Monday, July 25, 2022

The Romance of Certain Old Books


I've never liked the heat. Whilst I love the sunny days of summer (and especially its beautiful evenings), I'm not one for 'going out in the midday sun' (Englishman though I am) in the hope of a tan. 

But a recent tweet from Mat Tobin, accompanied by a photo of a clearly much-loved and vintage Ursula le Guin, made me think about just how much I do, however, love the tanned pages of an old book: the papery dustiness of a volume that has sat on a shelf for years, but that once upon a time had been taken down and read and re-read, squashed into a bag, lost on a train, sat on a cafeteria table, or all of these and more, is irresistibly redolent of a romantic past. 

This summer, I will be sharing photos of and reflections on certain old books from my collection that I genuinely love (#SummerOfOldBooks). Why there is such an affection for them, I shall have to see, because in most cases I really don't know what makes these things, tired and tattered as they are, so special. And whilst this task, born on impulse seeing that le Guin paperback, is perhaps pointless, likely quixotic, and most certainly odd, I hope that it may fruit something of why I am a reader. 

Maybe. 

***

Day 1: Union Street by Charles Causley (publ. Rupert Hart Davis, 3rd impression, 1960)

Only the spine is tanned. The rest of this slim volume is in good condition considering its sixty-two-year vintage. Edith Sitwell's introduction starts ominously: 'Re-reading the other day the sermons of Jeremy Taylor [...]'. She then goes on to make connections between CC and Goethe, Graves, Clare, W.P. Ker - all rather portentous - though her final comment on how CC's poems in the collection have 'budded into the light' is (finally) spot on. 

I've known Causley's poetry since I was young and it remains special to me because for all its simplicity, I cannot fully grasp it. It is ghostly and elusive, a private world that speaks to us all. 

Day 2: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, illustrated by John Lawrence (Hamish Hamilton, 1st edition, 1983)

The first of what will undoubtedly be a fair few volumes of supernatural fiction appearing here. This is an Ex Libris edition complete with tatty dustjacket and multiple stamps throughout. 

When I bought this copy last year, it arrived in the post with a considerable lean to the spine. About twenty years ago, I learnt a trick from a London bookseller to rectify this sad decrepitude and this was the first book I've ever owned in such a state. He told me to read the book backwards. I didn't but, cautiously at first, I opened the book fully a page at a time starting from the back. I did this on every page and when I eventually arrived at the start, the spine had returned to its usual shape, leaving me with a great feeling of satisfaction!  

Whilst I am not a fan of old library editions, the charm of seeing the old return-by slip at the front of the book is compensation for the general grubbiness. The slip has been strongly glued down here, then torn out leaving flakes of a label and two incomplete date stamps from 1986. This gem of a book was withdrawn from circulation and 'SOLD 1/3/01' for just 60p. 

These carefree (sometimes careless) markings of a book's lending library heritage often have a strange storytelling quality of their own. For example, a couple more stamps also appear slap-bang in the middle of John Lawrence's eerie sketch for the frontispiece spread. Mrs Drablow, wandering for eternity, seems unintentionally highlighted amidst the gravestones by a large circular library inkstamp and a second one (ironically) labelling her in large capitals: 'DISCARDED'. 

Day 3Masquerade by Kit Williams (Jonathan Cape, 1st edition, 1979)

This pseudo 'children's picture book' was infamous in the late seventies. Kit Williams had created a series of pictures (along with a story about the Moon, the Sun and a Hare) holding clues as to the whereabouts of a real 18-carat gold, hare-shaped amulet, which Williams (and Bamber Gascoigne!) had secretly buried somewhere in England. This set off a national craze of amateur sleuthing and literal digging as copies of the book flew off the shelves. 

A documentary about Kit Williams, his art, and the story of the Masquerade phenomenon was made for BBC4 in 2009. Its macabre imagery of dead hares and whining soundtrack feels a bit weird, definitely odd; but then the whole story of the book and the treasure hunt is like that. Even when the amulet was ultimately found, it wasn't entirely by solving the book's puzzles, and how it was done (and the failed, but near-win attempt) is an entertaining tale in its own right.

There are a few others of this kind of book on my shelves - Williams' 'untitled' volume about bees, even a Cadbury's creme egg one! - but none of them match the strangeness of the surreal-folk style of Masquerade - and I have a strong, creeping feeling that that book hasn't yielded all of its secrets quite yet. 

Duck Queen
with Faery Changeling
(in case you were wondering)
Day 4A Book of Charms and Changelings by Ruth Manning-Sanders (Pan Books, 1974)

The reason for including this one should be obvious from the photograph of the front cover. Nowadays, strangely enough, such macabre taxidermy dress-ups are seemingly absent from children's book design... 

Day 5A Book of Beasts by T.H. White  (Jonathan Cape, 1954)

My fascination with bestiaries most certainly goes all the way back to when I read Nesbit's The Book of Beasts as a child, and adored the idea of a magical book that would bring the illustrated creatures to life. I've owned a few over the years, but this edition of a medieval Latin manuscript is one that I have held on to, mainly for its stylized illustrations and bizarrely entertaining descriptions. In one passage, for instance, a Cocodrillus' dung is described as being an excellent base for an ointment. 

Day 6Georgian Poetry Selected and introduced by James Reeves (Penguin, 1962)

This is a lovely volume of poetry. Not all of it is good poetry but the whole book creaks with an autumnal haze, sometimes warm light, sometimes chill mists. There are many of my favourites here, chief among them Walter de la Mare (who will appear later in this blog) and Edward Thomas. 

Two neon-pink sticky labels are still present from when I selected poems to set for a song cycle. One of them made it to the final cut; the other, The Beechwood by Andrew Young, still languishes here. Looking again at the latter poem, I can spot the lines that originally caught my attention and which sum up the whole 'story' of the cycle I eventually wrote: 
And yet I never lose the feeling
That someone close behind is stealing
Or else in front has disappeared;  

I won't remove those sticky labels. They are part of that 'someone close behind'.  

Day 7The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston (Faber, reprint 1956)

When I was a student, I walked into a charity shop one day to find three Faber hardcover editions of Lucy Boston's Green Knowe series - Children, Chimneys, River - in pristine condition. River was a first edition, Chimneys a second and Children, I think, a later reprint but still with Peter Boston's beautiful lino-cut insertions. (I later found out that these illustrations were costly to produce and were dropped in some later reprints). 

The books were priced very cheaply at just a few pounds each but I only had enough to buy two at the time. Not realising the incredible bargain on offer, I left Children, being priced at a pound more than the other two, behind; I thought I would perhaps come back the next day to pick it up. It turned out to be a decision that I sorely regretted. The next day it had (obviously!) gone. 

Over the years, as my collection of all six novels (in first or early editions and with original dustjackets) grew, I realised with a sinking feeling that the first book in the series would always be very difficult to obtain - either copies were extraordinarily expensive or were lacking dustjacket or were tatty beyond repair. I had missed my chance. 

Last year, fortune smiled on me as I found this copy and now, finally, the six books in the series sit together on my shelf. They have a very particular look - papery jackets, a little worn in places, artful spine design - which I love. The stories blur and play with time but, through owning these older editions, I've learned that even the physical objects do that too. 


Day 8
Yum Yum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Viking Kestrel, First American edition, 1985) 

I used to have this book as a child but not the copy I now own. This one was found second-hand and, surprisingly, it came nearly complete with all its cut-outs (and a bonus). 

The Ahlbergs understood children's minds and humour in a way that I don't think has ever quite been matched by any other author or illustrator. Their books are always playful and I particularly admire the way they avoid any hint of arch irony that could so easily creep into their narratives. 

The sadly absent
ice-cream sundae

In Yum Yum, each double page spread has a set of two or more cut outs that can be mixed and matched between the slots on the page. So the reader can enjoy swapping the robot's tin-can-and-springs breakfast with the little human's boiled egg. But of course that's the tidy grown-up way of exploring the book. Children swap the foods all over the place so the children's birthday party spread is filled with plates of worms, the dog gets a lime jelly, while a gruesome monster enjoys a box of liquorice-allsorts. 

I am lucky that my copy has all the cut-outs present; all but one - the final page's slot is empty. 'Ice Cream for You' is missing but to compensate, there is an extra birthday cake slotted into the party scene. I like to think that two children both owning the book once decided to swap their cut outs - one preferring ice-cream to cake. Perhaps, out there somewhere, there is another copy of Yum Yum with two sundaes. Maybe it's your own!

Day 9Best Stories of Church and Clergy ed. by Christopher Bradby & Anne Ridler (Faber, First edition, 1966) 

This book has a good smell. When I open it, the aroma of aged paper, mould and dust that wafts from its pages perfectly befits the subject. It's a comforting scent, similar to the one you experience in an old church, just minus the incense. The peace and calm of sitting in a church is, for me, very much like that to being in a library and the slight fustiness of the stories seems to bring both places together. It's the kind of book that I might find in a holiday cottage and not really read, but which would send me very happily off to sleep. 

Day 10Two Dozen Rounds of Nature by Peter Crossley-Holland (Alfred Lengnick, 1954)

This tiny little pamphlet is testament to the joy of second-hand book burrowing. 

Looking through boxes and boxes of chipped, tanned (though not in a healthy way), and very flimsy sheet music is probably the worst job to do in a charity or antique shop. Mostly parlour songs and piano miniatures, written by long-forgotten composers from the 1900s, the decaying pages display titles like 'Fruhlingslied' and 'Romance oubliee', and manage to exude a depressing air of melacholy ('Air Melancholique') whatever the weather. The task is often Sisyphean, fruitless and draining, and it is rare indeed that anything of any value is unearthed. 

Yet the odd occasions that do reward this horrible searching are genuinely magical. Peter Crossley-Holland, the father of the more well-known Kevin, was a composer and ethnomusicologist. I have heard his Symphony but nothing else and it's not easy to find anything published. Then along comes this tiny booklet of rounds, amid all the junk, complete with a rather quirky decoration on the front. What are the odds?! 

The music and the words are by the composer and one of the rounds, Riddle, even has a feel of his son's interest in this kind of Saxon word-play! The melodies are simple but don't always go in the direction you think, and the harmonies often clash with a modal dissonance.They don't work played through on the piano. I would like to hear them sung...

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Saving the World

Our Story Starts in Africa by Patrice Lawrence; and Scientists are Saving the World by Saskia Gwinn and Ana Albero (Magic Cat, 2022)

"I want to ensure that every child has the opportunity to see themselves in books and as bookmakers through the plethora of new and exciting voices we have coming out of the UK - to diversify bookshelves so that every child can imagine themselves as writers, illustrators and poets."

-Joseph Coelho

It's been quite some week.

On Monday, Joseph Coelho was crowned Waterstones Children's Laureate 2022-24. Without any doubt at all, this has been one of the most exciting and invigorating appointments to the Laureateship. Coelho's visionary manifesto sets out three fundamentals of the reading life: poetry, libraries and reflecting the lives of our diverse society today - actually, I would go further to say that these are fundamentals of Life, and not just the reading kind. 

I was inspired and uplifted! Then, only a few days later, I watched the unfolding breakdown of the U.K. government with resignations and reshuffles hitting many of the departments responsible for a healthy society. 

But it is Coelho's spirit of hope for children and our future that has consoled me. As a teacher, I take my position in children's lives very seriously indeed. Those who know me well will also know that I read to my classes all the time because it is through books and texts of all kinds, that real change for the better is possible. It's a no-brainer that I'm joining with Coelho and stepping up to support his challenge.

So it was with great delight that this week also included opening a parcel from...

It contained two new books: Our Story Starts in Africa and Scientists are Saving The WorldBoth books sing the very same song as Coelho. Though their subjects are different the two speak with extraordinary eloquence to every child. They are especially well-suited to younger children and I will emphasise here that quality non-fiction books for the Year 2 - 4 age-bracket (into which both texts fall beautifully) are hard to come by. Not only are the illustrations gorgeous and diversely reflective, the texts inform with the lightest of touch and engage interest. Every child needs to question - they want to! - and I can't think of any child who wouldn't be readily prompted to ask all sorts of things about what these lovely, lovely books are saying to them. 

Patrice Lawrence is well-known for the excellence of her YA writing (Orangeboy, Rat...) but with Our Story Starts In Africa her foray here into picturebook territory is a very welcome one which promises much. Tante Janet tells young Paloma the story of how her family came to the Caribbean, in order to help her understand how she fits into her family, even though she feels left out. Via spreads of brilliant colour and glowing joy superbly illustrated by Jeanetta Gonzales, the unfolding tale touches on warrior queens, storytelling and is not shy to present the abhorrence of the slave trade to a young audience. Lawrence and Gonzales manage this last feat with a breathtaking sensitivity and honesty that I have not seen achieved before in a picture book for younger readers. 

In Scientists are Saving the World, Saskia Gwinn and Ana Albero have gifted us with a book that addresses the future directly by inspiring children everywhere with the world of science. Equally brave as Lawrence's book in its language and selected subject areas, the reader turns each page to discover Arthropodologists, Acoustic Biologists, Robotic Engineers, Meteorologists amongst many other science professionals. Proud of its quirky and passionate tone, the book immediately sets itself apart from the run-of-the-mill, infomative-but-worthy texts aimed at children today by treating their intended audience with palpable respect. The comic-book-influenced illustration is immediate, the text challenging in the very best way; the final main spread presents the best message of all: 'Scientists are like YOU!' In a final flourish, there's a fantastic spread of a range of different scientists and which - like the rest of the book - is presented with diversity very strongly to the fore.

I can't praise these two books more highly and I would urge everyone reading this to check out Magic Cat's website (www.magiccatpublishing.co.uk), not only to get your orders in, but to explore the other wonderful books they have there. 'Every child' keeps getting mentioned, echoing Coelho's call to arms. 

But let's not allow the echo to fade; let's make it a SHOUT! 

***

Scientists are Saving the World was published earlier this week on 7th July. Our Story Starts in Africa is out on August 18th 2022. Please support independent bookshops where you can!

With many thanks to Nicky Potter for help with this blog and to Magic Cat for their inspired publishing.


Sunday, July 3, 2022

A Case of Finding Yourself

The Dragon in the Bookshop by Ewa Jozefkowicz (Zephyr, 2022)

Every book by Ewa Jozefkowicz that I've read has always had a surprise for me. I think they are going to go one way, when quite unexpectedly they go and do quite the other! Her new novel, The Dragon in the Bookshop, is no exception. And if you think that this is going to be just another fantasy story, laden with legendary creatures, spells and the evergreen magic of books thrown in for good measure, then think again...and look closer. 

Konrad (Kon) has lost his father who died, suddenly and with little warning, from a heart attack in his own bookshop. The man who was guide and mentor to his son has gone and Kon speaks no more. Then, one day, Kon finds a  very unusual footprint in the rock - lizard? dinosaur?...monster? - and things start to open out from the darkness in which he has found himself. 

Jozefkowicz has an extraordinary power as a writer. Her skill in presenting the difficult complexities of life through the eyes of children and having the remarkable magic of being able to show her readers a hopeful way forward always astonishes me. The writing has a crystal clarity and, most noticeably and importantly, a heartfelt gentleness that in every one of her books has left me changed for the better. What it must be like for children to read her books! 

Early in the novel, one line made me stop reading for a moment: 

You know, everything in nature leaves a little bit of itself behind. It rubs off - quite literally - on the world around it, which means that it's never really quite gone.

Maya, who speaks these words, is talking about bumblebees. But the wisdom and truth and comfort of that statement really did take my breath away. How perfectly put, how simple and clear. And like the fleeting nature of the bumblebee's flight, even the transient lightness of life itself, the words are spoken, the page is read, the message is passed. No dogma, no high-falutin pomp or ceremony. This is what Jozefkowicz does in her books - it really is magical. 

Ewa has written a special piece - very moving and utterly charming in equal measure! - just for the blog today. It explains the origin of the idea for The Dragon in the Bookshop, but also highlights the importance of why we read. It is all about the finding of oneself in those pages. The search may go on for years - maybe never fulfilled - but of course, if you don't find yourself, then you'll find others, hundreds of thousands of others, who have their own joys, sorrows, problems and solutions. In finding them too, and really listening to their stories, then the future is going to be a better place for us all. I repeat and stand amazed again: What it must be like for children to read Ewa's books.

***

Ewa writes: 

The Dragon in the Bookshop is special to me, as the inspiration for it came from my dad who passed away when I was a teenager. He read me many stories and legends and truly ignited my love of reading. One of his favourite things to say before opening a new story was: “Remember Ewa - for every reader there is a character in a book that matches them almost exactly. It’s just a case of finding them. This could be the book!”

I really loved this idea of finding characters who truly resonated with you as a reader – so much so that you could imagine you were them, embarking on a wonderful adventure in a world entirely unknown to you. I admit I still haven’t found my perfect character match. When I was young, I was certain that I was Pippi Longstocking, as she was mischievous just like me – and I was amazed to find out that she slept with her feet on the pillow, like I did! As I grew older, I thought that I could be Mina from David Almond’s Skellig, as I was exactly the kind of person who would be involved with a brilliant, unexpected discovery – I was nosy and knew how to keep a secret.

Since Mina, there have been several close matches, but nobody who is spot on…yet. It’s only a matter of time. And it hasn’t stopped me from encouraging my family and friends to search for their own characters. My twins Julia and Magda, who are currently four, have already started playing their grandfather’s game. Julia is convinced that she’s the eldest of the owl siblings, Sarah, in Owl Babies by Martin Waddell. Magda sees herself as the Bumblebear written by Nadia Shireen. 

It’s a really good way to add another level of excitement to reading, and I always thought this would be a great exercise for teachers to do with their pupils. Which character from any book they’ve read, matches them most closely and why? Watch as a fascinating debate unravels. In fact, on a recent school visit, a boy from Year 6 told me that he most empathises with Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, who he always thought was a little misunderstood!

***

The Dragon in the Bookshop by Ewa Jozefkowicz (front cover illustration by Katy Riddell) is out on 7th July 2022 and will help promote Grief Encounter (www.griefencounter.org.uk) a wonderful charity that works with children who have lost someone they love.

Grief Encounter have a message for children and young people like Kon. As a charity they work closely with individuals, families, schools and professionals to offer a way through the anxiety, fear and isolation so often caused by the grief of losing someone close.

Grief Encounter provide immediate support with a FREEPHONE Grieftalk helpline 0808 802 0111 open Mon-Fri 9am-9pm, a live chat via their website or support by emailing grieftalk@griefencounter.org.uk.

With huge thanks, as ever, to Ewa Jozefkowicz and Fritha Linqvist for their help and input in the writing of this blog. 

Friday, June 3, 2022

A Dream of Trinidad

Zo and the Forest of Secrets by Alake Pilgrim (Knights Of, 2022)

When Zo decides to run away from home, she is thrown into a dreamscape of the island she thought she knew: Trinidad is at once dripping with beauty and burgeoning with a dark, new-found mystery and magic. 

Zo and the Forest of Secrets is a magic-realist novel, perfect for readers of 10+.The plot whirls from one fantastic vista to the next - the pace is fast! - and the drama and brilliance never lets up. Alake Pilgrim's extraordinarily rich evocation of the island is one of the book's many strengths: within the first few pages, the reader is transported to a bustling Trinidadian market place then in the twinkling of an eye, the scene shifts, a supernatural haze is cast, and from that moment on, nothing is quite as it seems. 

There are occasional moments of pause for reflection as echoes of ecological unrest flicker across the scene. For me, the impact of these parts was made particularly striking, given that they appear amidst a whirlwind of colour and noise, and  impressing on the reader their importance - young readers will find as much for them to think about as they will to gasp at and that astonishes them. Finally, comes the cliffhanger which poses the possibility that this book is to be the first in a series promising more thrills and more secrets. And that is good news for us all indeed!

Alake Pilgrim

***

Whenever I read a book that really connects with me, I always want to talk about it and that is part of the great pleasure and purpose of my reading. With this in mind, I hope the following prompts are useful to help children (and their grown-ups) to explore Alake's wonderful novel together and that you all enjoy reading Zo and the Forest of Secrets as much as I have.

The Setting

  • Where is Trinidad? Find pictures of places in Trinidad and make a collection of them. 
  • Make a list of the animals, birds, fruits, plants that are named in the book. Find pictures of them.  
The Characters
  • Make a list of all the main characters. Which one would you like to spend the day with? Why? 
  • Zo and Adri are the book's two main characters. How are they different...and how are they similar?
  • Are there any characters you would like to know more about? If you could meet the author, what would you ask her about them? 
Magic and Mystery
  • The book is full of strange creatures and magic. Which is the most terrifying monster in the book, in your opinion? Say TWO things that make it more scary than any of the others.
  • Cap'n Peg has a very unique way of speaking. Make a list of some of her best sayings. 
  • Cap'n Peg adds a touch of humour to the story. How does the humour add to the story?
  • Some readers might describe this novel as 'magic realism'. Which bits of the book are 'real' and which are 'magical'? Which parts feel like magic has got into the everyday? Which parts seem that everyday life on the island has got some magic in it?
Alake's Words
  • Look at the first line of the book. What makes this a good opening sentence? 
  • This novel is very visual - it has a lot of descriptions of the setting and the landscapes that Zo encounters. Why do you think Alake has written it in this way? 
  • Do you like that the chapters have all got one-word titles? Is one word enough? 
  • Although the story is fast paced and extremely dramatic, there are moments where Zo reflects on environmental damage and risk. Which of these parts do you remember most clearly? Why do you think you remember these parts? 
Zo and the Forest of Secrets, published by Knights Of, was out on 2nd June, priced £7.99. Do support your local independent bookshop where you can!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Learning to Listen

The Elephant Squad by Kerry Gibb (Packman Publishing, 2022)

In this novel, perfect for Years 4-6 readers, young carers unite to find that their world, which so far has been a lonely and difficult place, suddenly opens up with possibilities. 

Cleo, Jayden, Ethan and Tiegan are four children who, at the start of the book, exist very much in an isolated bubble: each of them is a young carer but, until a special visitor appears in assembly one day, they are unaware that their challenges are in different ways shared by the others. This sharing of experiences and a beautifully natural empathy for each other (nascent - I adamantly believe - in every child) helps very strong bonds to form and within a very short time,  a very special and much-needed community is formed. 

Reading the book as an adult and a teacher of primary-school aged children, I was struck by the author's real sensitivity and understanding of children.  With major parts given to two boys and two girls, there's ample scope to explore the feelings of these children from different gender points of view and I love how the characters' voices come through loud and clear. Gibbs' development of the two boys demonstrates particularly astute understanding - Ethan and Jayden may have tougher exteriors, but their inner warmth and fierce protection is lightly and sensitively point. All four of her young carers are drawn in such a way that their loneliness is clearly sensed but the lasting memory of all four is the extraordinary resilience, intelligence and natural goodness that children demonstrate daily, if only we listen.

And listen we readers must. Because it is the unsaid, the 'between-the-lines' connection of dots that makes the difference. Cleo demonstrates (probably unconsciously!) just how important this is as, despite her own challenges - or maybe because of them, actually. She models listening to the silent voices of these young carers; she feels strongly the emotional weight of the parents, grandparents and siblings who are cared for by these children. And with a grace that is quite wonderful to see unfold, she shows the readers what 'caring' really means. 

This is a book that would be great to share as a class read. There's a fluency and ease to the storytelling that makes reading it a real pleasure and - oh my goodness! - what book talk, what connection, what empathy this story would engender.

***

The Elephant Squad is published by Packman Publishing on 23rd May 2022. It is available from the author's own website, https://kerrygibb.com, and from all good bookshops. (Do support the independents where you can!)

An added bonus from Kerry: "When a safe arrives in the school yurt, the children must think up a code that only they can know! Follow The Elephant Squad blog tour to discover the code! Each blogger will release one number and direct you to the next blog! Once you have the correct combination, email it to kerry@kerrygibb.com to unlock your entry into a competition to win a signed copy of The Elephant Squad with a limited edition bookmark.

Today's number, the final one, is 3.

Good luck!

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Boy who Grew a Tree

The Boy who Grew a Tree by Polly Ho-Yen; illustrated by Sojung Kim-McCarthy (Knights Of, 2022)

In Polly Ho-Yen's new book from Knights Of, we explore a contemporary, familiar world of libraries-under-threat, urbanisation and the place of family in an increasingly high-stress world.

Tomi is a little boy who at first keeps himself to himself at after-school club. His mum's time is taken up with looking after his prematurely-born sister and Tomi finds it hard connecting with other children. He finds a tiny seedling growing in an abandoned, soon-to-be-knocked-down library and, being the ardent nature lover that he is, gives it a drink of water. And from this point a tale of love and finding oneself in a confusing world begins to flourish. 

This fable for our own times is a sheer delight for so many reasons. Firstly, it is that rarest of things: a challenging, engaging, exceptionally well-written novel for children just starting to branch out into reading for themselves. It would work extremely well in Year 3, but also for children at the end of Year 2 or beginning of Year 4.

Without any dogma attached, the novel puts across in the most direct and poignant way its message about caring for our local environments, both natural and man-made, and about looking after each other. There is such high quality in the writing throughout, the language skilfully judged and some moments breathtaking in their simplicity and depth. Slightly older readers in the anticipated audience age-range will benefit from exploring the ways in which Ho-Yen portrays Tomi's inner world - and some of the other characters too: Abi rubbing her headscarf, Isaac clinging to his cousin, Tomi's mum and her 'hidden' story that carries on throughout the novel - what is going on in their lives that we don't get to 'see'?

The pictures are a truly perfect addition to this lovely story. Sojung Kim-McCarthy's soft chalk and charcoal drawings in shades of grey, black and white invite us throughout to appreciate Tomi's sensitivity and gentleness and the expressiveness of the children's faces have an innocent grace. There's a refreshing simplicity to the illustrations but, as with the words, there's real depth too.

I am just so pleased to read a short novel of this quality and thoughtfulness aimed at the younger junior age-range. It's such a beautiful thing to see a writer and illustrator coming together to create a gift like this, treating their young readers with a respect and intelligence they very much deserve. 

                                                                             ***

I anticipate The Boy Who Grew a Tree becoming a favourite in Year 2, 3 and 4 classrooms so, to provide some starting points for Book Talk, I have put together a few prompts to get children of the this age-range thinking about the story, the pictures and some more general things too...

The Story

1. Have you ever grown plants, vegetables, flowers, fruit like Timi does? How did you do it? Was it easy or difficult to look after the plants? Maybe you could try growing bean plants in your classroom too, just like Timi. Make a diary of what happens each week, what you do to take care of the beans, and how it grows. 

2. On page 16, Timi meets with a group of other children at the after-school club. He describes them often by talking about something from nature: a snail shell or snake skin for example. Why does he do this? 

3. On page 36, Timi returns to the library and it says 'He felt something unknot inside of him'. 

  • What does it mean that he had a 'knot' inside him?
  • Where do you think he would feel that knot in his body?
  • What made that feeling appear inside him? 
  • Why does going to the library change how he feels inside? 

4. Timi is amazed at the seedling's growth: 'It had only been one, two , three, four, five, six days! It was impossible that the seedling could have become a tree in so short a time'. Why do YOU think the tree got bigger and stronger so quickly. 

5. After Timi spends the holiday with his aunt and cousin Isaac, he returns to the tree in the library. 

  • How has the tree changed? 
  • What is not any different about it? 
  • Why do you think the tree looks like this now? 

6. As the tree grows, we are told Timi gives it water and opens the curtains for light, but also that he talks to it. Why do you think he does this? Does a plant need talking to help it grow? What things do you think Timi said to the seedling/tree? If the tree could hear Timi, what do you think would be the things it liked hearing the most? 

7. Why does everyone get into the tree near the end? What are they trying to show? Why do they care so much about the tree? 

8. On p. 102, Timi says to Bisi: 'All this. This is for you too.' What does he mean? What has he and his friends given to his new-born sister and why?

9. Who is Babu and the little girl mentioned at the very start and at the end of the book? How do you know this? 

10. What would it be like to visit and use a library with a big tree growing up the middle of it? Do you think it was a good idea to build a library around the tree? Why do you think the council didn't build it somewhere else?

The Pictures

1. Before reading the story, look at the very first picture on page 1. Who is this in the picture? What are they doing? What other things are in the picture?

After you've finished the book, look again at this picture. How have your first thoughts changed? Who are the two characters? Where are they? Why has the illustrator drawn books, cushions, a wheely trolley into the picture? (And see if you can find them all in the very last picture too...!)

2. Find three pictures of Timi throughout the book. (Try to find three that show different expressions.) Look closely at the expressions on his face.

  • Copy these pictures of his face.
  • What is he feeling? What is he thinking?
  • Why has the illustrator drawn his face like this? Look carefully at what is happening or being said in that part of the story. 

3. Look at the pictures on pages 29, 43, 65 and 72. We are looking at the seedling/tree from different angles and different distances. Why has the illustrator drawn the pictures this way? Have a go at drawing something from above or below - it really changes how you think as an artist and as a reader! (Look out for this in cartoons or films you watch - film-makers call these close-ups, wide-shots and other things too)

4. Which is your favourite picture in the whole book? Why did you choose this one? 

General things to do and to think about

1. Can you find any plants that are not growing in any soil in your garden, near your house or your school? 

Draw them carefully - what tiny details can you see? 

Find out how they manage to survive without any soil. 

2. Timi knows such a lot about how to look after plants - and he's still very young! What are some of the things he does in the book that show how knowledgeable he is? Make a list of these and draw a little picture of your own to show Timi doing each thing.

3. Would Timi make a good friend for you or someone you know? Think of two things to say why you think this. 

4. Why do you think the author chose for the seedling to grow in a library, rather than an old carpark or a deserted supermarket? Would the story be different if the tree had grown somewhere else? 

5. Do you belong to your local library? It's free, so why not ask a trusted grown up to help you join? What books will you find there? 

Ask one of the librarians to help you find out about different parts of the library, such as where the information books are, or the poetry, or maybe even DVDs and music recordings 

What other things go on in your local library. Are there any special clubs for children? Who is allowed to use the computers? 

6. We know that plants can grow and humans and all animals grow bigger too! But humans can grow 'as people' too. This is called personal growth: our thinking and actions can change as we learn to get better at dealing with other people and events in our lives

  • How does Timi 'grow' as a person from the start to the end of the story? 
  • What are the most important things he experiences that help him to grow in this way?
  • What has Timi taught YOU about personal growth?

7. The tree's final stretches of growth happen when people read to each other in its branches. Why does the tree grow a little bit more at that point? 
  • Do you have someone or some people in your life who read to you? If so, you're very lucky - it's a precious gift! Who does this? Ask them why they do it and talk about how you feel when they read to you. 
  • If not, perhaps ask someone at home or your teacher in school to read you something. Why not read to someone in your house, or a soft toy, or your pet...or even a little plant! 

Everyone deserves a good story.

***
The Boy Who Grew a Tree by Polly Ho-Yen, illustrated by Sojung Kim McCarthy is published by Knights Of on 5th May 2022. Thank you to Annabelle Wright of ed public relations for providing me with an early copy for review.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

"Wicked and Glorious": The Short Stories of E. Nesbit, and Some Others


E. Nesbit - The Last of the Dragons / The Magic World / Nine Unlikely Tales / Fairy Tales / In the Dark
 (various publishers and publication dates)

Springtime of late seems to be a time for me to come out of a kind of literary hibernation to renewed energies in my reading and to tackle a kind of short-story marathon. #JanMARKuary began the engine whirring with two years dedicated to her short stories and previous years have included consumption of the complete short fiction of Philippa Pearce (found elsewhere on this blog) and John Gordon (the overview published in Ghosts and Scholars No. 50). This year comes the turn of E(dith) Nesbit, and this inspired mainly from reading Lissa Evans' outstanding novel Wished. I read Nesbit aloud to a class a few years back, choosing Five Children and It (though I can't quite remember the reason) and found that the words flowed just so beautifully. This was no fusty Edwardian, moralistic 'classic' but something completely fresh-as-a-daisy, despite its age. The class enjoyed it a lot and had no issue with anything seeming old-fashioned nor - more importantly - difficult to relate to their own lives and perceptions. 

With all this in mind, and the Nesbitty world of Wished at the forefront of my mind, I shall be reading as many of Nesbit's short stories for children that the days of April (and my collection) will allow, hopefully one per day. It won't be an exhaustive list of every short story she wrote for children but there may be a couple of her tales of terror too - I am intrigued at how they compare!

Abbreviations used throughout refer to the collections in which the stories appear:
TLOTD  - The Last of the Dragons, and some others
TMW - The Magic World
NUT - Nine Unlikely Tales
FT - Fairy Tales
ITD - In the Dark (horror stories)

***

April 1st 2022:   
The Book of Beasts (TLOTD)

I read this aloud to my class today telling them that this was the Nesbit story I came across as a child and adored. I never forgot it and found it again in the collection I have today when I began teaching. The idea of a Bestiary that comes to life thanks to its previous owner's occult leanings would have absolutely fascinated the younger me and the book-talk with the children today similarly came alive when I asked what creatures they would want to see animated by a magical Book of Beasts of their own, an axolotl being a particularly popular choice and the dodo, which sets off a different line of talk about extinction. The discussion meanders joyfully around this topic for a while then we end up finding a picture of a Thylacine and I recommend Ben Garrod's new Extinct books. I am fairly sure that Nesbit would have appreciated the magic of today's read-aloud session. 

April 2nd 2022:   
The White Cat (TMW)

'Wicked and Glorious', the partial title of this blog is also the description of an afternoon where Tavy is left home alone (except for the servants, who end up the butt of his practical jokes) but it describes Nesbit's children in general so well. They are naughty but not really bad kids; they are just kids, and quite loveable for all their energies in whatever directions! And this is Nesbit's genius - she really does understand the whims and apparent logic of children's thinking: her writing will never age because of this simple fact. 

Apart from the title character being a clearly distant relative of Evans' Attlee with its comic, self-absorbed irony, I am reminded of Wished again, in the very subtle writing about Tavy's mother. She is ill but throughout the story, the family's predicament is only inferred and Tavy doesn't quite understand the full implications. The darkness is there but hangs back. Children live in the moment, or in a Magic World of their own making...real life can just carry on. Evans understands that as much as Nesbit does.  

April 3rd 2022:   
Accidental Magic (TMW)

Human sacrifice is not something one finds as a plot point in many children's books. But it is here. A kind of weird logic to the story leads from a childhood idyll, sharply interrupted by the harsher reality of school days replete with bullies and unsympathetic schoolmasters, to a bizarre, pagan folk-horror conclusion. I was smiling at Nesbit's characteristic humour at the start, but after a few pages, the tone became increasingly dark, ultimately leaving me feeling quite uncomfortable indeed despite a happy ending...of a kind. 

April 4th 2022:   
Man-size in Marble (ITD)

In yesterday's story, Nesbit ends by confronting the reader to address their own doubts about whether the story was a dream or reality. Today, in the very first sentence and paragraph of this grown-ups' Tale of Terror, she refers again to the idea of 'rational explanation' and leaves it up to us, the reader, to make a decision. 

I selected today's story for its connection to the kind of folk-horror that ended Accidental Magic and although not necessarily significant, Man-size in Marble has a number of visual parallels to that tale as well: the almost ceremonial walk to the church at the climax brought to mind of Tavy's journey to the ultimate sacrifice; and the figures lying on stone slabs, near or on an altar, are clear in both stories. Nesbit writes dark, folksy weirdness as well as she does the bright fantastic elsewhere, it would seem.

The narrator, unlike the one(s) from her children's stories, irritated me; a condescending, arrogant man. 

April 5th 2022:   

The Town in the Library in the Town in the Library (NUT)

There are definite hints of Hoffmann's Nutcracker in this tale -  the Christmas Eve setting, mice grown to mammoth proportions, toy soldiers come to life, an excess of candy - but the schwarzer-Wald tone has become a thinner, bloodless, 'English' kind, and the macabre creepiness of the original is absent. Or at least, seems to be.

Naomi Lewis points out in Fairy Tales that Fabian and Rosamund are the namesakes of two of her own children. Fabian sadly died at fifteen, she tells us. 

There is something sinister about the puzzle-box nature of the children's play in this story: the repetition of 'the library of a house in a town built in a library of a house in a town' is obsessive and odd, as though the story has become stuck, or perhaps that the children's imagination has simply run out. Ultimately, the mouse's deus ex machina advice sorts everything. Lewis says she 'very much likes' this, but for me it rings slightly hollow. Perhaps the knowledge that Fabian Bland (the real Fabian) died in 1900, one year before this story was published in Nine Unlikely Tales, makes me a little uncomfortable. 

April 6th 2022:   

The Deliverers of Their Country (TLOTD)

As with The Book of Beasts, the acknowledged dragon-nemesis in this tart little satire proves to be a damp squib - 'I can't do anything,' he says - and leaves the way open for the two children to organise the downfall of the invading monsters; I actually can't think of any other authors at the turn of the century who would show up an adult and national hero such as St. George in a book for children. The ignominy!

But this isn't the only bit of ridicule at the grown-ups' expense. The technical wafflings of the children's (oblivious) father, then the professional sparring between him and 'the professor' at the start, hilariously lampoons the field of academia; elsewhere, the word 'taproom' undergoes a brilliant misreading, avoiding the proper, adult definition in favour of a child's fantastic, literal imagining: not a bar but a room with taps that turn the weather on or off. 

It's this kind of writing that makes Nesbit a real champion of the children's world. Even the title points to this - the children are the 'Deliverers'...and its 'Their' country too! With Nesbit, the literary tables are turned: she is the first author writing for children, and simultaneously at the adults.  

April 7th 2022:   

Mélisande, or Long and Short Division (NUT)

There are all kinds of literary references here and the result is the most joyfully bizarre story I’ve read so far. The allusions to Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty while obvious are all turned upside down, and the disguised attendance of Alecto (I think it's meant to be her) at the Christening, with her snaky hat and bat wings, is just wild! 

What is most striking about this story is how it looks far ahead to the work of Joan Aiken. The voices of both authors are so similar - ironic, whimsical, gently mocking, and very, very funny when they want to be. A closer reading of Mélisande, certainly reveals many of the raw ingredients that Aiken was to plunder from Nesbit's larder and make very successfully her own. 

First of all, how both writers send up the status quo. In both, there's the regular, topsy-turvy reworking of fairy tale tropes and mythological characters. W.S. Gilbert does something similar in the Savoy operettas though his tone is more satirical; Lewis Carroll plays around with it in Alice, though his caricature seems more suited to the donnish humour of High Table; Nesbit is doing it for her young readers and having a lot of plain, good fun! She is setting a precedent for Aiken, but then also for Jon Scieszka's Stinky Cheese Man, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson (and his 'Rick Riordan Presents' series), not forgetting J.K. Rowling's entire world of Harry Potter!

But I think Aiken pays subtle direct homage to the mentor who wrote Mélisande,.  One of Aiken's short stories, called The Apple of Trouble, calls upon Alecto and the other Furies to knock at the  Armitage's front door. Aiken introduces her Furies: 

'They seemed to be dressed in old-fashioned clothes, drainpipe skirts down to their ankles and cloaks and bonnets rather like those of Salvation Army lasses [...] 

 then, later: 

"We are the Daughters of the Night," one of them hollowly replied. She moved forward with a leathery rustle [...]

and by the morning light, Mark Armitage sees that they have 'snakes for hair'. 

Compare all this to Nesbit's description of one of the guests at the Christening: "another fairy in a smart bonnet with snakes in it, stepped forward with a rustle of bats' wings" It's less JA's description of the Furies per se rather than her choice of words - bonnet, rustle - and the fact that the snakes are disguised as part of the hat or, in Aiken, mistaken for 'thick, lank masses of hair' - small but notable nods of admiration. 

Other influences on Aiken in this story might include Fortuna, the fairy godmother, whose 'saved' birthday wish turns out to be the crux of all the bad fortune in Melisande. Here, Aunt Gertie (from JA's All You've Ever Wanted) is strongly invoked. We never see Fortuna - she only ever replies (or not!) to the King's letters and, like Gertie with her birthday 'poems', remains comparatively unaware of and certainly at a safe (postal) distance from the severe trouble that her wish has caused.  

I'd also mention in reference to the Nesbit/Aiken connection the logical illogicality (or illogical logic) of the Prince's solutions to Melisande's problems: 

"How did you do it?" asked the King, shaking Florizel warmly by the hand. 
"The simplest thing in the world," said Florizel, modestly. "You have always cut the hair off the Princess. I just cut the Princess off the hair." 

 That kind of innocent punning sends me straight to Aiken-Land! 

April 8th 2022:   

The Prince, two mice and some Kitchen-Maids (NUT)

But there were no trips to Aiken-Land today. 

A virtually identical opening to yesterday's story, with King and Queen debating how to avoid being cursed at their child's Christening, leads on to a pretty - also, pretty traditional - fairy tale. It's a disappointment and as great a contrast with Mélisande as could be: the dialogue lacks the wit present elsewhere in Nesbit, the fantastic element is humdrum, and even the silliness of the White Rat's putting everything right at the end just feels undercooked.  

April 9th 2022:   

Billy the King (FT)

The word-play in this story is a delight, my favourite bit being the fact that the Post Office always look after the Royal 'Male' so, on having just become King, Billy is advised to post himself! 

But this punning casts a light on a possible something in the title too - is it Billy the 'King'...or Billy the 'Kid'? The Kid's notoriety would have been fairly recent history to Nesbit (he was shot in 1881) so I doubt it's a coincidence, though it really is truly astonishing to consider that she may be alluding to a criminal, in a children's fairy tale. If - if! - her Billy is anything to do with the real-life Kid, then what she has done is to rework the dangerous, outlaw lifestyle of a teenager for her own (littler) hero to flaunt in the face of a corrupt, adult government...And she's writing for a children's audience? Is this allowed??!

April 10th 2022:   

The Cat-hood of Maurice (TMW)

This story sets a precedent for a number of other 'transformation' stories. Maurice, the naughty boy who plays cruel tricks on his cat (Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are), later learns from the taunted one to see the error of his ways (Ravel/Collette's fantasy opera, L'Enfant et les Sortileges) by them both swapping bodies. There's an almost identical parallel in Satoshi Kitamura's delightful picture book, Me and My Cat, though in that story we are treated to observe the cat-in-boy's-body's comic shenanigans during the swap. 

In Nesbit, though, there's not a whiff of whether this exchange is imagined or metaphorical, as with Max's jungle-island, or David McKee's Jeckyll-and-Hyde Bernard/Monster: with no doubt at all, we appreciate that Maurice has turned into a cat. A moral is present, just not the psychological interpretation (though I guess Freud and Jung were still yet to bring their theories to light). It's a delightful story; and the very touching moments where Maurice gets to learn how his family see him should not be underestimated.

April 11th 2022:   

The Queen with the Screaming Hair (A Slice of Rainbow by Joan Aiken)

A delightful, most welcome and very appropriate diversion today. Lizza Aiken mentioned this story to me on Twitter: 'a terrific Aiken steal of [The Cat-hood of Maurice]'. It's certainly got some strong similarities: cruelty to cats' whiskers, child learns the error of their ways; but I also see the typical JA fingerprints all over the evidence! The ultimate, third 'good deed' is completely eccentric and original, and reminds me of the over-the-top finales in the Wolves Chronicles: not even Nesbit would think of an iceberg being pulled in two by rope made from a princess' golden hair. And then for a little, long-lost boat to emerge from inside the frozen chunks? No, that's pure Aiken!

Entertaining bombast such as this aside, the similarities to Nesbit in The Queen with the Screaming Hair open up some intriguing differences too.  Aiken takes us over the psychological bridge from Nesbit's moral attitudes into the mid-to-late twentieth century. Not happy with simply presenting 'a naughty child who needs to learn right from wrong' - though this isn't quite what Nesbit is doing either - there's an underlying purpose to Princess Christina's spiteful, talking hair. This part really brought me up short: 

"Sometimes the voices gave her bad advice, sometimes they scolded her, sometimes they just teased: 'Think you're pretty? Well you're not - you're just fat and plain!' "

It's Christina's inner self, the reason for her 'unconsciously' cutting off the whiskers, that is given a voice here. How much bad behaviour in youngsters comes from an unfulfilled 'something'? Here, Christina has just been abandoned by her parents - "What have I done wrong?" - she is 'wanting comfort'  and without that, her rage breaks out and Christina's guilt and self-loathing builds. Only by submitting to genuine love is Christina (like Maurice, unlike poor Bernard) redeemed. That hair is truly nasty, but it's part of growth (literally, too, in the story!). 

Considering two such 'similar' tales, one sees very clearly how different writing children had become over fifty or sixty years. Aiken's story is subtle, but she's not afraid to put this 'hidden' stuff in - she trusts her young audience to 'get' what she's saying. Nesbit started all this, that respect for the young in their literature. She may not have gone as far as Aiken, but my goodness, she passed the already well-developed mantle into very capable hands. 

Many thanks to Lizza for bringing this story to my attention today. It has increased my appreciation of Nesbit (and Lizza's mum's stories, too!) a thousand-fold. 

April 12th 2022:   

The Ice Dragon (TLOTD

This 'dream/imagination' story I found very strange. There is a traditional fairy tale trope - three good deeds, three repayments - but it rambles on as the children make their journey to the North Pole.

There was also a strange violence to the whole thing with grouse and moths being saved from bullets and pins, and what happens to the 'sealskin people' at the end is pretty revolting. It's noticeable that Nesbit's typical humour is absent - perhaps this made the oddness of the story difficult to stomach. 

April 13th 2022:   

The Sums That Came Right (NUT

Today's post appears in celebration of Lissa Evans finding a copy of Nine Unlikely Tales in the London Library!

The jokes come thick and fast today! There's a huge amount of fun to be had at the expense of the useless, impractical nature of worded problems in mathematics: the elliptic descriptions throughout the story which come at a rate of knots - what haunted house? why weren't all the canes thrown away? what about those buttered muffins exactly? -  recreate the surreal nature of a page of Arithmetic Word Problems. With a virtuosic subtlety in describing this bombardment of madcap events, Nesbit both manages to side with the child and make any grown-up reading this story realise just how strange the traditional view of mathematics teaching must seem to young eyes!

But the greatest disjunct between the separate worlds of childhood and adulthood comes in the tale's allusions to love and sex. In this way, Nesbit manages to present the surface entertainment of a children's story yet also balance this with a deeper, emotional range that I see more often in Aiken (specifically, in stories like The Serial Garden). It speaks to the reader with humour but also with truth and respect and, for this reason, makes The Sums That Came Right the strongest Nesbit story I have read.

It all begins metaphorically, though. For Edwin, 'love' is not what the Arithmetic Fairy understands and talks about. Early on, Edwin just doesn't get why he has to be put through all these silly stories with calculations attached but the Arithmetic Fairy assures him that the mathematics will be of great use when he is grown up. As she leaves him for the first time, she says, 

"Goodbye, my child. You'll know me better in time, and as you know me better you'll love me more."

Ostensibly she means, 'as you get older, all this stuff will become practically useful and thus easier to understand'. Of course, though, other things start to become better understood 'in time' as we grow up...

The innuendo here reminds me very strongly of Stoppard's Arcadia, which itself opens with the young Thomasina asking her tutor during a similar problem-solving lesson the definition of 'carnal embrace'. His literal description of it 'throwing one's arms around a side of beef' could have come straight from Nesbit!  There's the same playing around in both The Sums That Came Right and Arcadia with the neat (safe) logic of mathematics and the instability of sexual attraction. Nowhere better is this pointed out in the Nesbit than in this brilliant sentence:

Only one pair of white rabbits remained the property of Edwin, but these, by the power of the Arithmetic Fairy, became ten by Christmas.

(What are these powers - apart from being yet another superb pun! - of the Arithmetic Fairy??!)

Time passes and Edwin grows up. His understanding of mathematics lands him the job of Astronomer Royal and he has posited the Hypernebular Hypothesis, no less. But love and sex are still a mystery to him. 

There's an elegiac tone to the ending, the seed of which was sown right at the start when Edwin told the Fairy in all innocence how pretty she is. In the last lines, when he goes out into the rose garden, perhaps to find love finally, the Arithmetic Fairy turns away sadly and flies 'out of the open window and out of this story'. It has the same beauty as the waltz between Thomasina and Septimus at the end of Arcadia - a life that never shall be.

April 14th 2022:   

The Island of the Nine Whirlpools (NUT

A traditional and very charming fairy tale with some particularly notable features. 

Firstly the wonderful description, at the start, of the witch's cave - straight into the story with the 'black and yellow fringe of snakes' around the door. Though the witch is not the kind you would expect from such decoration! Then, the snakes themselves become peculiarly delightful with their behaving like 'good Sunday-school children' and awkward attempts at bowing to the Queen as she leaves. 

There is a hero (a sailor-boy, 'worthy of a prince') called Nigel which is just lovely! 

Later a bit of Carroll-esque logic punning... 

'You know a griffin is half a lion and half an eagle, and the other two halves when they're joined make the leo-griff. But I've never seen him.'

 ...which ends up getting punctured...

'Yet I have an idea.'

...and doesn't have anything at all to do with how the story is worked out. (I like to think this is a slight bit of mockery on Nesbit's behalf, particularly with the contextual presence of a griffin (or is it a Gryphon?) and all the maths that Nigel manages (just!) to solve in order to win his Princess.)

Finally, there's this: 

'My Princess,' he said, tenderly, 'two great powers are on our side: the power of Love and the power of Arithmetic. Those two are stronger than anything else in the the world.' 

Which, of course, echoes yesterday's story, though here the sentiment is far happier and appears in a more traditional setting. The references to Arithmetic are still curious, though. Curiouser and curiouser in fact...

April 15th 2022:   

The Charmed Life, or The Princess and the Lift-Man (FT)

This comes across like the synopsis to a kind of Grand opera in the manner of Donizetti's historical epics! While reading, I entertain myself thinking about the different characters, their singing voices and set pieces - an opening chorus praising the novelty lift ("Possiamo salire e possiamo scendere") maybe? A recitative and aria for dramatic soprano, Candida ("Amo il suo cuore, sicuro e protetto, qui nel mio cuore")? A sotto voce duet, before the final denouement, between the interfering page-boy and the elderly lady-in-waiting ("Non saranno felici, ma trionferemo!")? Although having imagined all this, it's sounding not so far from Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida now. 

Anyway, back to reality and Naomi Lewis writes of how the reference to Sherlock Holmes in The Charmed Life is particularly noteworthy as Conan Doyle had only just presented the Great Detective to the public. Nesbit was quick off the mark getting in this reference...perhaps that Billy the King/Kid allusion might not be so much a pie in the sky theory as I first thought.

April 16th 2022:   

Billy and William (FT)

Nesbit might so easily have called this, Billy and Harold, to tell us the story is about the two central characters. But she's telling us that it is actually about one boy - Billy (his kinder side) and William (his selfish side). This makes the story so much more interesting when considered in this way. 

It's a Voyage and Return story (to use the 'Seven Plots' phrase coined by Christopher Brooker) - Billy, remorseful and wanting to put things right (less, I think, for Harold but more for him), makes his breathlessly incredible journey over land and on sea to the P&O steamer where he finds Harold again. Back they come, together, on the fantastic kite-bike. 

Where the turning point for 'William' comes is before the voyage out to the steamer. I'm including a tabulated breakdown of the story, shown against two other Voyage and Return stories, to describe how the Voyage Parts (Orange) are positioned in different places within Booker's 5 Stages model. The red parts are pre-voyage; blue parts are post-voyage) This is not a story where the literal voyage and return mirrors the character's personal growth. In Where the Wild Things or The Wizard of Oz and many other examples - the climactic turning point happens after travelling to the 'other place'; but here Billy/William travels because of his realisation and self-awareness. It makes the kite-bike ride a surface detail; where the voyage and return really is situated is in William's inner character - but then it's there in the title after all. 


April 17th 2022:   

The Last of the Dragons (TLOTD)

There are some superb descriptive details today: the dragon is twice likened to machines before the final denouement of "How the Aeroplane Came to Be": 

It sounded as though a rather large cotton-ill were stretching itself and waking up out of its sleep.

And then:

[...] the clang and clatter of its turning echoed in the cave like the sound of steam-hammers in the Arsenal at Woolwich.

It's a Just So story in all but name, and Nesbit's re-interpretation of Kipling's 'form' (his animal tales were published in 1902) feels a strikingly modern thing for her to have done! 

April 18th 2022:   

Septimus Septimusson (TMW)

The visual impact here will stick in my memory: the size of the boar ('as big as a horse, with tusks half a yard long'), the frenzied attack of the squirrels on the mole, the jawdropping sight of thousands of mussels swarming to build a reef that will catch the evil fish... 

Certainly the part of the story, where Septimus goes forth to break the spell on the princess, is far more panoramic that the other stories I've read this month, and takes the fairy tale form (three good deeds - three repayments again) into some quite spectacular places. It's as though Nesbit were challenging herself to make the characters as eccentric as possible (mussels, squirrels, moles) whilst still holding on to some familiar tropes (wicked magician, cursed princess, enchanted stone). Perhaps it all shouldn't add up, but it does: Nesbit's arithmetic has a magic of its own.

April 19th 2022:   

The Magician's Heart (TMW)

Quite a surreal take on the fairy tale, showing me yet another dimension to Nesbit's storytelling. Here she is, playing around with different stories, weaving threads of characters in and out of the tale until everything comes good in the end. There's a 'magic three' (magician, apprentice, princess) which Nesbit somehow manages to square (not exactly mathematically tho!) by aligning the nurse, apprentice, princess...then magician, king, princess...and even 'James', 'apprentice', 'Fortunatus' (one character becomes three!). It's a sort of clever magic trick, like shuffling cards and displaying three-at-a-time, such as in a hand of Find the Lady

The heart itself is deliciously grisly, particularly when the apprentice whips out the kitchen knife. Nesbit is not afraid of a bit of melodrama here, but also hilariously sends up her own scene as she plays it out: 

Stop, I say!’ said James, who was Fortunatus. ‘I’ve got your heart!’ He had—and he held it up in one hand, and in the other a cooking knife.

‘One step nearer that lady,’ said he, ‘and in goes the knife.’

The Magician positively skipped in his agony and terror.

‘I say, look out!’ he cried. ‘Be careful what you’re doing. Accidents happen so easily! Suppose your foot slipped!

A final mention goes to this superb line from early in the story: 

[the magician] vanished in a puff of red smoke with a smell like the Fifth of November in a back garden on Streatham Hill

I wondered why Streatham Hill was cited here and looked up the Edwardian connections. Apparently, at the time of Nesbit's writing The Magician's Heart it would have been a very gentrified part of London. The 'back garden' that she alludes to in the simile is, I assume, large; the fireworks going off from it, plentiful and spectacular; hence, the sulphuric splendour of Taykin's exit is perfectly captured. 

April 20th 2022:   

The Fiery Dragon (TLOTD)

Although the story here (and the rather precious Princess) makes for a winsomely charming example of Nesbit's storytelling, there is a sharp turn near the end: Elfin's hands being burned to charred stumps has more than a whiff of Grimm about it and the ensuing 'remedies' to cure his malady have a darker, folkloric quality about them than the light comedy of the rest of the tale. 

The use of the number seventy-seven, as the number of kisses that will bring back Elfin's hands, is an unusual choice, too. It reminds me of Christ's words about forgiveness in The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The fact that the Princess cannot quite make up the number (she is one kiss short), seems meaningful - perhaps something to do with the fact that she would always forgive Prince Tiresome, even for all the horrible things he made happen to her. 

The hunt with the hippopotamuses ('bad English' according to Elfin!) is pure, throw-everything-to-the-wind whimsy. 

April 21st 2022:   
The Brothers Grimm (transl. Anthea Bell): The Juniper Tree

I reread this grisly story (an old favourite of mine) after being reminded of the more sinister side of the fairy tale in The Fiery Dragon yesterday. The mutilation of hands appears at the very start of this, with the mother accidentally cutting herself and watching the blood fall on the snow. Like the charred hands at the end of the Nesbit, it's a potent and macabre image. 

Elsewhere the story twists between the grotesque and the downright horrifying: cannabilism, decapitation, maiming...you name it, The Juniper Tree has got it - and certainly lots of symbolism, something far less apparent in Nesbit's reinventions of the traditional tropes: while I wouldn't go so far as to say her tales are much lighter or have less depth as a result of this, they are clearly very much written for children whose own unsullied, burden-less joy in their world is reflected in her style and substance. Nothing weighs down her stories.

April 22nd 2022:   

Justnowland (TMW)

Nesbit's children are never caricatures or stereotypes: girl or boy, they are innocent, naughty, thoughtful, wondering. The adults are less sympathetically drawn, like wicked-stepmother-figure, Mrs Staines here, whose punishment of locking Elsie in the attic is excessive and nasty echoes the horribleness of The Juniper Tree (if not quite so bloody!). When Elsie's father returns from India at the end of the story, the quick change of 'Auntie's'  character perfectly realises her hypocrisy: 

"Come down at once, I'm sure you're good now," she said in a great hurry and in a new, honeyed voice. 

Elsie's final "Oh, my daddy, my daddy!" is familiar from The Railway Children; that loving bond between child and parent  particularly explicit in Nesbit. In the context of traditional fairy tales, even when the parent/child relationship is positive, there is nothing quite so beautifully captured.  

The strange dreaminess of Crownowland is rather 'Grimm', the black feathers of the transformed rich citizens invoking stories like The Six Swans, especially that tale's ultimate image of the boy with a wing instead of arm: there was something in the King's pointing his wing to guide Elsie...

April 23rd 2022:   

The Related Muff (TMW)

The narrator here ("I - who am Rupert) is a child, unlike many of Nesbit's other first person narrators. The surface personality is charming but a little affected: the clumsy grammar that Rupert uses to try to sound grown up, the malaprop Gorgeous (=Gordian) knot of awkward conversation that Hilda manages to 'untie'.

The final two or three pages change everything, however. Sidney turns out to be no 'related muff' but rather a hero, who knows exactly how to save Hilda from the very frightening disaster that befalls her. It's made doubly touching that his withdrawal from games and small talk is revealed to be the result of his private worries. The innocent bravado of Rupert's earlier narration feels different after the fire: he has learned something of mortality and danger, and a lot about other people and their worlds. While there is something that doesn't quite work about Rupert's voice, the overall intent and impact is complex and highly original. Although the story is particularly short, there is much here to consider...and to admire. 

April 24th 2022:   

Uncle James (TLOTD)

Today, Uncle is the baddie (it was 'Auntie' a couple of days ago). Being a magician, Uncle James immediately reminds me of C.S. Lewis' Uncle Andrew, both using their occult learning to realise their own desires. It's the same sinister, slightly eccentric professor-type that nowadays always makes me think of Mr Abney from M.R. James' (another James!) Lost Hearts.

Now that I have read the majority of Nesbit's stories from this collection, I have to admit to being generally a little underwhelmed by her dragons. The one from The Book of Beasts is a particularly majestic specimen but although the others are grand beasts they lack the splendour and impact that I feel dragons deserve. The rather pat solution to the dragon problem (it shrinks in the end) is disappointing. The reverse-expectations regarding the animal sizes is delightful though: riding the guinea pigs like elephants, especially. 

The way in which the world of Rotundia is described, especially its inception, reminds me that H.G. Wells (another Fabian) had very recently published The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, developing the 'conte fantastique' of Jules Verne and heading towards a Golden Age of science fiction. Nesbit's miniature exploration here is ironic but not sloppy: it has an authenticity that she uses to quite individual ends. 

April 25th 2022:   

The Aunt and Amabel (TMW)

The opening of a wardrobe and stepping into another world is a very familiar one and I had recently heard of this Nesbit story when discussing C.S. Lewis elsewhere. The focus on 'white' is another snowy connection. 

We have an aunt today who is a fine adult who apologises to a child. I found this part completely heartwarming, but also shocking for its place in a children's book from one hundred years ago. Nesbit cleverly puts in a get-out clause for indignant grown-ups though: Amabel can't be quite sure she heard her aunt correctly! 

April 26th 2022:   

Kenneth and the Carp (TMW) 

Finishing the story, I'm struck by how Kenneth confides in Alison, not the two boys who take his side against her. Kenneth's transformation (which has some startlingly good description!) is a turning point for him, of course, but perhaps more so for Alison, whose survival skills won't be quite as self-interested in future: she has learned that actions have their consequences, and they can hurt someone else just as much  (if not more...) as they might oneself. Kenneth's forgiveness and Alison's regret are both in their own ways, very touching. 

Now that I've read a fair few of Nesbit's short stories this month, I think it's today's kind of story I enjoy the most: a very realistic setting with very ordinary children going about their lives when something is suddenly seen in a different way - magic is not always a necessary part of it - and the children have forever changed, afterwards. The story sits alongside The Cat-hood of MauriceThe Related Muff and Billy and William as peas in the same pod.

April 27th 2022:   

Kind Little Edmund (TLOTD) 

I quite liked Edmund at the start, particularly his desire to learn stuff they don't teach in school: 'they only know what everybody knows'! But by the end, I could see why others (outside of his family, of course, as Nesbit takes pains to note) found him irritating. The boy's obstinate precocity would undoubtedly be tiresome, but I think Nesbit is once again highlighting the truth  that children live in their own worlds and, although such places might make little sense to others, they have their own magic with a logic all of their own. 

April 28th 2022:   

Fortunatus Rex and Co. (FT) 

There's a lot of jokes for the grown ups here, though they feel sly and don't sit well with the style of humour elsewhere. The puns rely a lot on adult phrases turned into fantastic elements or happenings in the story; the political allusions to Tory newspapers and 'cutting up' may suit the business aspect of the King's enterprises but it seems heavy-handed and ultimately only fully understood by the adult reader. In other stories where there is similar punning there just isn't quite the same 'nudge-nudge-wink-wink' quality. 

The rambling, improvisatory nature of the telling seems to be an imitation of a parent making up a story to tell their sleepy child at bedtime. The final denouement of Miss Fitzroy Robinson's appearance seemed very sudden, very awkward, rather in keeping with that idea.

One character that almost seems out of place in a Nesbit story for his genuine menace is The Professor. A rather intriguing character at the start, redolent of Carswell in M.R. James' Casting the Runes, he loses steam after his 'curse', despite a quite spectacular and very weird demise. The use of punctuation in his calling card is subtle: he is a PROFESSOR OF MAGIC (WHITE) AND THE BLACK ART, seemingly more into the latter than the former. Menacing, as I say. 

April 29th 2022:   

The White Horse (FT) 

A folkloric flavour to the story today, with a kind of legendary feel too at the very end. The 'penance' for wishing outside of the orchard reveals a fairly disturbing vista of Diggory's old age and also shows him something of inevitable mortality, subtly handled but equally without sentiment or sugaring. 

Wish rules are a complicated set of things - they can have an exclusive logic but also an impish, and sometimes chaotic, sense of humour. Here, Nesbit seems to manage both. The reveal of the magician's 'wish-rules' at the end does actually feel nearly satisfactory, despite the wildly unexpected turn of narration: only 'nearly' because there's still that nagging feeling of the plot not having been quite worked out fully - not so much a story but an improvisation - but it's better formulated and spun out than yesterday's, in my view. I think the 'rules of folklore' help. 

April 30th 2022:   

The Cockatoucan (NUT) 

Today's post, the final day of this year's #WickedAndGlorious Nesbit read-a-thon, is in honour of Lizza Aiken's patience, having waited so long to see her favourite Nesbit story appear (and also in celebration of the wonderful colouring-in of the H.R. Millar illustrations in her own copy!

The Cocatoucan is a perfect end to my Nesbit reading this year, as it seems to encompass so much of what I have loved in all the other stories. There is an Aiken twisted-logic to proceedings, so perfectly established and worked-out that the bizarreness of the events, characters actually seems logical; there are hints of Neil Gamain's later urban-fantastic in how the London omnibus drives Matilda and Pridmore to a topsy-turvy fantasy world cursed by the eponymous bird; the regular sly reimaginings of fairy-tale tropes and characters - dragons, princesses...the ubiquitous but slightly out-of-place Prime Ministers!; and prose, ironic but warm, which makes the reading an absolute joy.

One such example stuck out at the very start. Potterer's Saturday Night sounds like a right bore, worse than even the dullest parts of Foxe's Book of Martyrs (mentioned in a previous Nesbit story and just as ominously in Britten's comic opera, Albert Herring). I love Nesbit inclusion of these books, that were written by grown-ups for the edification (and petrification) of children's minds. The author seems just as dismissive of them as any child would be.

But if there can be one final salute to Nesbit, then I must make it this one, a sentence just quite superb:

"Oh, my poor child," said the King. "Your maid has turned into an Automatic Machine."  (The fact that it is then discovered that she is an Automatic Nagging Machine just polishes the brilliance to a blinding shine.)

Wicked AND Glorious indeed. 

***

Thank especially to Lissa Evans, whose writing prompted this foray into these stories, and to Lizza Aiken, a great champion of "The Fantastic Ironic". Their encouragement and reading of the #WickedAndGlorious blog during the month has been both generous and inspiring.