Showing posts with label Rosemary Sutcliff. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rosemary Sutcliff. Show all posts

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

What IS a children's book anyway? by Paul May

While I've been reading Carnegie Medal winning books I've found this question popping into my head occasionally. Usually I think about it while I'm digging on the allotment and then decide it's not worth writing about. Or rather, I decide that it's too complicated to write about and I'm not really sure what I think.

The allotment. Plenty of digging,
 plenty of thinking

But in the past few weeks I've read a series of historical novels and one non-fiction history book, and that question has kept nagging at me because the books I've read range from one which is definitely written for children to one which, although marketed to children, seems to me to deal with themes which are almost exclusively adult.

I suppose the first thing to say is that, speaking (as Noel Streatfeild might have said) as a children's author, all my own books have been written for children, and the subject-matter, style and vocabulary have been carefully adapted to my target audience. To be sure, I always hoped that adults would read at least some of those books too, and not only professionals like teachers and librarians and maybe even reviewers, but parents too, and friends and family. But, in the end, my children's books are written for children.

A Valley Grows Up by Edward Osmond won the Carnegie in 1953, the year I was born. Osmond was a teacher and artist who was encouraged by a children's editor at OUP to turn his idea for a series of wall-charts depicting an imaginary valley at various points in history into an illustrated book. His paintings had originated as blackboard drawings used to teach students after World War II. No question then that this is a children's book. Like many early winners it has a definite 'teachery' feel to it in the voice of the author. Given its origin as a series of talks based on a series of paintings this is not surprising, and it is the voice of an interesting teacher. It's also the voice of a man with his own prejudices which he makes no attempt to conceal. The earliest 'real men' to come and live in the valley are described as 'grotesque and primitive' and in the 17th Century the 'Roundheads' get a very bad press. After successfully attacking the castle 'the Roundhead army moved on to other acts of destruction elsewhere . . . During the dull years of the Commonwealth, after King Charles had been captured and executed, few changes were made because there was no feeling of enterprise in the country.'

The book is a curious mixture of fact and fiction. Osmond describes events in his imaginary valley as though they really happened, which does feel confusing at times. I was a little surprised at the poor quality of the reproductions in my copy of the book, and I wondered if I had a duff one, but then I found this from Marcus Crouch: 'It was unfortunate, if inevitable, that in reproduction  the original pictures lost much of their definition and their detail. The reader sometimes looks in vain for a feature mentioned in the text but reduced into invisibility by the block-maker.' I find this very odd as my copy has an ad on the back flap for The Map That Came to Life by H J Deverson and Ronald Lampitt. You can see this wonderful book in full online and the illustrations are beautifully clear.

A spread from The Map That Came to Life

In 1954 the Carnegie was won by a very different kind of history book - Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch. If you did not know that Ronald Welch (real name Ronald Oliver Felton) had seen service during WWII (in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, from whom he took his pen-name) and then become headmaster of a boys Grammar School, I think you could have guessed. This is a book in which the protagonist is a boy on the threshold of manhood. What kind of a boy?  This kind:

'The robber flung up his arm helplessly, his face a mask of fear and snarling fury. But there was nothing he could do to ward off this thunderbolt of sudden death that had swept upon him. He went down with a strangled scream as Philip's sword caught him full across his turban, and split his skull with a sound like that of a hammer smashing down on a length of thin planking.'

There is a LOT of fighting, some tournaments (where people get seriously hurt), a couple of major battles, and a siege of a Welsh castle. The body count could rival that of a modern Hollywood action movie. The story is set in the Crusader realm of Outremer in the late 12th century, and place and time are brought vividly to life, but the characters are more than a little two-dimensional. The first female character makes her appearance on page 234. Here she is:

'Philip [sat] with the Lady de Clare on his other side. She was a dark-haired, imperious-looking woman, most magnificently dressed, and by her manner fully conscious of her position as the leading lady of the Marches.' (That's all you see of her.)

The second woman appears just a few pages later: 'The Lady Anne de Chaworth was a tall, spare lady with a determined chin and a rasping voice. Her eyes missed nothing as she watched her servants, and even her mournful husband obeyed her instructions with a meekness that made Philip smile. Perhaps this explained Sir Geoffrey's gloom, he thought.' (That's more or less it for her, too.)

And there you have the whole female presence in the book, apart from a short scene where a gruff old soldier teases a couple of children, one of them a girl (the only real children in the book). This is, essentially, a book about men fighting and killing each other in a meticulously researched and realised 12th century world, and yet it is distinctly NOT a book for adults. No women or children to speak of, a bunch of men fighting and killing each other, and yet it's a children's book. 'For readers of eleven and over.' says my Puffin edition.

Illustration by William Stobbs

I know just who this book was written for. It was aimed squarely at Ronald Welch's grammar school boys and I'm sure many of them loved it because it's rather like an extended version of a war story in a boy's annual of the period. What character development there is consists in the protagonist getting better at fighting. But, given that this is a book entirely about adult men I had to wonder what was missing that would have turned it into a novel for adults. The quality of the writing is better than that found in many thrillers: perhaps a star-crossed romance woven into the story would have done the trick? Character development is not essential to an adult novel either though - look at Jack Reacher or James Bond. Is it just that the book doesn't have enough to say to its readers? Is it not subtle or complex enough to be marketed to adults? Is it, perhaps, a little childish in its simple, gung-ho revelling in violence; childish in a way that The Borrowers, for example, is not.

You will have to forgive the randomness of these thoughts. I'm hoping that by writing them down they might become clearer. My next random thought is that maybe children's books about adults are acceptable when they are distanced, either by history or fantasy or maybe by space. The Hobbit, for example, is about a group of fairly elderly dwarves and an adult hobbit on an often violent and dangerous quest. The Wind in the Willows may be about animals, but it's about adult animals with their own homes and lives. I'm struggling to think of a realistic children's novel with a contemporary setting that is entirely about adults.

Cover by Charles Keeping

And so to Rosemary Sutcliff. I'm leaping ahead in the Carnegie winners list to 1959, and I want to write more about Sutcliff later, but The Lantern Bearers, which was the 1959 winner, is a book about adults in which the chief themes concern the struggles of the central character, Aquila, to come to terms with the savage murder of his family, the kidnapping and probable rape of his sister, and his own problematic relationship with his son and wife. The bleakness of Aquila's despair after he finds his sister (after several years as a slave himself) married to a Saxon and with her own child and a new life is brilliantly portrayed as a kind of bereavement and a betrayal. I really can't think of any reason to call this a children's book, other than that it was published and marketed as a children's book, oh, and it has pictures - wonderful illustrations by Charles Keeping which make this one of the most beautifully produced books I know.

Spread by Charles Keeping

It's interesting to compare The Lantern Bearers with its sequel Sword at Sunset which was published for adults in 1963. I haven't finished this yet, but there are already some obvious differences. The story is told in the first person by Artos, who we know as King Arthur. It is wordier than its predecessors, there is a sex scene early in the book and there are no pictures. There are also many long paragraphs unbroken by dialogue. And the stylistic devices that occasionally irritated me in Sutcliff's 'children's books' are even more in evidence here - notably her tendency to make characters speak in a slightly stagey archaic manner, especially if they are 'tribal'.

And so my thoughts circle back to the place they always end up when I'm out there digging. Do I really need to know what a children's book is? I'm not so sure I even know what a child is. I suppose the bottom line is that I wouldn't want any child not to read an 'adult' book simply because it was not written or published for children, and I wouldn't want an adult reader to miss out, say, on The Lantern Bearers for the same reason.

I believe - I know - that it is possible to write for children in simple language and still tell a story that is rich and complex, and to do so without talking down to the children; without sounding like a teacher or a dotty old uncle. I thought that kind of thing was disappearing from the Carnegie winners until I reached C S Lewis (1956). I have plenty to say about him, but before that we have Eleanor Farjeon (1955) who occasionally wrote stories that defy any kind of categorisation and who definitely deserves a whole post to herself.

All of Ronald Welch's historical novels about the Crecy family are in print, with the original William Stobbs illustrations, available from Slightly Foxed magazine. Hazel Wood found more to like in Knight Crusader than I did, and her piece in Slightly Foxed magazine (No 39) will tell you why, and why she was inspired to republish the books. Slightly Foxed also have their own edition of the Rosemary Sutcliff Roman books with the Keeping illustrations, but for my money you can't beat the original OUP ones if you can find them.

Paul May's website.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Treece or Trease?

As a child I was always confused by Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece, perhaps because I never read any of their books. It was almost as if all historical fiction had to be written by people called Treece, however it was spelt, or maybe as if men called Treece were obliged to write historical fiction. Anyway, as a child I somehow missed out on their books, just as I missed out on Rosemary Sutcliff and many others. I made up for it later, and with Rosemary Sutcliff in particular I tracked down and read nearly everything she wrote, including her wonderful memoir, Blue Remembered Hills.

I read quite a bit of Henry Treece, too, especially his Viking quartet, but somehow Geoffrey Trease continued to elude me until I came across an old Puffin in a charity shop. I must admit that I bought The Red Towers of Granada mainly because of the fabulous Charles Keeping cover, but I was hooked from the first sentence. How could you not be?

'It is a strange and terrible thing to listen to one’s own funeral service.'

The Red Towers of Granada is a book which challenges prejudice, jealousy, greed and ignorance; but chiefly prejudice. And it manages to do this while the action drives relentlessly forward. The central character, Robin, is cast out of his village as a leper. The new village priest resents Robin because his predecessor had sent Robin to school at the minster, from where he had gone on to study at Oxford. When Robin, taking his ‘lonely, doomed way in the world,’ rescues a Jewish doctor from attackers in the forest, the doctor looks at the sores on his hands and asks: ‘What ignorant fool told you that you had leprosy?’

The following chapter begins with Robin, the first-person narrator, saying: ‘Before I went to Oxford, when I was a simple village boy, I would have been shocked if anyone had suggested that a priest could be an ignorant fool.’ Robin is a young man whose outlook has already been broadened by education. When Solomon of Stamford takes young Robin into his own family to protect him and heal his sores, Robin’s admiration for the old man grows: 

‘I liked to get Solomon talking in the evening, for he knew the world and his mind was stored with experience. It was an open mind, too. No argument shocked him. No subject was banned.
“No part of human knowledge lies outside the Jewish way,” he used to insist’

This is the year 1290, and Edward I is about to expel all Jews from England. Jews are forbidden to practice medicine, but that doesn’t stop the ailing Queen Eleanor from sending for Solomon to treat her. But she’s from Spain of course. Solomon and his family set out with Robin to find the Moorish pharmacist in Andalucia who alone can make the elixir that can save the queen. 

So, an insular, inward-looking England is contrasted with a European continent criss-crossed by a network of intellectual and scientific enlightenment. What could be more modern? And through the continent of Europe goes Robin, eyes open, learning all the time, trying to make a new life after being thrown out by his own community, and trying to protect Solomon and his family from the villains who are under the misapprehension that what Solomon is seeking is not a simple medicine but ‘the elixir of life.’

It’s a terrific read, and now I have to track down some of the 112 other books that Geoffrey Trease wrote, most of which are out of print. I’m planning to start with the Black Banner series after reading about its genesis on Wikipedia. Trease had given a talk at Millom in west Cumbria:

Two schoolgirls buttonholed me afterwards. ‘Do you ever write school stories?’ ‘No’ I said. ‘Haven’t you got enough already? All those midnight feasts in the dorm, those secret passages and hooded figures -’ They cut me off with grave courtesy, ‘They didn’t mean that stuff. Why didn’t I write true-to-life stories, about real boys and girls, going to day-schools as nearly everybody did? No one seemed to write that sort.’ Out of that five-minute conversation came, a year or two later, No Boats on Bannermere and eventually its four sequels, three hundred thousand words, the writing spread intermittently over nine years, I was glad I had been to Millom.

They sound good to me!

There is a Charles Keeping exhibition opening on 29th February at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner. It runs until 31st May and it’s bound to be worth the effort of a journey on the Metropolitan Line.

Another Charles Keeping cover

Paul May's website

The Red Towers of Granada is out of print and shouldn't be!

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Rules of Reading by Steve Gladwin

You know how it is, you pick up a book and sometimes you’re hardly aware of why - It’s either the one on the top of the pile, or the one you’ve always promised yourself you’ll get round to - something someone else recommended, so you think maybe you should, or just the thing you fancy at that time.

But how many times are we actually aware of how and why we’re reading? The same applies to the book we’re in the middle of. More likely than not we simply pick it up and either find the place thoughtfully guarded for us by the handy bookmark, (some of which regularly go walk about, only to turn up months later down the back of the settee where we'd DEFINITELY looked), or in my case read five or six seemingly familiar pages before I realise I’ve already been there and I can never get that five minutes of my life back!

It’s certainly unlikely that we ever go through the following thought process. Oh, here’s that book I was reading last night that I’m so enjoying. I wonder what it is about it that is so engaging me about this particular author’s style or those well-drawn characters.
More often it’s more a case of let’s get those pages read before I start to nod off.

Another thing I’ve become equally fascinated by in those many bored moments when I can’t get back to sleep due to being obsessed by some stupid bit of trivia, is how fast I read certain parts of a book. Has anyone ever done a comparison of the reading speed of the first fifty pages – that whole getting into a book phase - and the last hundred when we’re screaming all the way downhill towards the startling identity of our villain, or both shattering and unlikely plot twist.

So I’ve decided to ask myself such questions. Feel free to step off and go to sleep any time along the journey, but I hope that at least you will spare a few thoughts to your own reading habits next time you too have those 'can’t get back to sleep' moments.

So here’s what I want to ask myself and therefore you, my eager studio audience.

How much do I think about what I'm reading?
Do I read different sections at different speeds?
What if anything is my regular reading pattern?
When and why do I read certain genres?

I read a lot. To my knowledge I never stop. The only time I remember when I stopped reading for any length of time was years ago when I went to druid camps armed with about four books and never read a page of either! Before and since it’s been almost constant and when you think about it that’s almost scary, because it feels – probably quite rightly - that I just couldn’t live happily without that constant stream of reading, story and inquiry. I remember a few weeks ago I found myself reading only factual books for a few days. Eventually I had to pick up a novel because if any length of time passes without some sort of plot I feel bereft.

I read for many reasons; to engage my brain, to test my brain, to fill my brain - and of course for enjoyment. Certain books I read for fact and knowledge or because they’re describing places and experiences that now I may never know or have, in the same way I watch Planet Earth 2 “ because it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see a three toed sloth in the wild, (unless it’s a quick shock in the bathroom mirror!)

How much do I think about what I'm reading?

I do think about what I’m reading of course, but usually more while I’m actually reading than when I pick up the book, which is more or less automatic. There is usually some debate over whether I read the novel or the historical/ nature/ travel etc book, as I usually have one of both on the go. That is a fairly hard and fast and therefore manageable rule, but just looking around my corner of the settee I find I have the following.

One paperback copy of The Terracotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri.
One paperback copy of The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
One hardback copy of The Mabinogi – Poems by Matthew Francis.
The February edition of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal.
One paper back copy of Time’s Oriel – poems by Kevin Crossley Holland.
One paperback copy of Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

At least two of those could actually come under the headings of both work or research, (not that that doesn’t also make them a pleasure!)

 In the meantime any thoughts I might have about any of these is generally only of the ‘which one this time variety.’ I mean you don’t exactly question what you’re already reading, do you, unless it’s because the book is failing my usually strict hundred page rule, where if it hasn’t got your interest by then, it’s out. I do have weak points however, I once plowed through a turgid four hundred page biography of Bruce Springsteen by an academic who had never met either Boss or Band.

If I do think about a book when I’m reading it, it’s usually because ‘the author has put something shocking or unexpected in the plot’, (I read a lot of crime!), or because the writing is either so beautiful, (John Lewis-Stempel), witty and hilarious, (Andrea Camilleri), or thrilling and heart-breaking (Rosemary Sutcliffe). It might be a beautifully caught moment, (Kevin Crossley-Holland/Matthew Francis), or news about yet another CD I probably shouldn’t buy, (Vaughan Williams).

Very rarely do I enjoy a reading experience so immersive that I consciously enjoy every moment of it and slow my reading to accommodate it. This brings us to the next heading.

Do I read different sections at different speeds?

The books that don’t pass my 100 page test just don’t have enough of plot or interest to keep me grabbed. The vast majority of the rest usually manage to grow that feeling over the first fifty or seventy pages if it isn’t there from the start. Yes it can still be a grind, but I do feel like I’m getting somewhere, so I trust my author to provide that breakthrough moment. I suspect it would be interesting if you were to time me at that point, because this can often be like the athlete’s run-up, a sort of limbering or lumbering like a creaking old bear, until you gain the momentum to leave terra firma behind and first float then fly gracefully through the air.

Usually at this early stage I’m still accumulating character detail and motivation or crime scene detail and assimilating it all in my eternal plot computer.

Compare that with the final 120 pages, (which is incidentally the most pages I’ll allow myself to complete a book before snuggle down) and in contrast I must be breaking all records, turning pages feverishly, pulse racing, hand poised over my mouth pre startling revelation. And in between the two there’s that whole middle section, a good half of your average crime novel. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know at what pace we read each bit and whether that wavers subject to genre, energy levels etc.

What, if anything, is my regular reading pattern?

My own reading pattern is I suppose pretty normal for someone who is self-employed but has always managed to successful separate work and leisure time. I read when I get up, for an hour or so before tea and in the two or so hours before I go to bed. I’m at my most alert in the first, so anything more involved or theoretical, or with small print, (I need new glasses!) is best done then. The pattern is often different at weekends and when I take holidays at Easter and Christmas it’s often the opportunity to read three or four books, something which I take unbounded pleasure in. And I have to say that there is still little to beat the sheer pleasure of living in a book which you just cruise through.

When and why do I read certain genres?

As for genre, well, as regular readers of these blogs may recognise, most of my favourites just happen to be in the above list. I came late to poetry and tend to attack it in short bursts now, reading each poem twice and maybe more if I find it all a bit confusing. I read very little fantasy and not enough children’s books. I read an inordinate amount of crime and detective stories like the rest of my family and we often pass them on to each other.

But I suppose most of us have genre moods too, or maybe it’s as simple as I can’t face another one of that type, I need something different now. Maybe we blitz a whole series of books like we do some series on HBO. I remember reading the quote from Stephen King on Elmore Leonard, which was something along the lines of he went straight out and bought everything ‘Dutch’ had ever written. Well sure, good for Stephen King, who has readies enough and that kind of eccentricity in plenty. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to build a collection of a favourite author gradually, enjoying and savouring it all, having it a course at a time, rather than in a great splurge of a Chinese banquet. In the same way as when we were little we had to actually ‘save up’ for something and in the process grew increasingly excited as our target – rather like one of those ones with Blue Peter milk bottle tops – grew ever closer. It’s nice to have such choice by your bedside or in your bookcase in the ways I’ve suggested, but what’s the use of having everything there on tap?

I haven’t read too many children’s books of late, but I’ve recently and rather late, discovered Rosemary Sutcliff, and having read some of her wonderful take on King Arthur I now want to read everything I missed. But I also want there to be some struggle element in my quest to a complete a collection of her books, some two or three that are almost impossible to obtain and then one day – hey presto!

I like having gaps in my collections, like the fact that there are still a couple of Inspector Montalbano’s I have yet to buy, or still four to go of Phil Rickman’s wonderful Merrily Watkins series, or that I’ve lost track of some of David Almond’s recent books and hope to one day investigate.

And I suppose that’s the thing about books , that the more you set yourself rules, the keener you may end up being to break them, that the more certain you become that doing something one way is right, the more you are reminded of the rogue few who don’t fit the bill or your restrictions. After all the reason we read is often to escape, so why cage the books we read by categorising or setting rules for them.

And yes, I’m talking to myself here!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Home is where the library is - Lily Hyde

For years, like many people I suppose, visiting my parents has also been revisiting childhood landscapes, dreams, hopes – and books.

In one specific way, these are all the same thing. I grew up in Alan Garner country. From the field above our house you could see Shuttlingsloe, Shining Tor, Mow Cop. These were simultaneously the hills my parents dragged me to for boring walks (boring because I’d much rather have been at home reading books) and perilous places of terror and enchantment where the Morrigan rode and Roman legionaries went native far from home – all inside those same Garner books. 

These days I’d rather stomp over the hills than read even a fantastic book. But it’s a tradition that, when visiting my parents, I’ll follow a walk through those semi-mythical landscapes by curling up with the books of my childhood, which my parents have kept in a wonderful library collected over the years. Alongside Garner there’s Diana Wynne Jones, Rosemary Sutcliff, Peter Dickinson, Joan Aiken, Leon Garfield, Susan Cooper, Noel Streatfeild, Elizabeth Goudge, Robert Westall… It is partly a retreat into the voracious reading of childhood, when the world of the book is more real than the real world (Tom and Jan on Mow Cop in Red Shift more immediate and vital than any boring walk there with my parents), partly a salute to these authors who inspired me to start writing myself (when those walks ceased to be boring, as I dreamed up stories to fit the landscapes) and partly an investigation as a writer, always learning, always hoping, always marvelling at how the masters manage it.      

Now my parents are downsizing (isn’t everybody?). There isn’t room for everything, so I spent last week packing up the children’s library to send off to its new home with my brother, in a different county, far from the landscapes of childhood.
One box packed, ten to go...
I also sorted through a drawer of my own adolescent writings. Most of them are awful. I can read them now and identify, paragraph by paragraph, here is Rosemary Sutcliff, here is Diana Wynne Jones, here is Ursula le Guin, Sutcliff again, Peter Dickinson, again Sutcliff… 

But in among the styles and stories lifted wholesale from other authors and legends and fairytales and films, the one thing that rings at all true is the landscape. I knew from Garner that stories as deep as myth could be written about an everyday real place. I took Narnia and Dalemark and Camelot and transposed them to the field above our house, to the hills and moors you can see from there. And in the process, I think I started to find myself as a writer.

I moved away from my parents years ago, and I’ve never written about that landscape since. I don't know if I ever will; I can’t lay claim to Alderley Edge or Shuttlingsloe the way Alan Garner can; though I grew up with them, the roots go no further back. Yet the roots do run deep. I’ll miss the children’s library; in a way it was what made my parents’ house still home. But the landscape, informed as it is by that library, is even more important to me. Those fields and hills are full not only of the dreams and truths I read in The Moon of Gomrath or Red Shift, but of my own dreams of stories and hopes to be a writer.