The Wool-Pack (1951)

The Wool-Pack (1951), written and illustrated by Cynthia Harnett. Not in print (last reprint 2001).

In the period after the Second World War, historical novelist enjoyed high critical esteem. Authors were keen to establish a sense of identity and personal and cultural inheritance, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War. This popularity is certainly reflected in the 1950s and 1960s list of Carnegie Winners – so much so that I’ll have to write a separate post on historical fiction for children.

The Wool-Pack is the story of Nicholas Fetterlock, son of a Cotswold wool-merchant at Burford in the time of Chaucer at the end of the fifteenth century. He is a pleasant boy, and his intelligence helps him to protect his father from being ruined by Lombard money-lenders. A by-plot tells how he becomes reluctantly betrothed to Cecily, the daughter of a clothier of Newbury, and finds to his surprise that he becomes very fond of her.
In The Wool-Pack, the reader gains an understanding of all aspects of the wool trade, from the management of sheep to the dyeing of yarn, making of cloth and export. It is borderline overdone, there are a couple of scenarios where Nicolas is being shown stuff, fictionally in the guise that he’ll need to know for his future career, that feels slightly contrived, but the fictional pull is enough that Harnett is forgiven.

In my view, the best historical novels are stories of everyday social and economic life in other times. Cynthia Harnett herself was not keen on military or constitutional historical details, previously very popular in historical fiction. She said: “I was tired to death of the boy who sailed with Drake or bowed his way as a page through the intricacies of dastardly plots against the Crown”. Research was key to her – she worked from research, waiting for a plot to develop. The Wool-Pack is all about the historical detail while managing to make a story about illegal adulteration in the wool trade fascinating. Major historical events are kept in the distance but there is sure handling of innumerable details which, like pieces in a mosaic, add up to an accurate and lively panorama of everyday history.

Harnett’s illustrations are not of many actual scenes in the book, they are more a kind of annotation in the text with inserts of clothes and weapons, buildings etc. but each object she draws has its place in the story. Then in a glossary at the back tells you what they were for and where to find them in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is scholarship lightly borne but nevertheless profound. This kind of research and fact-gathering was an extension of the information given in the (nonfictional) The Story of your Home but reading the two in quick succession for this challenge I was struck by how much the two mirrored each other. Indeed, facts given in The Story of Your Home was repeated and re-enforced in The Wool-Pack.

Harnett’s characters are real, vivid and authentic within their period. Both Hal, Nicolas’ foster brother and Cecily, his betrothed, are portrayed as having a degree of independence and subjective agency and play central supporting roles. The Wool-Pack is a coming of age story as it charts Nicolas’ changes from boy to man. He is portrayed as a very modern person in his relationships both with his ‘servants’ and with his wife-to-be. Is this historically accurate or realistic? It would be lovely if that was the case, but I feel that this may be one of the instances where story is prioritised over history. The slightly xenophobic treatment of the Italian merchants also shows the book’s age.

Keith Barker says “Cynthia Harnett was one of the early and most successful exponents of the genre with her richly detailed, but still hugely enjoyable, novels of which The Wool-Pack is the best (…) the writer’s mastery of her research is exemplary for it is not overdrawn on to the main events; thus the child reader will still gain much insight into what life was like at the time”. I totally agree with this even though I am not a child, I learnt much and was entertained all the while.

On the subject of Keith Barker, my edition of The Wool-Pack (the Classic Mammoth edition published by Egmont in 2001) states on the back that it was voted one of the 100 best children’s books of the twentieth century in the Keith Barker Millennium Awards. But I’ve searched high and low for this list and can’t find it except on some sort of unsecured Russian website where I had to put in my credit card details to get access and, even in the name of research, this felt like too big a gamble. So I can’t verify this in any way but must assume it is correct. If anyone has this list, I’d love to see it!

I always Wiki the authors of the Carnegie Winners as part of my background research (I obviously do lots of other research too!) but Cynthia Hartnett’s entry is sadly sparse. Given that her books by popular and critical account are good, that The Wool-Pack won a Carnegie Medal, that I found it still extremely readable with lively characterisation of various social classes and non-restrictive views of genders, I would expect her entry to be more than 156 words long! Elfrida Vipont, a far inferior author in my view, gets 847 words. Overall there’s an argument to say that authors, whose chosen periods happen to tie in with the historical topics of the English National Curriculum generally do better and stay in print longer. Rosemary Sutcliffe, for instance, has many books still in print. So the reason The Wool-Pack is out of print may be because of the period it describes, or it may be that the mix of fiction and non-fiction does not fit the current mould for historical fiction?

Thinking about historical novels for this challenge I have discovered (or rather, consciously identified for the first time) that I really enjoy historical (children’s) novels. I am not keen on adult historical novels which are often, in my view, excessively costume-y or focussed on politically significant people or events. Children’s historical fiction often tells of historical times or events as seen by those not involved or at the centre of events. They describe how people were impacted by events and of how people lived on a day to day basis. They talk about the basic things like food and warmth and love. The best give story precedence over history while developing an appreciation in the reader for what life was like for previous generations. That’s my kind of historical novel!

I really enjoyed The Wool-Pack. The themes of history are ageless and for no particular age. It has its flaws, but these feel minor. I might try my children on it; I can certainly recommend it! 8.5/10

For this post I’ve based my research on Out of the Attic – Some Neglected Children’s Authors of the Twentieth Century, ed by Pat Pinsent (2006), Exploring Children’s Literature by Nikki Gamble (2019), Outstanding Books for Children and Young People by Keith Barker (1998) and Chosen for Children by The Library Association (1967)

The Lark on the Wing (1950)

The Lark on the Wing.

The Lark on the Wing is written by Elfrida Vipoint and is the second book in a five-book series about the Haverard family. The first two, The Lark in the Morn and The Lark on the Wing, are explicitly about Kit Haverard and her journey from school to becoming a professional singer. The frontispiece of The Lark on the Wing contains a large and sprawling family tree to help the reader navigate the intricacies of the family-members’ relationships.

 In The Lark on the Wing, Kit Haverard goes to London despite family opposition, determined to pursue her singing career. She studies with her mother’s old singing teacher, Papa Andreas, and works part-time at the Quaker headquarters, the Friends’ International Service office. Sharing a flat with her two best friends (in Marylebone, lucky them!), and surrounded by siblings, cousins, suitors and various well-wishers, she devotes herself to her music studies. But the path is a long and difficult one, with distractions and tempting short-cuts. At the end, she performs in her first major concert, to great acclaim, and realizes she is in love with her singing partner.

Elfrida Vipoint (1902-1992) had a long and illustrious writing career. She’s best known for The Elephant and the Bad Baby, a picture book she collaborated on with Raymond Briggs. She herself trained as a singer, before working as a headmistress of a Quaker school and writing more than a dozen books for adults and children.  Vipont paints a detailed picture of two worlds she had personal knowledge of; that of the young music student, and the busy life of the committee-bound Quaker. The depiction of Quaker beliefs and customs was as fascinating, but some of the religious passages felt overly esoteric for today’s reader.

The Lark on the Wing is an example of the teenage novel which was later to take over the Carnegie Medal, but the romance angle is so old-fashioned as to be nearly nonexistent. Several attentive boys hang about, but Kit remains irritatingly oblivious to the reason. When the question of love suddenly rears its head at the end of the book she chooses Terry Chauntesinger (a cringe-worthy surname if there ever was one) despite his rather arrogant ways. There were other things that grated; Papa Andrea’s titulation of  Kit as “my Janey”, the inconsistent and extremely old-fashioned use of ‘thou’ and numerous examples of hackneyed prose along the lines of this conversation between Kit and Terry:

“I’m nobody. It’s different for you”.

“Nonsense, Kit! You’re just being scared. Remember, Sir Hugh gave you his word. He’s depending on you”.

“Are you sure, Terry? I don’t want you to think I’m scared – because I’m not really – only – can’t you understand? It’s such a big thing”.

“I do understand, Kit”, he said earnestly. “and I know it’s a big thing – you see – I am depending on you too”.

Contemporary critics were overall positive. Marcus Crouch (Treasure Seekers and Borrowers) felt that The Lark in the Morn and The Lark on the Wing must be considered together (which is probably correct, the reader needs to be a bit more invested in Kit before reading The Lark on the Wing) and thought them ‘radiant’. But he could also see their shortcomings: “In the short view, the Lark books lacked distinction of style; their merits were not literary [a rather large issue for a book that won the Carnegie medal], but they were so firmly based in understanding and faith that they rose far above the level to which they superficially belong”. The long view has shown that these books have not stood the test of time – they are now out of print and have been so for a while.  The best things about The Lark on the Wing, in my view, are the plethora of minor characters; friends, siblings, neighbours and co-workers. They are alive and bring the book to life – and the fact that I am charmed by the fact that the three subsequent books are not specifically about Kit is also very telling. 3/10

The Carnegie Winners – 1940s

The 1940s Carnegie Winners that I own. Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London is missing and The Wind on the Moon is in the Danish translation.

Books for children came of age in the 1930s. Many children’s books we now consider classics were published then and the inauguration of the Carnegie medal in 1936 reflected a growing awareness of standards in children’s books amongst teachers, librarians and parents. Then, in the 1940s, the first and most obvious effect of the war, concerning children’s books, was a sharp reduction in the number of new children’s books published. There was a shortage of materials for printing, and authors and illustrators were busy elsewhere. The fact that shortage of paper and of time reduced the output of most writers during the war is reflected in that twice, in 1943 and 1945, no Carnegie Medal was awarded. Given that the 1940 winner, Kitty Barnes’ Visitors from London retails consistently at at £50 (and the British Library has been closed because of COVID 19) I have only read seven books from this decade. 

Most of the novels directly ‘relate’ to the war though in different ways. Visitors from London and We couldn’t leave Dinah, written early on in the decade, describe the impact of the war on children through stories of occupation and exile. Novels written and published later on in the war years or immediately afterwards take a different tack – here an escape into fantasy in various forms is a common denominator. While The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse are both elegiac in their response to nature, a fairie world dominates one, while high romance dominates the other. Fantasy is also dominant in The Wind on the Moon, but the fact that it moves close to the time-honoured tradition of nonsense in true ‘Alice in Wonderland’- style may be the reason why this feels like a more successful literary piece of work. Even though Sea Change and The Story of your Home don’t directly respond to the war, they both do so indirectly. The first by celebrating the values of hard work, obedience and courage required in the post-war world, the other by describing and drawing lines back through time connecting all the people who have lived in the British Isles. Walter de la Mare’s “Collected Stories for Children’ feels like the odd one out in some sense. These are previously published stories and not directly related to the war, except in some way as an escape back to a timeless, earlier world. However, like Eleanor Farjeon (the 1955 winner) and CS Lewis’ win in 1956, these stories won as a recognition of the contribution of the author to children’s literature, rather than because the specific work was deemed outstanding that year. 

The winning authors in this decade were evenly split between women and men; four men and four women. Obviously, as a work of non-fiction, The Story of your Home doesn’t have any main characters at all. However, when it comes to fictional protagonists, this decade saw more sharply drawn lines than the previous decade. Only Collected Stories for Children and We Couldn’t Leave Dinah has a gender-based mix of main characters – and as I discussed in the post on this book, the problem is that the female voices disappear midway through the novel as the action-based male-driven plot takes over. Two books don’t have any women in them at all (The Little Grey Men and Sea Change). Only The Wind on the Moon has two females as the main lead – and two strong, courageous, action-oriented ones at that. 

In terms of other markers of diversity, all main characters are English, white and middle-class to upper-class (or, indeed, class-less, like the gnomes in The Little Grey Men). Working-class people don’t appear except in Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London which describes the clash between the country-dwellers and the working-class evacuees from London. Still, according to the contemporary reviews, the Londoners don’t seem to come off well unless they want to emulate the country-dwellers. 

I think it is quite telling that of the eight winners in this decade, only three are still in print, and two of those still in print (The Little Grey Men and The Little White Horse) feel slightly old-fashioned and overly nostalgic. Looking back, The Wind on the Moon, in fact, seem to stand out as by far the most ‘modern’ novel of this decade by virtue of its gender portrayal, philosophical themes and literary lineage. 

With only seven novels representing the 1940s, I don’t feel that this decade is representative of the Carnegie Medals overall, and my average score is only 3.5. 

The Story of Your Home (1949)

The Story of Your Home by Agnes Allen was the 1949 Carnegie Medal winner. It appears to have been popular in its day – the edition I have is a 6th reprint (new edition) and was published in 1970. It is no longer in print. My edition also states that the book was first published in 1944 which is odd given that Carnegie Medals are usually given to books published in English in the previous year, and it was indisputably the 1949 winner. Maybe something went slightly awry post-war, maybe there was a pressing post-war need to look back at home building in the past, maybe the publisher printed the wrong information, but as I’m away on holiday I can’t do any detailed digging at the British Library at this stage.

Information about clothing worn by the inhabitants of the homes described.

It is one of the few non-fiction winners of the Carnegie Medal; it charts the development of the (British) house – for peasants as well as from lords from the beginning of the settlement of the British Isles until the ‘present-day’ (the 1970s). Allen covers building techniques, architecture and design considerations, furniture development, and the clothing worn by the inhabitants of the homes. In contrast to today’s non-fiction books, it is mainly written text supported by black and white drawings. It’s not all about the design of a house – there’s also a curious and informative section on secret hiding places in old houses (priest holes).  

There is a lot of detailed information about earlier dwellings but less and less information, the closer to her present we get. Comments about clothing styles stop, for instance, after the 18th century and illustrations of the interiors cease after the Victorian period. While Allen covers the dwellings of people of all classes, there’s no real acknowledgement of how the servants would have lived in greater or smaller houses.

Allen reflects present concerns and conversations; she is not particularly keen on modern design but acknowledges that we have to find new ways of designing our homes, and she does not advocate recreating past styles. Her comments on the dangerously high cost of living and serious nature of homelessness sadly still resonate today. It is depressing that we’ve not come that much further! The text specifically refers to him/her and is not entrenched in a male-centred world-view, though of course, it is of its time.

Allen’s style is direct and engaging and directed very much toward the child reader with language aimed at allowing the child to imagine him/herself living in the past. Intra-book references ‘as you remember, xxx’ abound. Today, this type of language would probably place the book’s intended readership in primary school, but it appears likely that the book was initially aimed at secondary school children. 

In a way, Eleanor Dooley’s biography of Marie Curie (the 1939 Carnegie Medal winner) was the precursor to the spate of non-fiction books published immediately after the war. Often these were biographies of ‘important people’ and took the form of series. Marcus Crouch calls it “the great age of non-fictional series” and its appeal to schools and libraries is explained in part by a quote by J.G Wilson, the librarian, writing in The Family Book “the primary demand of children is not for amusement, but for facts. Most children can amuse themselves if they are left to their own resources, but they cannot get at the facts about the world in which they find themselves without help”. So the non-fiction series was a way to furnish post-war children with the facts about the world and cementing the role of libraries as knowledge centres. The Ladybird books immediately sprang to mind as belonging to this tradition, but when I looked into their publication dates it was clear that they were published slightly later (from the 1960s onwards) and, I should imagine, was aimed at a paying public rather than the libraries.

Agnes Allen herself wrote a ‘stories’ series, which is generally cited as beginning in 1947 with The Story of the Village (though if the initial publication date of my book is correct, The Story of Your Home would have preceded it). Allen’s books reflect the conventional wisdom, which held that history was taught chronologically from prehistory to the present day. In Exploring Children’s Literature, Nikki Gamble explains that “The dominant narrative was concerned with the formation of Britain and the British Empire (…) a view that history was concerned with conveying the most important information to children so that they could learn about their place in the world and in society”. According to Gamble, this approach was contrasting with a more topic-based teaching method which was popular in the 1970s and 1980s (and, in my experience, in primary schools today). 

Obviously, the advent of the internet has presented a challenge to the non-fiction publishing industry. Why buy books when you can have up to date information at your fingertips? Rising to the challenge, the non-fiction publishing industry has responded to advancements in technology; non-fiction texts can be multimodal, more affordable for the general public or aesthetic objects in their own right. 

Nikki Gamble ends her chapter on children’s non-fiction with a very important point: “An alternative view that recognizes the many different purposes for reading non-fiction, including for pleasure and delight, also holds within it the notion that non-fiction texts are more than collections of facts, where one fact just follows the other. It promises that non-fiction books (…) can be a vehicle for a writer to talk directly to a reader about a subject about which they feel passionate; that it can incite a reader to use their imagination or to emphasize; that it can have the same literary qualities that are appreciated in fiction, drama and poetry.” Agnes Allen and the judges of the Carnegie Medal were in complete agreement with Gamble there. Though the book itself is old fashioned compared to today’s non-fiction books, text-heavy and low on illustrations, the aims of Allen is clearly to talk directly to the reader, inviting the reader to use their imagination, and the Carnegie judges obviously felt that The Story of Your Home had literary qualities on par with fiction. 

Personally, I liked The Story of Your Home. It was informative, interesting and well written. Of course, it is an old-fashioned non-fiction text by now, and doubtless, some information is no longer correct. There is a reason why it is no longer in print, but it succeeded in keeping me engaged and reading all the way through so a 6/10. 

Reading the Carnegie Medal winners has allowed me to begin to examine my own hidden bias’. One of the marks of an excellent book, for me, is that it transports me to a different world, body and soul. No book based on transferring facts can do that for me, however well written and interesting. The lack of later non-fiction winners seems to point to the fact that other people (or at least the judges of the Carnegie Medal) generally agree with me. Admittedly this is unfair to the many excellent non-fiction books out there who deserve to be held up high – there may be a gap in the market here for a medal for best non-fiction book for children.

In this blog I have referred to Exploring Children’s Literature – Reading for Knowledge, Understanding and Pleasure by Nikki Gamble, published by Fourth Edition/Sage, 2019, and to Treasure Seekers and Borrowers – Children’s Books in Britain, 1900 – 1960, by Marcus Crouch, 1962.

Sea Change (1948)

Sea Change by Richard Armstrong was the 1948 Carnegie medal winner. It has been reprinted several times, the last time in the 1970s I think, but it is not currently in print. 

Cam Renton has been an apprentice seaman for a year when he arrives to join the crew of the Langdale, a cargo ship heading for the Caribean. Because he is dissatisfied with the progress of his training, he asks the Mate for assignment to one of the night watches. The Mate gives him short shrift, and while Cam is rankling under a sense of injustice during the outward voyage, the two are at odds.

When they reach the Caribbean, Cam takes a rare opportunity to go ashore. He and his bunkmate Rusty find themselves in the local prison after a misunderstanding. Cam executes a daring escape, but the captain already has the matter well in hand. The captain manages to make Cam understand that he has been getting excellent training in seamanship under the Mate. From this point on, Cam starts to work and study in earnest, and his knowledge of celestial navigation is put to use when he becomes part of a skeleton crew aboard a salvaged ship which is successfully brought back to England.

As indicated by the subtitle, this is ‘a novel for boys’; the cast is all-male, and there are no references to any females, not even any family back at home. Given the historical setting and the milieu of the Merchant Navy vessel, the all-male environment is realistic and historically correct. As a female reader, I don’t mind reading about the male sex, but in this case, the specificity of the subtitle grates – this is for boys only. As a result, I doubt if I would have picked up the book to read if it hadn’t been for this challenge. We no longer signal quite so explicitly that a book is aimed at a specific sex, and I doubt a modern publisher would get away with such a subtitle today. However, there are plenty of other ways current publishers try to signal to a gender-specific audience. I feel that this has the same (detrimental) effect. It, subconsciously or consciously, checks what the reader picks up to read and thereby stops the reader from experiencing a different consciousness and space, surely one of the chief purposes of literature. Whether it’s the outdated mode of specifying it in writing or signalling it with colours and (the presence or absence of) glimmer, I am dead against it.  

On a positive note, it is written by somebody who clearly knew and loved life at sea. In fact, Richard Armstrong sailed in the Merchant Service for 17 years, and his books are all very authentic representations of his experience. In Sea Change he describes life aboard a coal-fired steam engine ship in realistic and factual detail. From a literary history perspective, it appears the adventure story of earlier seafaring books about adolescent boys gives way to a more realistic novel type. In a way, it is also a career book; like ‘the Sue Barton’ books about nursing, Sea Change provides a lot of details about the apprenticeship workings of the Merchant Navy. It praises hard work, the benefits of experience and the necessity of following orders. In ‘Carnegie Boys: 70 years of Boyhood in Fiction’, Michele Gill has suggested that the masculine values and the focus on maintaining the status quo within a hierarchy described in Sea Change resonated strongly in a society which was recovering from the upheaval of a world war.

In my experience, books about sailing are like pony books; full of detail about the subject matter at hand, with the narrative arch almost entirely subservient to the detail. This can be observed in the Aubrey–Maturin series, in the Hornblower books, even in the early Swallows and Amazon books. Sea Change is like this. For me, though, unlike pony books, it takes a more sustained interest in sailing than I can bring forth.  

I found Sea Change well written and historically interesting. I even found myself interested in the details about how cargo is taken on board, stowed and delivered at the other end. But in contrast to Keith Barker (1998) who found it “still provides a great deal of excitement”, the gender-specific signalling and amount of detail about sailing did not do it for me. For me, it is a novel that is left in the past, both in terms of gender expectation and in terms of the life it describes. 3 out of 10.

Collected Stories for Children (1947)

Collected Stories for Children was written by Walter de la Mare and published in 1947. My edition is a cheap Puffin collection reprinted in 1987 which contains illustrations by Robin Jacques. It was the first collection of stories to win the Carnegie award. The award was surprising since it was the first time that previously published material had been considered – but the award was given more in recognition of de la Mare’s outstanding contribution to children’s literature rather than for new and original work. The collection originally contained 17 tales but ‘Sambo and the Snow Mountains’ has been removed from the edition I have for extremely good reasons; apparently, the story is about ‘Sambo’ who doses himself with every kind of medicine in his attempt to become white (!!) 

The 16 strange tales are all ‘Kunstmaerchen’, i.e. folk or fairy tales which have not been passed down through an oral tradition and collected by people like the Brothers Grimm. Instead, they are written by and very much a product of a particular author – all Hans Christian Andersen’s tales are ‘Kunstmaerchen’, for instance. In the case of de la Mare, there’s a strong supernatural tone to the tales, in fact, they remind me very much of M R James’ ghost stories, but written for children. 

I have to confess that I could not finish this book. I suspected as much as I’m not a big fan of Walter de la Mare’s poetry – I can only take a ‘Romantic’ sensibility in tiny doses. Added to this, collections of stories, whether for children or adults, are just not my cup of tea. I kept making excuses to avoid reading Collected Stories, and when I started on the first tale ‘Dick and the Beanstalk’ (a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk), I simply couldn’t finish it. In the end, I selected the three shortest stories to read; ‘Broomsticks’, ‘The Riddle’ and ‘The Dutch Cheese’ to get a taster. Of course, in doing so, I could have missed some masterpieces of storytelling but having read these three, I had no appetite to continue reading. The stories are not poorly written at all, just the opposite; they are very skilful tales. But they felt very Edwardian, without the arch of a story to pull you along like in The Secret Garden or any of E Nesbit’s stories. Though both Marcus Crouch (in Treasure Seekers and Borrowers) and Geoffrey Trease (in Tales out of School) were both highly complimentary of the book, it didn’t do it for me. The introduction reads ‘For the right sort of reader, this book may cast the most potent and rewarding spell of all’. I am afraid I am not that reader and all in all, this was not a happy meeting of minds. 2/10

The Little White Horse (1946)

There was no award in 1945. 

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was one of the Carnegie Medal Winners I had read before embarking on this chronological project. It was given to my daughter by her Godparent as it was her favourite book as a child, and apparently, it was J K Rowling’s too. In my view, this is the kind of romantic fantasy that is the most dangerous of all – nicely wrapped in domestic and sartorial beauty and detail, yet with an utterly deadly morale. My daughter (at 9) sensed this too and told me it was ‘creepy’ when she saw I was reading it.

The Little White Horse is set in 1842 in a Devonshire countryside obviously beloved by the author. It was written as a temporary escape from the destruction and upheaval of WWII and, like The Wind on the Moon, is full of the things that contemporary Britain was short of; lovely and lavish food, beautiful clothes and pastoral landscapes.

Accompanied only by her dog and her governess Miss Heliotrope, 13-year-old orphaned Maria arrives in the beautiful valley of Moonacre to live with her uncle. The description of their journey there has more than a touch of the Gothic about it, but the second Maria reaches the house, the story slips from Gothic to fairytale. Her uncle’s beautiful estate and the perfect village nearby is shadowed an ancient feud and by the memory of the Moon Princess and the mysterious little white horse. Maria is determined to restore peace and happiness to Moonacre Valley. With the help of her newfound friends and magical animal helpers, she succeeds and everyone, literally, lives happily ever after.

Full of cosy, domestic details, lovingly described, the story is exceptionally seductive on one level. It is the sort of book to grab if you are feeling the world is against you, or you are ill in bed. The descriptions of the food alone does it. But for me, the seductive pull is interrupted too many times by an incredibly jarring view of femininity. First, there is the focus on clothing and outwards appearance: “she took, if possible, a more burning interest in her boots than in her mittens and gowns and bonnets”, coupled with class: “Maria was one of your true aristocrats: the perfection of the hidden things was even more important than the outward show. Not that she did not like the outward show. She did. She was a showy little thing”. From the outset, Maria is not exactly set up as the kind of heroine that I personally would warm to. Then there is Robin’s angry proposal to Maria, which eventually lead to them getting married when she’s 14. Worst, though, are the overt messages about ‘feminine virtues’: don’t be curious, don’t ask questions, wait for men to explain things to you and tell you where to go. And the most important moral lesson: don’t ever quarrel with someone you love, because they will leave you forever. These are not things I want my daughter to learn!

Some people will also find the overt Christian messages a bit hard to swallow. The valley of Moonacre itself is like Paradise entered through a door in a wall; it contains Paradise Hill which Maria makes her uncle give ‘back’ to God and Old Parson is forever telling people how they should behave. I personally don’t mind religious elements in books, per se, but Goudge’s treatment of it here bears no semblance to the complex and sophisticated examination of faith and what it may mean in Antonia Forest’s Marlow books. 

Plainly, I have issues with the book, but in the course of researching this blog, I looked at my collection of literary criticism from the 1960s and 1970s to see what critics who were more contemporary to Elizabeth Goudge thought. Not a single mention!* Only Marcus Crouch devotes space to it in Treasure Seekers and Borrrowers (1962) and is generally positive, though he does bemoan (rightly) the fundamental lack of humour. This kind of neglect always gets my antennae up – often women’s literature is dismissed as whimsical and not serious enough, ignored and forgotten, despite its actual popularity with the audience that keeps buying and reading it.

On the surface, The Little White Horse is a low fantasy romantic fairytale, and it is easy to dismiss it as only that. If, however, we dig a bit deeper, we might gain a deeper understanding by looking at it as belonging to the tradition of magical realism, like The House of Spirits or Beloved, books which we take very seriously indeed. This is Teya Rosenberg’s contention in an article Genre and Ideology in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse. Though novels in this tradition usually have a strong left-wing political message, Rosenberg suggests that The Little White Horse is a political work but with a robust Ruskinian message – that Goudge is reacting against the disorder and upheaval of war by suggesting a return to a pastoral, utopian medieval feudalism favoured by Ruskin. 

In the chaos and scarcity of a postwar world, the themes of abundance, reconciliation and restoration must have had a powerful resonance when it was first published in 1946. With the seductive pull of lovingly described domestic detail and long lost lovers finally restored to each other, it still does to the many who keep buying it. However, I think this is one of those books where if you don’t read it as a child, you will never fully appreciate it as a jaded, cynical, literary-minded adult. Goudge fans everywhere, I’m sorry, but this was a 3/10 for me. 

The Wind on the Moon (1944)

The Wind on the Moon, written by Eric Linklater, originally published by Macmillan. It was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1944. There was no award in 1943.

As is apparent from the picture above, I read The Wind on the Moon in the Danish translation. This was published as part of a series of international classics by Gyldendals Børnebibliotek and given to me by my mother when my children were very young. Apparently, The Wind on the Moon was the Danish Queen’s favourite book when she was a child, and she read it to her sons when they were little. The Danish Queen, Margrethe II, has translated the edition I read from English to Danish and provided the illustrations for the front cover. 

First an enormous disclaimer – I am not keen on translations, and particularly not of children’s books. Translating books is both a skill and an art and translators do amazing work. However, we know that texts have multiple meanings and interpretations, and the translator has to make choices about specific words which close (or indeed, open) these possible interpretations. As a general rule, I now altogether avoid books translated from any of the Scandinavian languages into English and vice versa as I find myself continually interrogating in my head what the original sentence might have been. 

There isn’t a vast tradition of translating children’s books into English for the British or American market. But where it happens, the books will need to be translated. In Children’s Literature Comes of Age, Maria Nikolajeva says: “The way in which children’s books cross boundaries into another cultural region is not merely a question of translation and publication in a new langue [it is] the young readers in the country and their ability to accept and utilise the book. It is, in other words, a problem of reception” (p27). 

Riitta Oittinen has written a book about translating for children and her contention, which Maria Nikolajeva agrees with, is that the best translation of a children’s book is not necessarily the one that is the most accurate and closest to the original but the one that is able to arouse in the reader the same feelings, thoughts and associations experienced by readers of the source text. The question is then how you do this and how much you have to change the underlying text to be able to arouse these feelings and thoughts. 

I hasten to add that the translation by the Queen is excellent, I don’t find myself stumbling over a sentence, but she has (by necessity) translated both the names of people and places and the songs that are sung into the Danish ‘equivalents’. Here I found myself questioning whether the translation was ‘right’ and started interrogating what names and songs might have been used in the original. I find this grating, and in my personal opinion, it removes the authenticity of the book. However, I am hardly the target audience: I am not a child, and I speak both the original and the destination languages fluently. Issues around translating children’s literature is something I want to explore more. I found Nikolajeva’s chapter on ‘World Literature for Children’ in Children’s Literature Comes of Age very thought-provoking and Riitta Oittinen’s book ‘Translating for Children‘ is on my reading list.

Now, on to the plot of the book: in the English village of Midmeddlecum, peopled with eccentric characters like the Happy Families playing cards, Major Palfrey asks his two daughters to behave themselves while he is off at war: 

“When there is wind on the Moon, you must be very careful how you behave. Because if it is an ill wind and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and then you will behave badly for a long time to come.”  

He proves to be right: before long the girls are drinking a potion provided by the local witch and turning into kangaroos, getting stuck in the zoo, solving the crime of who steals the ostrich’s eggs and staging an escape along with their new friends, a golden puma and a silver falcon. 

Dinah and Dorinda then turn their attention to freeing their dancing master, Casimir Corvdo, from jail by convincing a judge that minds must be changed as often as socks. And then comes their greatest adventure: Count Hulagu Bloot, the tyrant of Bombardy has captured their father and imprisoned him in the dungeons. The two girls, together with the puma, the falcon and their beloved dancing teacher, smuggle themselves from England to Bombardy in a removal van to stage the dramatic rescue of their father.

Apparently, the book began as a story told by the author to his two young daughters while out on a walk in the rain and though the narrative takes place over the course of a year it is split into four or five major subplots that could be read independently. The Danish translation emphasises this by being divided into two books, reflecting the two major narrative arcs; the plots set in the zoo and the later plot of freeing their father from the dungeons of Count Bloot. 

The Wind on the Moon is a wartime book – it was published in 1944 – and it dwells on those elements of life in short supply or under threat in Britain, such as food, and liberty, and fun. The overarching theme is freedom and confinement, both in terms of (false) imprisonment and independence of thought and action, even rebellion and ‘naughtiness’. The wind on the moon is the wind of change and destruction; it changes everything but met with courage and fortitude the situation can be turned to the better. 

There are definite similarities with Alice in Wonderland; the sense of surrealism and the interweaving of parody and a fictional, impossible world that reveal a great deal about our own world. Like Alice, it contrasts the often absurd world of the adults with the innocent but sensible views of juvenile female leads. Says Dorinda: “Very often, when we think we are behaving well, some grown-up person says we are really quite bad. It’s difficult to tell which is which.”

The overt moral didacticisms remind me strongly of ‘The Little Prince’ which was published in 1943. Some people love this kind of thing – witness the popularity of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’. As it happens, I like my moral lessons served up in slightly less conspicuous ways and this was the aspect I liked least in the The Wind on the Moon.  

I started reading The Wind on the Moon aloud to my daughter when we first received it, but we gave up pretty quickly. It just didn’t grab us in any way. Obviously, I had to try again for this challenge but promised myself that if I was still bored by page 100, I could give up. It was slow going, but once Dorinda and Dinah have transformed into kangaroos in the zoo, I found it both fun and engaging and had several laugh-out-loud moments. After all, it was a surprising 6.5/10 for me.

The Little Grey Men (1942)

The Little Grey Men, the first fantasy title to appear as a Carnegie Medal winner, was written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the pseudonym “BB” and illustrated by him under his real name. It was first published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1942 and has been reissued several times since – the latest is in an utterly covetable edition by Slightly Foxed Editions. My edition is the reprint from Oxford University Press with cover artwork by Edward Ardizzone and the author’s own scraperboard illustrations throughout. Watkins-Pitchford wrote more than 60 books for children and adults showcasing his enduring love and passion for the English countryside. He has a loyal and faithful readership; there’s even a BB society.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pichford

In The Little Grey Men, Baldmoney, Sneezewort, Dodder and Cloudberry are the last four gnomes in Great Britain. They live on the banks of the Folly Brook. They are perfectly happy with their quiet life, except, that is, for Cloudberry. Restless and longing for adventure, Cloudberry sets off to follow his dream. But when he does not return, the others build a boat and set out to find him. The book follows the gnomes’ epic journey up the Folly through the English countryside, beginning in spring, continuing through summer, and concluding in autumn, when the first frosts are starting to arrive.

If this reminds you of The Wind in the Willows, you would be right. There are many similarities; an encounter with the god Pan depicted as the protector of small animals, the central role of the waterways and messing about in boats, the loving description of homely details and the wonders of nature, and the absolute absence of females. In contrast to the episodic structure of The Wind in the WillowsThe Little Grey Men is a more coherent narrative of a voyage out and a return. In this sense, the obvious comparison is with The Hobbit but lacking the fantasy universe to give it richness and interest. There are echoes of other stories too. The Borrowers later picked up the same ideas of using seemingly disparate items to fashion miniature ‘human’ requirements and both Tarka the Otter and Watership Down also utilise the concept of ‘real’ animals having speech and thought without anthropomorphising them. Overall, The Little Grey Men feels faintly derivative in its storyline, but what sets it apart is the lyrical reflections on nature. It is clear that BB knew the countryside intimately and the book is a love-letter to a vanishing landscape. The detail is both beautifully observed and scientifically correct in every aspect. As a reader, you learn about the animals, habitats and the countryside through the story.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pichford

I do think The Little Grey Men is the kind of book that would have appealed to me as a child – I would have loved the little domestic details describing how the gnomes live and use the land around them. I was always attracted to books about animals and would have appreciated the descriptions of nature, minutely observed and detailed. Probably, I would have overlooked the fact that the characters are two-dimensional misogynists, the fantasy sedate. As an adult, I can’t, but I can still enjoy the descriptions of the natural world. Clearly, The Little Grey Men and Watkins-Pitchford himself has a loyal following. For adults, it would represent a return to a nostalgic Acadia, younger, less-worldly children would enjoy it too. For me, it was a 4/10, but then I didn’t grow up with it.

We couldn’t leave Dinah (1941)

I am indebted to an essay by Cheri Lloyd in ‘Out of the Attic – Some neglected Children’s Authors of the Twentieth Century’which helped me contextualise both the story and my thoughts about it.

We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is interesting because it is a book about WWII,
written at the outset of the war while Mary Threadgold was seeking refuge from
the Blitz in London’s public air-raid shelters. In a talk given at the
University of Reading in 1998, W Parsons pointed out that “Books (…)
become ‘cultural products’ which reveal some of the attitudes and assumptions of
the times in which they were written or read, and the ‘meanings’ which they
endorsed or challenged”. As such We Couldn’t Leave Dinah is to
some extend a more time-typical or accurate portrayal of the war (at least from
the point of view of a particular person) than many books which are written
retrospectively and/or by people who did not experience the war themselves. It
displays political and social attitudes that are outdated but it gives us an
understanding of the attitudes and thoughts at the time. This does not mean we
condone them, and it has been said that the longevity of Dinah is due
to its status as a pony book rather than a wartime novel (Peter Hunt, Children’s
Literature: An Illustrated History).

We Couldn’t Leave Dinah tells the story of the German occupation of a (fictitious) Channel Island through the eyes of the two Templeton children, Mick and Caroline. At the
beginning of the story, Caroline and Mick are both keen riders and preoccupied
with finding a new secret meeting point for the local Pony Club. The children
are accidentally left behind when their family evacuate and they take refuge in a
secret cave. From here they get involved in espionage and codebreaking and help
foil the Nazi invasion plans before finally getting evacuated by the Navy in
the dead of night.

Though it is clear that Threadgold was steeped in the ideology of the
period, with its concept of pulling together and stiff upper lips, Cheri Lloyd
points out that Threadgold uses the character of Peter Beaumarchais
didactically in order to reveal to readers something about Nazi atrocities; the
Tempelton’s responses to Peter’s questions about the situation in Europe show
they are in fact quite well informed about concentration camps.

To me, it is a book of two halves. The first half is clearly a pony book (a
genre I was very partial to as a young, pony-mad girl) and has Caroline very
firmly at its centre. However, following a nocturnal ride across the island,
girls and ponies become more or less incidental to the narrative thrust and Dinah, Caroline’s horse, is left behind after all. In a move which
Cheri Lloyd compares to the portrayal of Mary in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The
Secret Garden
, Caroline is relegated to the sidelines as the
espionage/adventure element takes over with her brother Mick as the
protagonist. In my opinion, the two genres don’t mesh well in this
particular book; it falls between two stools and I have to admit I skipped a
chunk in the middle. Once Mick and the espionage story was foregrounded, I was less interested.

The book’s overall theme is one of displacement and the way that it invades
your privacy and challenges your identity. To me, this is the meaning of the title; at the outset it is inconceivable to Caroline that anything should change in her life and that she should be forced to leave anything behind, not least her beloved pony. At the end, she is happy to escape with only the clothes on her back. Displacement is a topic which resonates with children of all periods and maybe this is another reason why this book has
survived into several reprints. Of course, there is defiant (and, given that the war was still ongoing, brave) moment at the end: “Clerinel was already hidden in the darkness. Anyway, she thought, it didn’t much matter. Like the ponies, Clerinel would be there after the war”

To me, the interest stems from getting an insight into a historical period. Even though we might be uncomfortable with the values that are displayed, they are typical of the time and interesting to read, with the added guidance of hindsight and social and political awareness. As a children’s book, there are other, more recent books that are of greater value, both as historical documents and as literature. 

3/10 – my interest was simply not sustained through the book.