The Last Battle (1956)

The Last Battle was written by CS Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes. In fact, Pauline Baynes’ illustrations are so iconic CS Lewis wrote to her: “is it not rather ‘our’ medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into account as well as the text.”

The Last Battle is, in every sense of the word, the last in The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Carnegie Medal was given in recognition of the entire series, not just this last work, which many critics consider the weakest of the books (Keith Barker, 1997). I always found the reading order of the Chronicles of Narnia very confusing, but if you want to read them all, it is certain that The Last Battle needs to be read last.

Like all the Narnia stories, the ethos of the book is the struggle between good (symbolised by Aslan) and evil (represented here by the ape Shift and the Calormeness and their god, Tash). The ape, Shift, manipulates his friend Puzzle, a donkey, into wearing a lion skin, thus pretending to be Aslan. This is used for the simple purpose of power, but it quickly spirals out of control. The Calormenes pitch battle against King Tirian and his few Narnian followers and in the process calls their god, Tash, into the world. The ‘friends of Narnia’, Professor Kirke, Polly, Peter, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, Eustace and Jill, all appear in time to see Narnia destroyed and a new world created. All the inhabitants, living and dead, gather outside a barn to be judged by Aslan; the faithful enter Aslan’s Country while those who have opposed or deserted him become ordinary animals and vanish.

All of the books in The Chronicles of Narnia series contain Biblical allusions, but The Last Battle is a direct re-imagining of the Book of Revelation, describing the end of the world as we know it. In The Last Battle, we have allegorical representations of the Antichrist, the false prophet, the fate of non-believers, Heaven, the Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the End of the World. It’s a pretty hefty topic for a children’s novel (aimed at age 9-12) and does in part, account for its mixed reputation. At the best of times, I am not a fan of Biblical allegories. The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe is also pretty heavy-handed, but at least it is an absorbing tale and CS Lewis is skilled at worldbuilding and story-telling. However, in The Last Battle, the biblical allegory takes over, and the writing feels flat and uninspiring. There’s very little dialogue and once Aslan comes on the scene what little story had developed until that point disappears and all other characters are left to stand, literally, on the sidelines to see the world they love vanish in page after page of dreary description. It’s like the characters are sitting there reading the Bible. Sorry, this is just B-O-R-I-N-G.

All the characters from ‘our world’ are a bit flat and one-dimentional. But one thing is for sure; if they are female they don’t get to participate much in the actual action. They can be instigators of the story (for instance Lucy’s entrance through the Wardrobe into Narnia), but as soon as the boys get on the stage, they get to do the real fighting. CS Lewis does seem to have a rather ambiguous relationship to the ‘daugthers of Eve’; adult women in Narnia are far, and few between and usually cast as the villains like The White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle. But in The Last Battle, he excludes Susan from Narnia on the grounds that she’s more interested in ‘nylons and lipstick’ and ‘grown-up things’. This is a beloved major character, who ruled Narnia as ‘Susan the Gentle’ and looked out for her siblings through a number of the bookss! The other children, upon hearing that they have died in our world and are going to live forever in the new Narnia just dismiss her in the blink of the eye “Our sister Susan,” answered Peter, shortly and gravely, “Is no longer a friend of Narnia.” What, because she wanted to be a grown-up and lost ‘faith’? I am not the only one who has a problem with Susan’s dismissal. JK Rowling and Philip Pulman have both objected to this treatment. Neil Gaiman even wrote a short story about Susan as an old woman ‘The Problem of Susan’ in the short story anthology Fragile Things. This is a sad story about the life that Susan is left to lead after the death of her siblings and her parents, aimed at adults, definitely not children. There are other questionable aspects to The Last Battle namely the racist portrayal of the Calormenes which is toe-curling but, unfortunately, of its time.

I do appreciate the universalist sentiments, portrayed by Lewis’ treatment of Emreth, i.e. that anyone who does good deeds, no matter whose name they’re doing them in, is serving God. But I don’t particularly like the notion that Lewis sets forth that there is a one particular true God (in this case, Aslan). I have come across interpretations that, to me, are much more paleatable (but which are unfortunately not quite borne out by the text), namely that it doesn’t matter in whose name we do good or evil, only that the act is good or evil. I am not wild about the echoes of the judgement day either which does not belong in my understanding of the moral codex of modern Christianity.

Of course, for CS Lewis, this was deeply authentic, he did not put in the moral for the sake of a moral. In ‘On three ways of writing for Children’ he says: “Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that”.

Reading through the reviews, it appears that this is a book that is joyful, uplifting and powerful if you are a (certain kind of) Christian and unappealing if you are not. But there’s a different fan base out there too – this is the first book in the Carnegie medal-list that I have encountered that has its own fandom webpage(s) – I think because it’s the first ‘proper’ high-fantasy book on the Carnegie list.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of my favourite children’s stories. As is clear from the above, The Last Battle is not. 3/10

The Little Bookroom (1955)

The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon, published by Oxford University Press in 1955, with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

Who can fail to be charmed by this front-cover!

I am continually humbled by the amount of stuff I don’t know about children’s literature. Eleanor Farjeon is a name I recognise from the shelves at the children’s library, or possibly an anthology of children’s verse, but I’ve never read actually read any of her work. And then I discover that she won not one, but two prizes for The Little Bookroom; the Carnegie Medal and the inaugural Hans Christian Andersen medal. Her authorship was also recognised with the Regina medal (presented by the American Catholic Library Association for ‘lifetime dedication to the highest standards of literature for children’” and she was offered (but didn’t accept) an OBE. In turn, the Eleanor Farjeon medal, founded in 1966, a year after her death, is awarded every year by the Children’s Book Circle for distinguished service to the world of British children’s books.

Eleanor Farjeon is an advert for inquiry-based learning – she never went to school; instead, she and her brothers were taught at home by a governess who was instructed not to teach the children anything they didn’t want to learn. Her two younger brothers, Joseph and Herbert Farjeon, became writers too, while the oldest, Harry Farjeon, was a composer. Farjeon herself had a distinguished career; she was a poet, composer, biographer, satirist, author and columnist and produced 80 books, 20 musical works and many more published pieces. Today Eleanor Farjeon’s most widely known work is probably the children’s hymn “Morning has Broken”, written in 1931 to an old Gaelic tune associated with the Scottish village Bunessan. Some of her writings are still in print or periodically reprinted – The Little Bookroom itself is due to be republished in December 2020. Some of her books which are not still in print are worth getting; I’ve just bought her books Kings and Queens to help my daughter learn her English history in an amusing and, hopefully, memorable way.

To me, brought up in a house where we did a lot of reading, but all books came from the library, the thought of having whole rooms full of books would have been a dream come true (Not surprisingly ‘The Little Bookroom’ is the evocative name of ‘the oldest children’s bookshop in the world’ which opened in Melbourne in 1960) and I was all set to love this collection based on the title and the introduction:

“In the home of my childhood, there was a room we called ‘The Bookroom.’ True, every room in the house could have been called a bookroom. Our nurseries upstairs were full of books. Downstairs my father’s study was full of them. They lined the dining-room walls, and overflowed into my mother’s sitting-room, and into the bedrooms. It would have been more natural to live without clothes than without books. As unnatural not to read as not to eat.”

The Little Bookroom is a compilation of twenty-seven stories published over the thirty years previous, chosen by Eleanor Farjeon herself. Though both the inaugural HC Andersen Medal and the Carnegie Medal were awarded for The Little Bookroom, in reality, they were awarded in recognition of the contribution Farjeon had made to twentieth-century children’s literature. “The Carnegie committee felt, correctly in retrospect, that it would be the last opportunity to ‘recognise appropriate the work of one of the major writers for children of this century’” (as Keith Barker explained in Outstanding Books)

The Little Bookroom can be characterised as a quaint collection of old-fashioned stories, many with a fantasy element. Each story is unique in itself; there’s a mix of modern fables, fairy tales, and sketches of English life, all written in the lilting cadence of an oft-told fairy tale. In fact, they are literary fairy tales in the mould of Hans Christian Andersen (and it is therefore quite fitting that Farjeon won the inaugural Hans Christian Andersen Medal), a common literary form in the pain-shaded years following World War I. Hans Christian Andersen was the master of the Kunstmaerchen, indisputably literary, invented narratives that are designed to resemble traditional tales in some respects but that are entirely original and carry with them the distinctive style of a named author. Another word for these kinds of tales is ‘wonder tales’, and Marina Warner describes them as typically offering hopes of release from poverty, maltreatment and subjection through a happy ending. These characteristics are abundantly present in all of the stories in The Little Bookroom.

An illustration by Edward Ardizzone.

Of the 27 stories, my favourite was ‘Westwoods’. This is a story of a poetry-writing king and Selina the maid, who challenges him intellectually and helps him escape through the fence into the children’s land of play and imagination in Westwood. It is a clever reversal of the usual fairy tale structure, coming close to the modern feminist telling of tales which are so popular now, but probably not even thought about in the age of Farjeon.

Having said that, I am afraid I have to confess I only read two-thirds of the stories. I have a particular problem with short-stories in general; they are each so rich that I can only read a little at a time. I put the book down, lose track, pick up another book, and I’m done. Short stories, for me, are best read when ill, distracted in a doctor’s waiting room, tired from childrearing all day, or, in the case of children’s short stories, reading aloud to a young child. I prefer my reading to be more sustaining and nourishing; getting lost in a novel or the pleasure of learning something new from a piece of non-fiction. I appreciate the craft of short story writing, I really do, and from a literary point of view, there are many small jewels, beautifully crafted. Still, I feel brought up short when I come to the end of a particularly excellent short story or find myself looking ahead to the next one if I’m having trouble getting into a less gripping one. I feel a sense of abruptness, similar to (though of course not so pronounced, because there the sense of disorientation and disappointment was so deliberately crafted), as I did when I read If on a winter’s night, a traveller by Italo Calvino. There’s not the space to settle slowly into a new world and meet new characters. I mean, it took me at least 100 pages to get into The Poisonwood Bible, now one of my all-time novels.

So if my first problem with the stories in The Little Bookroom is that they are short stories, my second one is that they felt very old-fashioned. They reminded me acutely of the stories and styles of two Swedish authors I read when I was a child, The Glassblower’s Children by Maria Gripe (1923-2007) and the stories of Elsa Beskow (1874-1953). Gripe’s, Beskow’s and Farjeon’s stories have many commonalities; they are stories about young children that mix the real with the magical, set in a time ‘long ago’ and where goodness always wins in the end. I have always had a soft spot for Elsa Beskow’s stories about princes, trolls and elvers in the Swedish forests, and particularly her lovely drawings (see an example below), but they were old fashioned even in the 1970s. I recognise that there is a large element of nostalgia and longing for the Scandinavian landscape in my love for Beskow that makes it possible for me to ignore how out out of date it is.

Illustration by Elsa Beskow for the story ‘The Girl with the flowering hair’ in Tales of Elsa Beskow (Elsa Beskow’s Eventyr).

Thinking about why Farjeon’s stories feel so old-fashioned led me to think about another Swedish author, Astrid Lindgren. Writing from the 1940s onwards, Lindgreen, who received the following, bi-annually awarded, Andersen medal in 1958, also wrote many tales set in the past or with a magical component to them. Yet her stories appear timeless and do not feel old fashioned at all. Possibly this is because their hard-hitting themes are essentially unresolved at the end of each story. The themes of loneliness and emotional neglect, in the case of Mio, my son (1954), form the entire structure of the book and are not obliterated by a happy ending. Nor is the suffering of the siblings in The Red Bird (1959) erased when they choose to end their life of poverty and neglect through death. Or possibly it is because the children feel real as in the case of the Bullerby books (The Children of Noisy Village, 1947-1952). All those children could have been alive today, playing games, being naughty, having fun. Though children are poor or neglected or sad in Farjeon’s stories, they do not suffer. They cry, but only if they are spoilt like the King’s daughter who cries for the moon. If they are poor, they are kind, and patiently wait for their lot to be changed by circumstances or recognition of their hard work and humility. You can not imagine any of Farjeon’s children being alive today.

Because they have such an old fashioned feel, I think you either have to be very young when you first encounter the tales in The Little Bookroom or read them with a large dose of nostalgia to love them truly as an adult. In contrast to HC Andersen’s fairy tales, or Astrid Lindgren’s contemporary works, they have not retained the same sense of timelessness for the adult reader coming to them for the first time. Nonetheless, I am ashamed that I haven’t read Farjeon before and sad that I came to her stories too late – both as a child and as a parent reading to young children. I can see the literary quality of each story; their content just couldn’t hold my attention.

As one reader on Goodreads put it; The world would be a better place if more people loved Farjeon. This is probably true, but I’m afraid I’m not one of them.

Knight Crusader (1954)

Knight Crusader was written by Ronald Welch in 1954. My edition was published in 1970. It is not illustrated by William Dobbs, which is a shame as apparently, his drawings are incredible. Knight Crusader is the first book in a series about the military exploits of the fictional Carey family published between 1954 and 1972. The Carey books retained their popularity and were reprinted by OUP and by Penguin throughout the 1970 and 1980s, while Knight Crusader was reprinted singly by OUP as late as 2013. The entire Carey Family cycle, including Knight Crusader, has also now been reissued by Slightly Foxed in a very delectable edition.

Set in 12th century Kingdom of Outremer (present-day Palestine) during the Third Crusade, the novel follows the exploits of Philip de Aubigny, a young squire in his father’s castle, Blanche Garde. We follow his elevation to knighthood and the shock of participating in the ruthless battle of Hattin, against the army of Saladin. When the Christians lose, Philip is taken as a slave and ends up as a trusted servant in the house of Emir Usamah Ibn-Menquidh. The second part of the book tells of his escape from Damascus and his allegiance to King Richard of England as he takes part in the victorious battle of Arsuf. In part three, he comes to Britain to claim his inheritance, the Welsh fief of Llanstephan, ousting the current occupant De Braose who will not give it up without a fight.
Ronald Welch (real name: Ronald Oliver Felton) was a history master (and later headmaster) who had hands-on military experience as a tank commander during World War II. His knowledge and experience, both as a history master and as a professional soldier, is evident in his books. He complied copious notebooks of information for each novel. Welch’s research and his melding of fact and fiction gave a depth and apparent authenticity to his tales – he understood that what makes a lost epoch stick in your mind is not the dates but the details. Apparently, such was Welch’s mastery of detail that his publisher, Oxford University Press, asked him to fact-check their other historical novels.

Welch’s books are hybrids of adventure stories and military history and present a narrative where the central character is repeatedly tested in some way before achieving martial success. These characteristics put them firmly in the same genre as C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell – books that live on my husband’s side of the bookshelves to this day. But while the adult genre continues to flourish, Welch’s work was the last of its kind in mainstream children’s publishing. From the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, war stories were an acceptable part of children’s, particularly boys’ lives, whether in books or, later, comics and films. Following World War I a glorified vision of war was no longer quite possible to maintain, individually or critically. Nowadays, books about warrior virtues are rare, and combat is seen as a tragedy and a waste (e.g. as portrayed in Private Peaceful (2003) or Across the Divide (2018) by Anne Booth ) rather than a source of heroism and pride. Thus from the 1950s onward, writers of books about warriors and combats tended to retreat to previous eras when the notion of war as heroic and chivalric might still apply. The novels of Rosemary Sutcliff for instance, are about earlier warrior societies like the Romans and the Vikings. The Crusades, 800 years ago, might just about qualify as so far removed that warrior virtues can be central to the narrative thrust. This may very well explain why Knight Crusader, out of the entire Carey family cycle was repeatedly reprinted, even after the others fell out of print.

However, it is this cultural baggage that accounts for my own feelings of guilt-tinged pleasure in reading what I generally felt was a rollicking good read. I don’t really know much about the crusades, other than the rather unnuanced view that they were bloody and unjustified when viewed through a contemporary lens. Fundamentally my view was not changed through reading Knight Crusader, but the setting felt realistic, and I do feel that my understanding of (and interest in) the period has increased.

So why was it a good read? Firstly, there’s the romantic hero, Philip D’Aubigny, who, like all the Careys who come after him, possess imposing physical features, exceptional sporting talents and remarkable abilities with their weapons as well as courage, poise, manners and an ability to mix with high and low alike. These are recognisably romantic elements with the attraction of wish-fulfilment for boy readers (or, indeed, for female readers!). Secondly, Welch is fantastic on historical details and melds the cultural features and differences seamlessly into the narrative, so that the reader is never drowned in excessive detail or bogged down in unfamiliar terminology.

Welch is quite measured too – the romantic hero is grounded in the details of the experience of the professional soldier. The horrors of war are described in a clear-sighted way, taking the view of the individual soldier and calls attention to the discomfort, unpredictability and terror of the experience. In Knight Crusader, Phillip sees his adored older cousin ‘hacked to pieces’ in a battle and is advised by his father that “You will get used to seeing your friends killed before you’re much older. I’ve become hardenend to it”. Written in the 1950s, there is almost inevitably the occasional imperial racist undertone. Still, overall Welch shows great respect for the Saracens, and the customs of the Middle East are portrayed as being far more advanced and civilised than those of medieval Europe. And Philip D’Aubigny challenges and defeats a Norman knight after he questions the friendship of Philip’s family with Muslims. Relationships between regular armies on the battlefield are governed by chivalry and notions of respect for the enemy and recognition of the opponent’s common humanity.

The flaws are more observable in the absence than the presence – because the novel is generally about combat, the impact on civilians plays no part. Similarly, women, ‘half the sky’, practically do not figure in the book. As a female reader, I can accept this absence because of the setting, and find that females, in general, can imagine themselves as the main character, without sharing their gender. I am, however, beyond irritated by the one Goodreads reader who commented, on the entire Carey cycle, that thankfully there were no women in it (!!). From the fact that Welch asked his daughter to read sections of the book as he wrote it to make sure he hit the right level of details for a children’s book, I surmise Welch himself did not intend this kind of silly gender-bias.

Structurally, the book is divided into three sections; the battle against Saladin, the escape from captivity and finally the events in Wales. The transitions between these three sections are abrupt and explained only in an extremely summary way. In particular, the events leading up to Philip D’Aubigny’s arrival in Britain which could easily fill several interesting chapters, are blithely skipped. It all feels like a bit of a comedown and seems only to provide a narrative device of anchoring the Carey family back in Britain, from whence they can serve in the major British battles of the historical future. The reader lands with a clunk, and the book really never recovers from this transitional flaw.

Keith Barker was clearly not a fan: “It carries with it all the trappings of the historical adventure yarn”. Possibly he felt that Knight Crusader was not the best choice for the winner that year. 1954 was the first year the Carnegie Medal panel published a list of special commendations. Amongst them were The Children of Green Knowe (which has had more critical success) and The Horse and His Boy and The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff) both of which have had more critical and commercial success. However, times and the fortunes of historical novels wax and wane and an article in The Telegraph (June 2020) calls the Carey cycle ‘Wolf Hall for kids’ with the subtitle “why Ronald Welch’s novels will help your children fall in love with history”. Based on Knight Crusader, and despite its flaws, I can’t help but agree. 8/10.

Have you read this book? How do you feel about it? I would love to hear your comments on it or my views of it!

For this blog post I’ve leaned on information in Keith Barker Outstanding Books for Children and Young People, Wolf Hall for Kids (article in The Telegraph, 28th June 2020), the article A View of War and Soldiering in the Carey Novels of Ronald Welch by Clive Barnes, published by Children’s Literature in Education (2016), and Chosen for Children by the Library Association which contains a short essay by Ronald Welch about the process of writing Knight Crusader.

The Borrowers (1952)

IMG_2139The Borrowers by Mary Norton, with illustrations by Diana Stanley.

The Borrowers is the first is a series of 5 books (and one prequel short story) written by Mary Norton between 1952 and 1982. It was named one of the top ten Medal-winning works, the “Carnegies of Carnegies”. It has been made into a tv series and several movies – there’s even a Studio Ghibli version, “The Secret World of Arrietty” – and apparently a 52-episodes animated series is currently ‘in development’.

The Borrower books are fantasy novels set in the period between 1907 and 1911 but written over thirty years from 1952. In look and feel they are very Edwardian, you’d think they were contemporaries of The Secret Garden, not Tom’s Midnight Garden.

Pod, Homily and Arrietty are miniature people, borrowers, who live behind and underneath the grandfather clock in the hallway of a large, old house. They are the last anxious survivors of a considerable colony of borrowers who had once lived in style. They exist in dread of cats and of being seen. Arrietty feels frustrated that their existence has to be so covert and takes risks in venturing into the outside world where she makes friends with a little boy who is convalescing in the house. The boy brings them luxurious furniture from a dolls’ house and helps locate their lost family. Their under-floor home is finally discovered and destroyed by the housekeeper, but the little family manage to escape with the help of the boy.

As a child, I had an intense fascination with miniature worlds (my all-time favourite books are Tove Janson’s Moomin books (though NOT the comic strips), so naturally I liked The Borrowers a lot. I was charmed by the scaled-down world where human possessions are ‘borrowed’ to use for a different purpose; blotting paper serves as rugs and postage stamps as wall art, carpet fibres are turned into brushes and chestnuts are eaten slice by slice, like bread. I identified wholeheartedly with bookish Arrietty and her quest for freedom and did not in any way, pick up on the more sinister overtones of the book. I next picked this book up to read to my daughter when she was 7 or 8, but her tastes are modern and don’t run to classic children’s literature. I don’t think we read more than a couple of pages before giving up. For this challenge, I decided to re-read the book in an attempt to validate either of these two opposing views.


This is exactly the kind of illustration that fired my imagination as a child – a safety pin as a drying rack, a spool of yarn as a stool.

Norton said: “the first idea – or first feeling – of the Borrowers came through my being shortsighted”. This method of shrinking our known world makes the most ordinary surroundings and implements seem genuinely magical. Norton also tantalises her readers by continually reminding them of the evocative unreliability of storytelling. The origin of The Borrowers is wrapped up in mystery: the narrator is Kate, who heard the tale from Mrs May, who heard it from her fanciful young brother, who might have made it up.

This narrative frame of Kate’s brother, a young boy home from India, lonely and recuperating in a half-empty house with old bedridden aunts and unfriendly servants, and who, we learn, later died ‘in the war’ permeates the book with a sense of sadness and an overwhelming sense of loss. This functions on multiple levels. For the human storyteller, Kate, the feeling of loss is linked to the loss of a beloved brother and in extension, the loss of childhood, youth, and family. For the borrowers themselves, the loss of freedom, family and social interaction hangs over the story from the start. The borrowers live circumscribed lives and are potentially dying out, afraid of being seen or heard. They are nothing in their own right: “Everything they had was borrowed; they had nothing of their own at all” (p 12). Arietty is trapped in her life and the old-fashioned expectations of women, she is expected to stay home and help her mother. Only by being an only child is she allowed to learn how ‘to borrow’. Of course, this is when she meets the boy, and her increased freedom is dearly paid for by the loss of home and comfort.

Other critics have pointed out the many ways in which Norton have represented social class in the series, in some ways satirical and overt, some less so. What strikes me very clearly is that these books feel very Edwardian and not ‘modern’ at all. AN Wilson considers the work as in part an allegory of post-war Britain – with its picture of a diminished people living in an old, half-empty, decaying “Big House”. I am not sure it is as straight-forward as that – it would make quite an interesting study for a session on class in children’s literature.

What strikes me as an adult is how incredibly sad this story is. The Borrowers is a story of loneliness and two children, one a human, one a borrower, who have an equal need for friendship and companionship. Arietty reads to the boy, and he helps her track down her remaining family. Yet their friendship is doomed and bring about the end of the borrowers’ life in the house. By then we’ve switched back to the narrative frame: “[The housekeeper] began to drag him towards the door. The tears spilled over his eyelids and ran down his cheeks “Don’t hurt them’ he begged. ‘I’ll move them. I promise. I know how.’ (…) She pushed him into the schoolroom and locked the door, and he heard the boards of the passage creak beneath her tread as, satisfied, she moved away. He crept into bed then, because he was cold, and cried his heart out under the blankets”. These themes of loss and loneliness went entirely over my head as a child. I was delighted with the lilliputian world of Arietty and fascinated by the imaginative use of human detritus. The fact that the book can be read as a story on many levels is what marks it out as a classic.

I am now 20 books into this challenge, and the litmus test happens at bedtime: do I read the latest challenge, with some semblance of enjoyment, or do I find excuses to pick up another book or listen to an audiobook instead? I picked up The Borrowers every night without fail, though with an increasing sense of sadness. I am sorry I didn’t persevere with reading it aloud to my daughter – overall this was a great read, a classic, in fact. 9/10

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.