Archive for the 'children’s literature' Category

A A Milne: Winnie Ille Pu

August 14, 2022

     I have two A-levels in Latin, and was originally accepted to read Latin and French at university, but that is another story. And Winnie the Pooh was either the first or second book I ever owned as a small child. This book I acquired over thirty years ago; I’ve dipped into it occasionally, but something made me pick it up and (attempt to) read it from cover to cover. It was hard.

Having wrestled successfully with Virgil, Tacitus and Cicero – the three most challenging authors I met – I suppose I expected it to be relatively easy, a children’s book after all… It is fifty years this year since I passed the last of my A-levels, and it shows: I’ve done nothing with my Latin ever since, apart from reading church inscriptions and the inscriptions in museums or at Hadrian’s Wall, and occasionally looking at Church Latin, missals and the Vulgate and the like. So my vocab was rusty and my grammar even rustier: it was a real challenge and I think I’d be pushing it to say I understood 50%.

Of course, my prior knowledge of the stories in English helped a lot; they are classics (!) and once you’ve read them in your youth and then somewhat later to your own offspring, they are permanently etched in your memory. So there were plenty of prompts; long-forgotten vocab slowly came back, and I remembered to look carefully at the case of nouns, which helped quite a bit.

The other major difficulty was that it is a children’s book: the vocab and concepts are rather different from Ciceronian oratory, epic poetry or Roman history, so one is trying to decipher or decode something completely different. And I did find myself in absolute admiration of the translator’s work, for he – Alexander Lenard – will have been schooled in the same classical texts as I was, and yet has managed fluently to convert the stories into what felt like beautiful, flowing Latin. I didn’t dig out my ancient Latin dictionary, or even go online to look words up, realising that many of those I didn’t understand would be Pooh-related rather than Ciceronian, and so most unlikely to figure in a dictionary anyway.

A minor but enjoyable diversion, probably not one I’ll be repeating in this existence. And I was more than a little disturbed, in these PC days, at the initial desire of Pooh and Piglet to extirpate Kanga and Roo as interlopers who didn’t belong in the forest… O tempora, o mores!

Philip Pullman: The Tiger in the Well

July 30, 2022

     Another ripping yarn, and with characters and events linked to the others. Reading this, years after meeting His Dark Materials, you can see an accomplished writer, assured of his audience, shaping up to write his masterpiece. There is, for example, a clear forerunner of the sinister Mrs Coulter and her monkey daemon in the villain of this novel, whom we previously met in The Ruby in the Smoke; indeed you can see how the whole concept of the externalised aspect of the personality and soul which a daemon is, may have developed from here.

We are thrust head-first into an outrageous situation and mystery: why should anyone forge a marriage and then a divorce with the aim of seizing a child? Pullman also hints at the darker side of sexuality in Victorian times: paedophilia is not a late twentieth century evil, and some readers may recall Anthony Horowitz digging deeper into this murky cesspit in The House of Silk, one of his excellent additions to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Pullman makes clear the potential for unfairness in the application of the law of the land, with the balance in favour of those with money and influence, and also in favour of men in an age when women were mere chattels. There is no protection for the innocent or the underdog when they are faced with corruption and crooked lawyers and policemen.

Equally, Pullman creates strong female characters, independent women with determination, living towards the end of the nineteenth century when women were getting their struggle for equal rights and the vote under way. There is a strong advocacy of social justice in the book, and somehow Pullman just manages to avoid being preachy, and sliding into a roman à thèse for young adults.

The plot of the novel involves a revenge plot consequent on the dénouement of The Ruby in the Smoke, and a good deal focused on poverty in the East End of London, as well as the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia which led to an influx of immigration, consequent exploitation, and resentment by the local population which was fomented by unscrupulous politicians for their own dark purposes: Pullman seems to be suggesting that nothing much has changed in a century or more in this country. It’s pretty unputdownable, really: well-written, fast-paced and with plenty of twists in the plot, cliff-hangers, and interesting incidental characters. I’d have loved meeting a novel this well-written in my schooldays of exploring Stamford Public Library.

Philip Pullman: The Tin Princess

July 29, 2022

     This is another of the four Sally Lockheart novels, detective stories of a sort, set in the late nineteenth century. It’s clearly a tribute to Sherlock Holmes in some ways, in terms of time and place, and there is also a gang of helpful street children clearly modelled on the Baker Street Irregulars. There are also links to an earlier novel in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke.

What interests me is that Pullman’s target audience is evidently younger teenagers, even more so than with His Dark Materials, but his readers are treated from the start as intelligent and thoughtful, and Pullman weaves in complex ideas and themes without ever being patronising, preachy or moralising.

It’s a fast-paced story, as Pullman knows that is what his readers will expect. The setting quickly shifts from Victorian London to an invented, small Central European kingdom threatened by the global ambitions of both the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. This was perhaps the aspect of the plot that I found least convincing, but then I’m an ageing reader well-read in history, and of Eastern European origin myself.

Pullman doesn’t avoid emotional attachments between his characters, and complex relationships either; nor does he dwell too long or in too much detail on them. It really is quite eye-opening to see how such a skilled writer has a sharp focus on the people he’s writing for. As in his better-known series His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, Pullman shows his strong belief and trust in uncorrupted young people, who will be decent and do the right thing given the opportunity; corruption and deceit comes with adulthood, and this theme is obviously developed more thoroughly and in a much more complex manner in the later books, where innocence and experience are more foregrounded, and the myth of the Fall is much deliberately under the microscope.

It’s a ripping yarn in which despite the heroic efforts of the young, in the end evil triumphs – Pullman is only being harshly realistic here, and in our sad world, young people need such lessons – and adults are exposed as corrupt, servile and hypocritical. And Pullman does ultimately leave his readers with a glimmer of hope at the end, in that there are also some decent grownups in the world too. But it’s clear, good must be fought for, cannot be assumed.

On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth

December 23, 2021

     A minor children’s classic about words and numbers; I was astonished to see it was 40 years since I bought this, which explained why it is falling to pieces, and it’s my second copy. I think we must have discovered it in my hippy days at university. Recalling enjoying reading it with a small boy I knew many years ago, I wondered how it might go down with my grandson who is very interested in numbers…

It’s a good and quite fast-paced read about a young boy who is bored all the time, and who finds himself taken on a weird trip to imaginary worlds… there’s as much, if not more, to appeal to adults as to children here, indeed a fair deal will pass today’s children by, I think, since we live in a very different age now. I was thinking about age, and while the plot might conceivably appeal to a seven year-old (so a while to wait for my grandson to grow older) a lot of the language and the concepts are rather more advanced than that. This is a shame, because the premise behind the book, which is to be observant, to notice things and to think about them (ie be a curious child) is an excellent one.

Another book which times have passed by, perhaps? Or another sign that time has passed me by? It is a good read, though.

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