new pupils are Hans and Johanna, two children brought from Germany to Britain on what we now call the Kindertransport.  Both they and the other new pupils initially struggle to fit into life at the Farm School, and, whilst of course everyone settles in in the end, what happens is quite interesting and thought-provoking.

The timing with the Kindertransport’s actually a bit out, because they arrive at the start of the 1938/39 academic year, three months before the transports began.  That can be forgiven, though.  The book was published in 1940 and, with most children’s authors either writing spy stories or ignoring the war and the build-up to war, this book, with its focus on refugees, would have been something different.

We see contrasting attitudes from the children.  Johanna is happy and grateful to be in Britain, but Hans is initially suspicious of the British due to hearing Great War stories whilst growing up; and, the children being from a wealthy family, he resents the fact that they no longer live in a big house with servants and luxuries.  That’s very interesting.  It’s not unrealistic that a child might have felt like that, but I think that an author today would be afraid to present a refugee in a negative way for fear of a backlash, even though it’s explained that Hans is reacting like this because he’s afraid and unsettled and struggling to come to terms with what has happened to him and his family..

Meanwhile, Annis has been elected as the first female president of the school.  The book is very supportive of women’s rights: Annis learns to drive, and insists that girls should be allowed to play whatever sports they like.  We also see that several female former pupils have gone on to university, and that Annis herself is hoping to go to Cambridge, to study sciences.  We also get arguments in favour of food and drink using only natural ingredients, with mutterings about not wanting beer produced in test tubes: that again seems like a very modern view in a book from over 80 years ago.  Comments about “peasants” and “gippos” are more dated.  I’m not trying to judge the book by today’s standards, just interested in the views on these issues, especially given what an “in” topic women’s sport, in particular, is at the moment.

Other than Annis, no-one actually seems to do very much schoolwork!   They’re either doing farmwork, learning to ride, watching hop-pickers or playing sport.   Very little time seems to be spent in lessons, something which the new pupils find strange and objectionable. To be fair, people with exams coming up are excused from some of the farmwork, but they still seem to do an awful lot of it.  But then there’s trouble when some of the new kids don’t want to get stuck in.

Of course, everyone eventually decides that the school is wonderful, but I’m not sure how realistic it is that people would have sailed through external exams after so little preparation.  And there’s a happy ending for Hans and Johanna.   But it’s not a simplistic book: there’s a lot in it to make the reader think.   The idea in a lot of Girls’ Own books is that everyone should learn to fit in and subjugate their own interests to the common good, but, using beehives as a metaphor, Annis suggests that that would be like living in a totalitarian state, and makes it clear that a balance has to be found between personal interests and group interests. But that’s easier said than done: they run into trouble with packing the apples because there are no rules about it and not enough kids volunteer.   But then is it OK to miss group work to pursue, say, a talent for art?

It’s a very interesting book, which goes a lot deeper than some school stories do.  Of course, all turns out well in the end, but it takes a while to get there.

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Jennings Goes To School by Anthony Buckeridge

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   This is the first Jennings book and my first Jennings book, read for a Facebook group challenge.  I enjoyed it, but not so much so that I’ll be rushing to buy all the others.  The book sees Jennings and his friend Darbishire starting at prep school and having to get used to the written rules, the unwritten rules and the slang.  In sitcom style, Jennings takes everything very literally, there are a lot of mistakes with words, and various misunderstandings result.

It was genuinely funny and I enjoyed reading it.  And I loved our boy saying that he wanted to play for United.  But, as I said, I don’t particularly feel the need to read the rest in the series – although I can see why people do.  Genuinely funny.

Alex by Tessa Duder

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Having watched a lot of swimming during the Commonwealth Games and European Aquatics Championships, I decided to look for a “Girls’ Own”-type book on the subject, and people kindly recommended this one, written in the 1980s but set in the 1950s, by New Zealand Empire and Commonwealth Games silver medallist Tessa Duder.  Fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Alex wants to make the New Zealand swimming squad for the 1960 Olympics, but there’s only room for either her or her rival Maggie Benton, and Maggie seems to have the advantage.

Unlike a lot of fictional characters, who are entirely devoted to music, ballet, ice-skating or whatever it may be, and have to be persuaded to do other things too, Alex wants to be in the school play, be in the school hockey team, do ballet, pass her piano exams, do well in her School Certificate and also spend time with her boyfriend Andy.

Like a lot of fictional characters, she suffers an accident (in a hockey match) which upsets her training, but it isn’t really a big deal: she just gets on with things.  And we don’t even see that much of her actually in the pool.  So it’s quite an unusual book.  And very 1980s – first person, lots of internal monologue and short half-sentences, and a lot of angst and anxiety.  Alex isn’t super-confident like so many heroines of books are, and spends a lot of time worrying about all aspects of her life and about what other people think of her.

Also, this is national news.  This isn’t just a tale of someone at a school: there’s continuous press coverage of the rivalry between the two girls, who actually get on OK.

Then something truly horrific happens, but Alex vows that it’ll drive her on … but, instead of a big showdown at the end, we’re just told that both Alex and Maggie will be going to the Olympics.   That ending was inevitable, but it’s strange that it just happens like that, rather than with a dramatic account of a very close race.

It’s very 1980s, as I’ve said.  Had it been written in the 1950s or the 1920s, there’d have been a big showdown at the end.   And Alex would probably have been devoted to swimming at the expense of everything else, or maybe had to choose between swimming and one other thing.   Quite unusual.  But I did really enjoy it.  Thank you so much to the people who recommended it!

 

 

 

Wonderland – Sky Arts

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This series is an interesting look at the “Golden Age” of British children’s literature.  That’s obviously an extremely subjective topic, but the twelve authors specifically mentioned were J M Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll, Erskine Childers (the only one with whose books I’m not really familiar), Kenneth Grahame, Rudyard Kipling, A A Milne, E Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and J R R Tolkien.  The idea was to cover the 71-year-period from the publication of Alice in Wonderland  in 1866 to the publication of Lord of the Rings in 1937.  You can argue at length about who should and shouldn’t have been included: a four-part series can only cover so many authors.   And they’d chosen quite a range of authors, meaning that most of what was said only applied to some of them: you can’t really compare Ballet Shoes with The Hobbit, or Toad of Toad Hall with Swallows and Amazons.  But a lot of thought-provoking comments were made.

The starting point was chosen as being when children’s books moved from moralising to entertainment; and they had to choose an end point somewhere … even though it meant excluding both Enid Blyton and C S Lewis.  The fact that the authors were all so different inevitably made the programme rather bitty – Ransome’s dealings with Lenin and Trotsky one minute, AA Milne’s differences with his son Christopher Robin the next – but I don’t know how else they could have done it.  Carroll, Ransome and Milne were discussed at some length in the first episode: presumably it’ll be three authors apiece in the three remaining episodes.

For a few awful moments, I thought that the whole thing was going to consist of the woke brigade slagging off all the old favourites, BBC 2-style – but one of the speakers made a point about how annoying it is when people do that, and how it’d be better to discuss any class or racial issues which people may find in the books, without just slagging the books off and saying that kids shouldn’t read them.  Hooray for a bit of common sense!   Another point made was that there are now abridged versions of classic books available for younger children, and how those tend to miss out the “nasty” bits – because all these books have difficult bits, and don’t just set out to create idylls for children to enjoy.

It was suggested that some authors saw childhood as a “protected area”, but others thought that children deserved more respect than they often got.  And a lot of comments were made about how many of the featured authors had suffered tragedies in their own lives, often involving children or their own childhoods- was that why they chose to write children’s books?

A good point was that rural locations are, in most cases, preferred to urban locations – Streatfeild’s books being an obvious exception.   It’s sometimes suggested that that was part of the mentality brought about by trying to recover from the Great War, but even the books written pre-1914 tend to be set in rural areas.  Are the books meant to be a safe space, and is that connection with rural settings?   Or are they meant to be challenging?  Well, probably a bit of both.  Beatrix Potter’s books, with their sweet little illustrations, can be very scary!

There was certainly quite a lot to think about.  My preferred childhood books were the “Girls’ Own” books of the mid-20th century, but I read most of the children’s classics as well, and I like hearing them being the subject of in-depth and serious discussion.   I know that some people don’t like detailed analysis of childhood favourites: each to their own, but I do like to talk about them, and I like to think that the authors would be very flattered to know that their books are still were being discussed so many years after they were published.   Thank you to Sky Arts for this: we get a lot of adaptations of children’s books, but not that much talk about them.  Well, there’s plenty of talk about them in our lovely fora and Facebook groups, but it was nice to have some on TV for a change!

ETA – I’ve gone bang off this since the second episode said that Frances Hodgson Burnett grew up in Leeds. She grew up in Manchester! How on earth did they get that wrong?

 

 

 

Mill Green school stories by Alison Prince

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  I read these in the 1980s, when they were first published, and suddenly felt a random yearning to read them again.  They’re written by Alison Prince, who was a scriptwriter for Trumpton.   Brief pause to recite the names of the Trumpton firemen.  OK, back to the point.  The early books were advertised as being similar to Grange Hill; and I think Armada’s reasoning was that, because of the success of Grange Hill on TV, young readers wanted school stories set at co-ed, comprehensive day schools, rather than the traditional school stories set at single sex private boarding schools.  They never quite caught on, though, which was a shame because they really weren’t bad at all.

Mill Green is a fairly new and probably fairly small (it only seems to have one form per year, although, confusingly, one book suggests that there are 800 pupils!) school in an unspecified part of the UK – I think it’s Northern England, but it doesn’t say and they aren’t many clues.  The school itself is in the middle of nowhere, with pupils travelling in by bus from nearby towns and buses.  The bus trips are a big part of the day, which was very much the case at my school but which you obviously don’t get in boarding school novels.  They focus on a group of first years, who later go into the second year, with older kids only really featuring as bullies picking on the younger kids.   A small number of teachers also feature, notably Mr Potter, our gang’s form master; and parents feature in minor roles.

The books wouldn’t win any awards for the quality of writing: the  word “said” appears umpteen times on every page.  However, the main characters are appealing, and the stories, whilst only short, make for entertaining reading.  They aren’t particularly moralising, as traditional school stories are, nor hard-hitting as some of Grange Hill’s are, but they’re strong enough to keep the reader’s attention.  Each book involves a school project/extra-curricular activity, plus a bit of a mystery.  There’s a slight feeling of the Five Find Outers about solving the crimes and mysteries.  In the first book, the school’s trying to promote gardening/farming in the grounds, and there’s an arsonist on the loose.  In the second book, the school’s putting on a pantomime, and there’s a new girl who clearly isn’t what she claims to be.  And so on.

There are only five books in total.   I enjoyed them in the 1980s and I enjoyed reading them again.   But, whilst American books set in “ordinary” schools – Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, etc – seem to go down well, these just didn’t catch on in the way that boarding school books did, and it wasn’t because of a lack of marketing by Armada.   Maybe kids in the UK just prefer reading traditional school stories.

There are five in all:

Mill Green on Fire
Mill Green on Stage
A Spy at Mill Green
Hands off Mill Green!
Rock on, Mill Green

They’re very 1980s, with a lot of the emphasis being on the technology of the time.  I don’t know what kids of the 2020s would make of that!   But they’re really not bad, as I’ve said, and it’s a shame that they never became more popular.  I’ve enjoyed revisiting them..

 

How To Be True by Daisy May Johnson

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This, written by Daisy May Johnson, is a sequel/companion novel to How To Be Brave.  The main character is Edie Berger, the French girl who featured in the previous books as one of Calla North’s best friends.  It’s written in the same quirky way, with a lot of footnotes and a lot of comments from the narrator, but most of it’s set not at the school but during a school trip to France –  in which the girls become involved in trying to catch an art thief, and, in doing so, hear about Edie’s grandmother’s wartime history.

This involves a German family called Mercier.  That’s a very French-sounding name for a German family, but I did wonder if there was a tribute being paid to Odette Mercier of the Chalet School books, as the grandmother’s first name is Odette.  Maybe I’m overthinking things!    The Chalet School, Malory Towers and several other Girls’ Own books are referenced, though.  And how’s this for a 21st century twist on things? – rather than being abroad on colonial or missionary service, or, as Trebizon updated things for the late 20th century, having been posted to Saudi Arabia, Edie’s parents are absent because they’re “activists” and are off protesting.

The style of Daisy May Johnson’s books is very much her own, and her books, unlike traditional girls’ boarding school stories, don’t take themselves seriously in the slightest, but they carry the traditional Girls’ Own messages of friendship, teamwork, and good winning out over bad.  And it’s wonderful that people are still writing boarding school books for children.  In my day, in the 1980s, teachers didn’t really approve of our reading school stories, and it was held that boarding school books were too “elitist”.   Kids were supposed to want stories about comprehensives, like TV’s Grange Hill.   Alison Prince wrote a series called Mill Green, set at a school rather like Grange Hill: the books weren’t bad, but they never really caught on in the way that Malory Towers, St Clare’s, the Chalet School etc had done.   Now there seems to have been a swing back towards boarding school stories.  I think J K Rowling can take a lot of the credit for that, but it’s good to see other authors getting in on it too.

This is currently on a Kindle special offer, so, if you fancy reading it, it’s a good time!   Thank you to Daisy May, and long live boarding school stories!

When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler

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This is a truly wonderful Holocaust book for children.   It starts with three 9-year-old best friends in Vienna, in 1936, having a perfect day (including Sachertorte) together; and follows their lives until two of them die in their mid-teens and the survivor is interviewed in the present day.  Two are Jewish, one isn’t.   It moves between the three, as their once conjoined lives diverge.   One is able to escape to Britain, with the help of a kind British couple whom they’d met briefly at the Prater, and they and their family make a new and happy life for themselves.   One is sent to a ghetto, to Terezin, and then to Auschwitz.  The third is the son of a man who becomes an SS officer at Dachau and later at Auschwitz: the child is drawn into the Hitler Youth movement and becomes a Nazi himself.  It’s rare to find a book which addresses all three of those eventualities – escaping to a safe country, being sent to a death camp, and someone who was once a kind and decent person being drawn into the Nazi web.

It’s slightly confusing in that one character’s chapters are told in the first person present, one in the first person past and one in the third person past, but I suppose that that’s to differentiate between the three different stories.

Liz Kessler’s own father and grandparents were able to escape Nazi Germany, thanks to a British couple whom they’d met by chance, and settle in Southport.   That’s partly why she wanted to tell this story; and I’m glad that the book covers the subject of refugees coming to Britain, as well as the tragic fate of so many who were unable to leave Nazi Germany and the countries which it occupied.   There are a myriad of books about people leaving various parts of the Continent for Britain, the USA, Australia or elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but strangely few about those who were able to escape the Nazis.

Apart from the Judith Kerr trilogy, and to some extent The Chalet School in Exile, there never seemed to be any books about this when I was a kid.  Obviously there’s The Diary of Anne Frank, but that doesn’t deal with refugees coming to Britain. Maisie Mosco’s Scattered Seed *does*, but that isn’t aimed at children.

And no-one ever even told me that the Manchester area had had two hostels, funded by local people, for those who’d come here as refugees from the Nazis, one in Broughton Park and one in Withington, both suburbs which I know well.   Nor did anyone ever tell me that my secondary school, along with several other schools in the area, had made a number of places available for free for refugee children – one of whom, now an elderly lady, was recently interviewed on the school’s social media pages.  I’m so proud that the school did that, but why did no-one tell the pupils of the 1980s and 1990s about it?

And I know people whose parents or grandparents came here on the Kindertransport, but, again, it just wasn’t talked about when I was a kid.

Maybe we were still at the stage where it was too painful to talk about either the war or the Holocaust: maybe it was too soon.   There seems to be a new concentration camp novel for adults out every week these days, and if anything it’s got to the stage of overkill; but it’s important that books like this one are available for children.  They weren’t, in my day.

I think that the book’s meant for children aged about 11-13, but it reads to me more like a book for children aged 8-10.   As with any book for younger children on a sensitive topic, there’s the issue of how to show dangerous views without the children accepting them.   This is a problem which comes up a lot in terms of children’s books: the characters have to express these views, but a child reading a book without the guidance of a parent or teacher has to understand that the views are categorically wrong.  I think that this book does a good job of making that clear, but it’s always a grey area.

There’s a lot of information to process, about restrictions on the lives of Jews, about life in the ghetto, about the Kindertransport, about the struggles to obtain an exit visa, about life and death in the camps, and also about the fact that Roma and other groups were also murdered.   But there’s isn’t an information overload, and I don’t think that it’d be too much for children to take in.

This is currently available on a 99p Kindle offer, and I highly recommend it.

 

 

The Woods of Windri by Violet Needham

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I’m not usually that keen on Ruritanian novels, but I loved this one!   Windri, which unusually for a Ruritanian country hasn’t got a name ending in “ia”, is a small state in the marches of an unnamed empire.  The woods suggest somewhere in northern or central Germany, but being on the marches of the Holy Roman Empire would suggest somewhere further south, especially as the neighbouring state of Monte Lucio sounds like it’s in Italy … er, and probably central Italy, as it’s got olive groves … and then the other neighbouring state, Maupuis, sounds French.  Oh well, never mind.  It’s somewhere!   And some time: the book was published in the early 1950s, the language used sounds Georgian, and I think it’s actually meant to be set in the Middle Ages, judging from the clothes and the lack of any transport other than horses.

It’s aimed at primary school children, but the story’s actually quite complex.  The Lord of Windri’s got two daughters, and the elder daughter, Phillippa, has been betrothed to the Count of Monte Lucio.  She isn’t very happy, because she’s fallen in love with the mysterious, handsome, gallant and charming Knight of the Golden Feather, whom she and her sister Magdalen met whilst walking through the woods.  Of course, it turns out that the said knight is none other than the Count of Monte Lucio.  Hurrah!

However, there’s also quite a convoluted storyline involving a young boy called Theo, who’s run away from the wicked Abbot of Windri.  It transpires that the lord of Maupuis was dispossessed by a relative, and that he and his infant son were both presumed dead, but that rumour has it that they are both actually alive, and that the child was sent to live at a monastery.   I’m sure you can work out for yourselves whom Theo turns out to be.

But there’s a lot of evil plotting afoot, with Theo, his father (now living as a hermit) and the Count of Monte Lucio all in danger.  Of course, it all turns out all right in the end, and we’re told that Theo and Magdalen will eventually marry.  It’s a bit annoying that Theo gets to have all the adventures, whilst Magdalen’s only slightly involved: people used to Enid Blyton books, in which the girls are generally in on it all, might well find that rather frustrating.   But, in general, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

A Pony To Jump by Patricia Leitch

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  I read all Patricia Leitch’s Jinny/Shantih books in the 1980s, but I’d outgrown them by the time that the Kestrels series, of which this is the second, came out.   This is along similar lines -pony book, lower middle class families rather than the upper class/upper middle class families usually found in pony books, slight touch of mysticism.

The two main characters actually rather annoyed me.  One of them had a badly behaved dog which caused havoc everywhere.  Think Bruno Maynard in the Chalet School books.  There are few things which I dislike more than badly behaved dogs.  The other one called her grandmother “Narg” because it was “Gran” spelt backwards.  Why??!  Why not just call her “Gran”?

However, as a short pony book for a child of primary school age, it’s quite entertaining – there’s a bit about learning to jump, as the title suggests, and some drama with feuds at the riding school, a charity pageant, a famous showjumper turning up and a horse being stolen.   I won’t be bothering with the rest of the series, but, if I’d read this when I was 8 or 9, I’m sure I would have done.

 

The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.