Sunday, September 23, 2007

Stories from England

This week's essay is supposed to be about English Stories. Where to begin? I feel like I have gone fishing for whales with a length of tooth floss and a bobby pin. I think it might have been in one of the Flashman books, Flashman at the Charge, by George MacDonald Fraser, where the anti-hero Flashman caustically visualizes the British generals, having been told that Britain has now declared war, looking at a map of Russia, and imagines the conversation going something like this.

General 1: Well, I suppose we need to invade.

Pensive silence as they examine the map

General 2: Deuced big country, what?

At least that's how I recollect it. And certainly that's how it feels thinking about the width and depth of British contributions to children's literature. To winnow the forest a little, I will for the time being omit highlighting the obvious authors (Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Lewis Carroll, R.L. Stevenson, J.A. Barrie, Thomas Malory, George Orwell, Anna Sewell, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hughes, John Bunyan, Roald Dahl, Hugh Lofting, P.L. Travers, etc.) and focus on others that are as well established in the British national mental attic but are not as well known here.

Straight out of the gate though, I would have to observe that as I think about it, there are some differences in the traditions of children's reading between Britain and the US. I lived in England in the mid and late 60's, and around about Europe through the 70's so much of my reading was either directly or indirectly influenced by England.

One of the differences that I have observed is that England had, and still to a degree, has a distinctive slice of children's comics quite different from that in the US. There used to be at least three types of comics. There were action comics like Victor and Eagle which were targeted primarily to boys. These comics were actually a compilation of comic strips. In other words, there were a series of stories in each edition, all rendered as comics but each with different art work and a different feel. Almost all of the strips were action stories of one sort or another. WWII stories were still big, as were space strips, humorous strips about school, etc.

There was another category of comics that really differed more by taste (or the absence thereof) than anything else. The ones I recall were Beano and Dandy. You would not mistake them for high-brow or improving literature, but if you were six or eight years, you couldn't find much that was funnier. Beano and Dandy were still primarily pitched to boys but I think there was a pretty high cross-readership. Think of the Three Stooges or Groucho Marx in comic strip form and you have the measure of it.

Finally there was the high end of the market - magazines like Look and Learn and World of Wonder. These had a few action strips but also serials about all sorts of things: unsolved crimes, mysteries at sea, castles, serializations of classics, famous airplanes, etc., all wonderfully illustrated. I loved the World of Wonder and looked forward to its weekly arrival. I have heard it speculated that parents may have liked it better than kids because it was "improving". That could be, but I certainly enjoyed them anyway.

So there was a kind of hierarchy of unapproved reading from barely redeemable to almost respectable that at least supplemented if not substantially displaced picture books. Lamentably, and curiously, all of these are gone now except for the perennial Beano and Dandy. Having lived in England recently, we still receive those magazines - primitive as the humor might be all three of the kids still enjoy them. As a parenthetical note, please see the link to a group that is bringing back editions of Look and Learn.

For whatever reason, I don't remember any picture books from my time as a child in England other than the ubiquitous comic annuals. I am sure there must have been some but I cannot really speak to them. What there is, is a plethora of wonderful books that haven't made it across the ocean (obviously many have as well) that are quintessentially English. Unfortunately in most instances only one or two titles of a series are available over here, but we are working to make more available in the coming months.

One of the more prolific authors, (if I recall correctly, responsible for more than 700 titles over her lifetime) was Enid Blyton who repeatedly wrote series of books that were both iconic of their time but despite later, politically sensitive criticism, stubbornly remained and remain popular today. These included Famous Five and Secret Seven, each series consisting of twenty or more titles, the number referring to the number of friends in the respective mystery solving teams. Famous Five was sort of an advanced Learn to Read series. They were narrative stories but at a simple level well geared to early reading. Secret Seven followed the same format but at a more advanced reading level. Blyton was responsible for all sorts of other iconic series as well such as Noddy, The Magic Faraway Tree series, The Wishing Chair series, etc.

For those of your children smitten with the idea of English boarding schools from the Harry Potter books, Blyton wrote three separate series all set in girls' boarding schools, Malory Towers, St. Claire's, and the Naughtiest Girl. None of these are available right now in the US, but we are working to make them available.

And of course there were the stories that were inescapably tinged by imperialism, anathema to many today but also fascinating in their evocation of a time and place. There are two that are top of mind, the first being Captain W.E. Johns and his Biggles series. As described in Clare Morrall's article in Slightly Foxed, Johns was a pilot in World War I who later became a prolific author (169 books of which 104 were in the Biggles series). The titles tell it all The Camels are Coming, Biggles Flies East, Biggles in Africa, Biggles in Borneo, etc. As Morrall summarizes it, "There is still something pleasing about the simplicity of the stories in our cynical age - plenty of non-stop action with no worries about psychological damage or post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is no ambivalence. We know who should win, and we know that they will."

Another writer of imperial vintage was G.A Henty who concentrated on children's fiction, producing more than 120 works in the course of his life (December 8, 1832 - November 16, 1902). Most of his works were of general historical fiction (The Cat of Bubastes, A Tale of Ancient Egypt; A Knight of the White Cross, A Tale of the Siege of Rhodes; Through Russian Snows, A Story of Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow; With Lee in Virginia, A Story of the American Civil War, etc.), and many were tales of the Empire, such as With Clive in India, The Beginnings of an Empire; The Dash For Khartoum, A Tale of the Nile Expedition; A Final Reckoning, A Tale of Bush Life in Australia; To Herat and Cabul, A Story of the First Afghan War, etc. As with Biggles, you wouldn't anticipate moral ambiguity, self-doubt, debilitating sensitivity to the inner motivations of your opponent. What you get, serving after serving, is a brave but modest hero seeking to do the decent thing. The names change but the motivation remains the same. Fortunately many of Henty's books are still in print and very popular among those seeking good adventure stories with a dash of history.

We featured Edward Arizzone on July 22nd, whose Tim series is iconic of that period, perhaps 1930-1960. His cousin, Christiana Brand, wrote and he illustrated, another classic, Nurse Matilda.

From an earlier muscular imperial period there is of course Rider Haggard whose story telling capabilities ensure that the stories are still well-read today. Such titles as King Solomon's Mines (which I recently re-read), She, and Allan Quartermain, remain in print with others periodically coming back.

Denys Watkins-Pitchford wrote under the pseudonym BB. He also illustrated his books. The greater part of his works were outdoor books for adults pertaining to countryside pursuits, hunting, and fishing. However, his most iconic book was for children, Little Grey Men, a story centered on the last gnomes in England.

John Buchan, was a man of action and affairs (Governor General of Canada for five years, an elder of his church, a journalist and politician) as well as an accomplished author credited with founding the spy thriller genre with Thirty-Nine Steps.

Arrgh! I have to stop and yet there is still Orlando the Marmalade Cat to discuss, C.S. Forester, Ladybird Books, Puffin books, Elephant Bill, E. Nesbit, Charles Kingsley and The Water Babies, Michael Bond and the Paddington Bear series, and so much else. All in good time I suppose, but what sweet pickings.

Independent Reader

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser Highly Recommended

The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton Suggested

The Mountain of Adventure and The Ship of Adventure by Enid Blyton Suggested

A Knight of the White Cross by G.A. Henty Suggested

The Cat of Bubastes by G.A. Henty Suggested

The Dash for Khartoum by G.A. Henty Suggested

With Lee in Virginia by G.A. Henty Suggested

Little Tim And the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone Highly Recommended

Nurse Matilda by Edward Ardizzone Recommended

Allan Quartermain by H. Rider Haggard Suggested

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard and illustrated by James Danly Highly Recommended

She by H. Rider Haggard and illustrated by Maurice Greiffenhagen and Charles H. Kerr Recommended

The Little Grey Men by BB (Denys Watkins-Pitchford) Recommended

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan Recommended

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley Recommended

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond Highly Recommended

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