Favourite Stories of Courageous Girls: inspiring heroines from classic children’s books

Standard

This is definitely an eclectic selection of heroines – 24 of them in all.  They include Enid Blyton’s much-discussed George Kirrin and rarely-discussed Margery Fenworthy, a range of characters from older Girls’ Own books, from Jo March and Anne Shirley to Pollyanna and Rebecca Randall, and from Bobbie Waterbury to Mary Lennox; fairytale characters such as Gerda from The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid and Kate Crackernuts; Proserpina/Persephone from the Greek myth, girls from fantasy-eque novels – Alice and Dorothy – and, bizarrely considering that the title says “children’s books”, the wonderful Jane Eyre and the horribly irritating Catherine Earnshaw.  (Full list below!)

Whilst I’d certainly class, say, Bobbie and Gerda as courageous, I’m not really convinced about some of the others – Mary Lennox isn’t really courageous, and Catherine Earnshaw just needs a good slap!  Some of the extracts chosen seem rather odd as well – even if it was her one beauty, was having her hair cut really the bravest thing that Jo March ever did?!  A lot of authors are featured twice, which seems rather unimaginative, and I think some of the books were chosen more for being famous than for anything else.   And it’s just really a collection of extracts, with no discussion about why they’ve been chosen, and very little background information for readers who aren’t familiar with particular characters.  However, the Kindle version was going for 99p, and for 99p it was worth a read.

Full list of “courageous girls”, FYI (if anyone’s reading this!). The order of these felt as if someone’d drawn them out of a hat.  Maybe the idea was to provide contrasts between one girl and the next, but surely it would have better to have arranged them by genre, or maybe by publication date?  Anyway.  Here we are:

  1. Jo March from Little Women.  I’m OK with the choice of character, but not with the choice of extract,  Whilst I get that it was her one beauty and hair was a woman’s crowning glory, was Jo having her hair cut really braver than moving to New York on her own?
  2.  Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – again, a poor choice of extract. Instead of a scene with the Wicked Witch, it was just a scene with Dorothy meeting the rest of the gang.
  3. Gerda from The Snow Queen – rescuing Kay.  Go Gerda!  Although this story used to frighten me when it was serialised in Twinkle when I was about 6!
  4.  Bobbie Waterbury from The Railway Children.  Stopping the train with red flannel petticoats.  Absolutely iconic scene!!
  5. Jane Eyre.  Seeing as this is supposed to be about children’s books, they went for the Mr Brocklehurst bit.  I talk about this scene a lot, because I think it’s a brilliant example of how bullying religious Victorians could be.  Who’s the actual heroine of it – is it Jane or is it Helen Burns?   I think it’s probably both of them.
  6. Kate Crackernuts.  I don’t think I’d heard this story before.  It’s a Scottish fairytale – and it’s great, because Kate saves her sister, who’s been put under a spell, and sits up with a sick prince, whom she later marries, rather than a prince rescuing a girl which is what usually happens.  Quite a contrast to have a fairytale straight after the Jane Eyre/Mr Brocklehurst episode!
  7. Rebecca (Randall) of Sunnybrook Farm.  I’m not big on these preachy-type books, but Rebecca isn’t bad compared to the likes of Elsie Dinsmore and Cousin Helen Carr, and this is a nice scene in which she gets the better of a bully.
  8. George Kirrin from Five on a Treasure Island.  I read this book when I was only about 5 or 6, and the word “ingots” fascinated me.  I have no idea why!  George can be really annoying, but she can be really brave as well.  And, let’s face it, compared to Anne, she definitely seems like a heroine!
  9. White Chrysanthemum.  I didn’t know this one.  It’s a Japanese fairytale.  Kudos for the inclusion of stories from different cultures, but, as the heroine is rescued from bandits by her brother, I’m not sure why we’re meant to think she’s being courageous!
  10. Understood Betsy.  Another one I didn’t know, but it involves Betsy rescuing a girl from a pit, so, yep, that classes as courageous!
  11. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The Queen of Hearts/”Off with her head” scene.  I would never have picked Alice as an example of a “courageous girl”, but, when you think about it, she really is very brave in this scene.  Hmm.  That’s one to think about.
  12. The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt.  This is an Indian fairytale.  It’s a nice story, and, again, kudos for including stories from different cultures, but no-one really does anything very courageous.
  13. Sara Crewe from A Little Princess.  Sharing buns with a “little ravening London savage”.  I do find this book a bit sick-making, but I do also acknowledge that Sara is brave in the way she copes with the situation in which she finds herself, so, OK, fair enough.
  14.  The Phoenix and the Carpet.  Er, who is actually being brave here.  Is it Anthea?  No idea why this is in there!
  15.  The Seven Ravens.  Nice little fairytale in which a girl rescues her brothers, but very short.
  16. Pollyanna.  Again, I’m not big on preachy books, but I suppose she was brave to go to the home of scary-ish John Pendleton.  But would you really choose Pollyanna as an obvious example of a “courageous girl”?
  17. Anne (Shirley) of Green Gables.  The bit where she saves the baby with croup.  I’d say that that was more about being bright and keeping her head than being courageous, but, on the other hand, it was pretty brave for a young girl to give medical assistance like that.  And I love Anne!
  18. The Pomegranate Seeds – the Proserpina/Persephone story.  When I was 6, I had a nice shiny hardback book of Greek myths, and this one was my favourite!  But I’m not sure that Proserpina’s “brave” as such.  Still, I’ve always liked the story.
  19. Wuthering Heights.  WTF?  If it’d been Cathy junior, coping with evil Hindley, OK, but what is courageous about Catherine Linton?  She needs a good slap, if you ask me.  I think this was just included because it’s a very famous book, and that’s a lazy/sloppy way of doing things.  Not impressed!  How can Catherine Linton be called courageous?  She’s a nasty little madam!
  20. Emily of New Moon – in dispute with a nasty teacher.  I don’t mind Emily, but I’m not sure you’d say she was “courageous”.
  21. The Wise Princess – a fairytale, but one written in modern times.  Girl drowns trying to rescue baby.  Moral of the story is that she learnt how to be happy.  Er, no, me neither!
  22. Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden.  The bit where she meets Colin.  Like a lot of these girls, Mary has to learn to become a better person, but … I don’t know, is that “courageous”.  I suppose it is, in a way, but I’m not sure how meeting your cousin makes you an “inspiring heroine”.
  23. Margery Fenworthy from The O’Sullivan Twins at St Clare’s, rescuing another girl from a fire.  I’d half-forgotten about this – probably because Margery isn’t one of the major characters in the series.  It’s actually one of the most dramatic scenes in any of Enid Blyton’s school stories, though.  Poor old Margery – no-one ever talks about her.  I’m quite glad she’s been included here!
  24. The Little Mermaid.  Not the animated film!  The real story, in which she rescues a prince … although, weirdly, it didn’t include the actual ending, just said that she’d rescued him but he’d never know, and left it there.  That missed the whole point of the story!

In summary – it was a good idea for a book, but it just wasn’t very well-executed..  There’s been a big swing towards Disney princess stuff for young girls, and, whilst there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s important to have strong, courageous girls as role models as well.  But I think there are far better examples than some of these, and I’d have liked a bit more discussion and commentary on why these particular girls and these particular examples of their “courage” had been chosen.  Great idea.  Not such a great book.

 

 

Advertisements

New Class at Malory Towers by various authors

Standard

This is a book of four short stories (not four full-length books), about four different new girls in the same form as Darrell, Sally & co, and with an eye to increasing diversity in GO books.  They’re not classics, but they’re not bad – although the quality does vary from one to another.  I’ll just say a bit about what I thought of each one, in case anyone’s interested!

The Secret Princess by Narinder Dharma – this was the third one in the book, but I’m putting it first because I thought it was the best.  Whilst I think it’s a little unfair that people criticise Blyton and other GO authors over the lack of non-white characters in their books, given that they were living and writing in a predominantly white society, I take the point that the lack of diversity in the books can make some readers feel excluded  I also take the point that, whilst the UK at that time wasn’t the multicultural society that it was today, girls would have come from other parts of the Empire/Commonwealth to attend British boarding schools.

The protagonist in this story is Sunita, an Indian girl who’s attending Malory Towers whilst her dad, a leading scientist, is working in the UK.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, Gwendoline Mary mistakenly gets the idea that Sunita’s the daughter of a maharajah, and Sunita and the other girls play along with it.  It’s brilliantly done, because, whilst it makes the point that the character is Indian, it doesn’t in any way make her seem “other”: she’s just one of the gang with Darrell and the others, taking part in a practical joke.  I do feel a bit sorry for Gwen, who must be the most maligned character in GO literature, but she does ask for this one with her snobbery, which rings very true to how Enid Blyton wrote her.  Very good story.

Bookworms by Lucy Mangan – this is just a light tale in which Darrell becomes friendly with the girl in charge of the library, and starts reading some well-known books – Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis are both name-checked!  Alicia gets jealous, and various pranks are played.  It’s hardly a classic GO tale, but it does play cleverly on the fact that GO characters are usually in with the in crowd, captains of the lacrosse teams, etc, whereas those of us who grow up reading GO books are more likely to be like Eustacia Benson in the Chalet School books – sat in a quiet corner with our noses in a book!   It flows very nicely, and it’s an entertaining little story.

A Bob and a Weave by Patrice Lawrence – hmm.  I think the author of this maybe tried too hard not to fall into the trap of making an ethnic minority’s ethnicity the be all and end all of the character, if that makes sense!   I’d read an interview in which the author talked about how she’d spoken to a number of black women, mainly originally from Nigeria, who’d attended British boarding schools, and that was what I was expecting to be reflected in the story.  However, the fact that the character, Marietta was mixed race, was only mentioned once, in a vague reference to her having dark skin like her mum – and even that could have been taken to mean that she was Asian, or white with olive skin, rather than that she was black.  There were references to her hair, and I think we were meant to read that as her having a traditional African hairstyle; but it really wasn’t clear, and I’m not sure I’d have picked up on it at all had I not read the interview.  I don’t want to read stories in which a character’s ethnicity is the only thing about them, and I certainly don’t want clichés or stereotypes, but, given everything that’s been said about making GO books more inclusive,  if you’re going to write about a black or mixed race character then you do need to make clear the fact that she’s black or mixed race.  Take Margot in the Trebizon books – her being black is not an issue in any way, but the reader is aware of her West Indian heritage.  This just seemed to miss the mark, somehow – although probably with the very best of intentions.

Marietta’s story was that her family worked in a circus, and that she didn’t want the other girls to find out about it.  It felt like a bit of a copy of the Carlotta and Eileen stories in the St Clare’s books, but I suppose it was very Blyton.  I just didn’t feel that it worked that well.  But that’s just my humble opinion, and other people may think it’s great!

The Show Must Go On by Rebecca Westcott – in this one, the new girl, Maggie, is Gwendoline’s cousin … but she’s a poor relation, having her fees paid by Gwen’s parents.  And she makes her mark early on by pointing out that it’s not actually normal “to have all your meals cooked for you and your clothes washed for you while [sic] you swan about the place, riding your ponies and sketching in art books”.  That’s definitely not something Enid Blyton would have written 🙂 – although it’s probably something I’d have longed to say had I ever gone to Malory Towers, not that I’d have had the nerve!   What is very Blyton is that the girls are supposed to be putting on a show, none of them can think of anything much to do, and, whaddaya know, it turns out that Maggie is a brilliant dancer.  There’s also a rather Brent-Dyer-esque plot involving an accident and a rescue.   And, hooray, for once, an author actually lets Gwen reform and become part of the crowd.   I think this is the one which would have worked best as a full-length book – it was a good story, but it felt a bit rushed.

So there we are!   And Malory Towers is very much in the news at the moment – I’ll be seeing the musical in September, and will probably be writing about that, if anyone’s interested!

 

 

 

Things we did because of children’s books …

Standard

Making everyone in my primary school class sign my autograph album, sticking “Bold Bad Girl” notices on other kids’ backs in the playground, trying to make invisible ink with orange juice, tying “wings” on an armchair to see if it’d fly (it didn’t), telling myself that I liked Turkish Delight (I don’t), trying to write a pantomime (starring my dolls), insisting on having waffles on my first visit to America, hiding food to keep for midnight feasts and, to cap it all, insisting that my dad make up stories about Amelia Jane because Enid Blyton hadn’t written enough of them (sorry, Dad).  And even going to Oberammergau in 2010.  “Things we did because of children’s books” have come up in a few people’s blog posts recently, so I thought I’d write a couple of top ten lists.  And I think part of the reason I’m so keen on writing things in list form anyway is because Judy does it in Daddy -Long -Legs.

It was mostly Enid Blyton books. Despite (or possibly because of) the fact that teachers in the late ’70s and early ’80s had an absolute down on Enid Blyton, and were always telling us not to read her books, I adored them and so did a lot of the other kids in my class at primary school. We used to plot to sneak out of our respective homes at night, meet up and go off on adventures. We never did (and I’m not sure that there were that many adventures to be had – we lived on housing estates in North Manchester, not in smugglers’ coves or anywhere with stately homes haunted by banshees), but it sounded good. But here’s a list of ten things that I/we did do:

1. Sticking notices on other kids’ backs, like in The Naughtiest Girl in the School. This was actually the brainwave of another girl in my class – she and I were a very bad influence on each other! Unfortunately, they just fell off after a minute. How did they get them to work at Whyteleafe?! They must have used pins, but surely you’d feel it if someone was pinning something to your back!

2. Trying to make invisible ink with orange juice – thank you, the Five Find-Outers. It sort of works …

3. Tying wings (I think they might have been luggage labels) on to a big armchair that we used to have at home, to see if it’d fly like the Wishing Chair did. It didn’t. Very disappointing.

4. Hiding food from tea (including carrots, for some bizarre reason), so that my sister and I could have a midnight feast. But we were only little kids at the time, and we always fell asleep before midnight. And it wouldn’t have been quite the same as getting the whole class together round the Malory Towers swimming pool anyway.

5. Getting my dad (who is very good at making up stories for little kids) to come up with new stories about Amelia Jane, because I was put out that Enid Blyton hadn’t written more of them. Poor Dad!!

6. Writing a pantomime, like Darrell Rivers did. However, whilst Darrell had the whole of her class at Malory Towers to take the parts, I only had my dolls and teddy bears, which was a bit of a problem as (unlike Amelia Jane) they couldn’t actually talk.

7. Sending people to Coventry. Ouch. I feel awful about this now! The bitchy girls in the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books were always sending people to Coventry, and I’m afraid that we once decided to do this to someone who’d been causing trouble. We were only about 8 at the time, to be fair, and I don’t think it lasted past one dinnertime, but I do remember doing it.

8. Deciding that the island in Heaton Park lake was a mysterious island with strange things going on on it, like in The Island of Adventure. Highly unlikely. It’s very small, and clearly visible from the café, and somewhat devoid of abandoned mines or secret tunnels.

9. Trying to make a lacrosse stick by tying a piece of wood to a bin.

10. Telling myself that any bit of woodland I went into was the Enchanted Forest. I still kind of do this! I don’t expect to see Silky and Moonface, but being in woodland always makes me think of Enid Blyton books, even now.

And ten things from children’s books by other authors:

1. Getting everyone in my class at primary school to write messages in an autograph album, like Laura Ingalls Wilder did in … was in Little Town on the Prairie or These Happy Golden Years? I think autograph albums were a thing at the time anyway, but I liked the idea of being like Laura. I’ve still got it. One person wrote “Lose weight” – what a horrible thing to do!  Most of the other kids wrote really sweet things, though, or funny things.  Bless them! I wonder what happened to them all.

2. Having ballet lessons, so that I could be a ballerina like … I was going to say like Lydia in the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, but, much as I loved those books, I couldn’t actually stand Lydia! Like Veronica or Jane in the Lorna Hill Sadler’s Wells books, then. Preferably Jane, so that I could marry Guy Charlton. This did not end well. Clumsy, unco-ordinated fat kids had to stand in the back row and weren’t allowed to do any proper dancing, just wave their arms about. I packed it in after a couple of years. So much for being a ballerina!

3. Convincing myself that, like Caroline Scott in No Castanets at the Wells, I would magically shed my “puppy fat” and become slim and glamorous once I got to my mid-teens. Thirty years after reaching my mid-teens, I’m still waiting!

4. Insisting on trying waffles almost as soon as I set foot in the United States for the first time, because Lilly Page made such a fuss about them in What Katy Did At School. As I soon found out, they are rather over-rated.

5. So is Turkish delight, as eaten by Edmund in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It tastes like hair lacquer. Why did I keep trying to convince myself that I liked it?!

6. Wanting to live on a boat, like Noel Streatfeild’s Margaret in Thursday’s Child (and also various kids in Enid Blyton books). I mean, why?! I’d get claustrophobic. And what are the sanitary facilities like?!

7. Wanting to own a pony, like Jinny in the Patricia Leitch books. Again, why?! I am scared of getting close to horses! I always think they’re going to bite me.

Interestingly, the “because of children’s books” things that I was still doing even once I was supposedly grown up were mostly from the Chalet School books. That probably says a lot about how good Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing is, certainly in the early part of the series. Mind you, there are also the things I still won’t do – including dyeing my own hair, after L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables dyed hers green by mistake. I even told my hairdresser that. She must have thought I was mad.

8. Telling my bemused modern history professor that, no, I did not want to write an essay about the French Revolution – I wanted to write one about the Austro-Hungarian Empire instead. And I got an A+ for it (apologies for showing off)! I would have explained, but I didn’t think he was really a Chalet School sort of person.

9. Having to have coffee and cream cakes all the time, whenever I’m in Central Europe, despite the fact that I very rarely drink coffee at home (I have umpteen cups of tea a day) and really should not be eating cream cakes. EBD, I blame you for this!

10. Going to the Passion Play in Oberammergau in 2010. Religion isn’t my thing, and I don’t think I’d have thought of going if it hadn’t been for The Chalet School and Jo. And I’m so glad I did, because it was a lovely experience, on a lovely sunny day.

Those are just 20 things. There are millions more.  I still have to remember not to call my best friend from school by the silly nickname we gave her because of a Beverly Cleary book, and which kind of stuck  – and which she prefers to forget about.  Having a February birthday, I used to write “The Secret Diary of [Name] aged x and 3/4” on diaries – thank you, Adrian Mole.  And I still tend to write lists mid-prose, like Judy does in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.  

And I’ve still never actually had a midnight feast …

New Term at Malory Towers by Pamela Cox

Standard

I approached this book with a fair bit of suspicion, as I would a cover version of an iconic song (I’ve never quite forgiven Atomic Kitten for murdering “Eternal Flame”) or a remake of an iconic film. It just couldn’t be the same as the “real” Malory Towers books which I and some of the other girls in my class at primary school first read way back when, could it? Well, no, it wasn’t. There wasn’t even a midnight feast. The pool barely featured; and Susan wasn’t accused of being “frightfully pi” even once. But I think I quite like this gentler version of Malory Towers. As a kid, I used to think, as you do, that I’d have been well in there with the MT in-crowd. Now, I don’t even want to think about what Alicia and Betty would have done to a swotty fat girl with zero self-confidence and a Northern accent: I’d probably have run away after a week! But I think I might have stayed in this form, with Felicity Rivers and her friends.

Obviously I knew Felicity, Susan and June from the original books.  All the teachers were there too, but, apart from the two Mam’zelles, they didn’t feature much, though. We didn’t see Miss Grayling welcoming any of the new girls to the school. I was slightly put out when I arrived for my first day at secondary school – along with around 110 other first years – and found that we weren’t each going to get an individual pep talk from the headmistress about how the school would turn us all into strong, capable women 🙂 . And, although Darrell and Sally made a brief appearance in the first chapter, and Bill and Clarissa’s riding school was mentioned (sadly without any clarification as to whether Bill and Clarissa were together or whether they were just good friends), none of the old gang were there, apart from Amanda who featured as the Games Prefect.

I always felt sorry for Amanda. GO authors do like to punish characters who break their rules, but it always felt very harsh that Amanda should lose her chance of being an Olympic swimmer and Mavis her chance of a singing career just because they showed off a bit. I’ve also got a weird recollection of, at the age of about eight, telling my grandad about Amanda. Why I thought a 68-year-old man would be interested in Malory Towers, I have no idea – poor Grandad!!

Anyway. The old characters didn’t feature much, but the new girls, and the girls we already knew, were quite well-drawn.  You don’t expect a Malory Towers book to go too deeply into people’s personalities, and this didn’t, but they all seemed quite realistic.

There wasn’t much actual action. Apart from Felicity worrying about whether or not she was doing a good job as head of the form, it was all about who wanted to be friends with whom. Even the tricks, which were, as ever, played on Mam’zelle Dupont, were about trying to impress other people rather than just for fun. Veronica wanted to be friends with Amy, Freddie wanted to be friends with June, Bonnie (were any teenagers in the 1950s actually called Bonnie?!) wanted to be friends with Felicity.  Felicity and Susan tried to get Bonnie to be friends with Amy to get her away with Veronica and to get her off their own backs, people kept overhearing things and getting upset, people were jealous of other people’s friendships … it actually wasn’t a bad reflection of what a group of 13-year-old girls can be like!!  But it was made clear that no-one was all bad or all good. And, in a way more reminiscent of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, people did genuinely try to be nice to all the other girls, even those who’d behaved badly. No-one was sent to Coventry. No-one was the victim of a group bullying campaign.

I don’t think that writing a book like this about the original characters would have worked.  Darrell persuanding everyone to give Gwendoline Mary a chance, or Alicia realising that she’d been behaving like a bitch, just wouldn’t have rung true.  But, because it was a different group of girls, it worked OK.  I’m not sure that it really felt like Malory Towers, though.  Maybe it needed a midnight feast by the seawater swimming pool …  😉