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Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome [review]


swallows_amazonsSwallows and Amazons was the first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series of 12 novels written between 1929 and 1934. It introduces the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the Swallows), the camp they create on Wild Cat island and their adventures with the two intrepid Blackett sisters (the Amazons). Ransome, who was a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, was inspired to write the book after a summer spent giving sailing lessons to the children of some friends. His novel relates the outdoor adventures and play of the two sets of children who are spending the summer holidays in the Lake District. Initially ‘enemies’ the Swallows and the Amazons enjoy a few skirmishes until they agree to band together against a common foe – the Blacketts’ uncle James whom they call “Captain Flint” who angers them by thinking them responsible for the theft of his precious trunk. But of course, since this is a book intended for child readers, all must come right in the end. Mistakes are set right, apologies given, the children become firm friends with Captain Flint and all resolve to meet again the following summer.

I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child – in fact I never heard the title mentioned even among any of my friends. But it was a set text on my children’s literature course so in I plunged. I admit that, despite the fact it was voted in a 2003 BBC poll as one of the nation’s favourite reads,  I didn’t warm to this book initially. It contained far too much about the mechanics of sailing in which I have little interest. But once I’d got over that barrier I began to appreciate this tale of a bunch of children who get to go off on adventures without too much interference from adults.

It’s a novel in the long tradition of ‘island stories’ but instead of travelling to far off places and encountering pirates as the kids do in Treasure Island for example, the children here base their adventures on a small island in  one of the Lake District’s lakes (some local experts claim it’s Lake Windermere, others that it’s Coniston Water.) Influenced by their reading of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island the Walker children and the Blackett girls let their imaginations roam free.  Adults are transformed into ‘natives’, the map of the lake is re-drawn with their own names assigned to its inlets and bays,  the fish they catch become ‘sharks’ and the pebbles for which they dive are ‘pearls’. They eat some odd sounding meals – it took me a while to work out that the ingredient they call pemmican is something like SPAM – but they are not so far away from civilisation that they miss out on cakes and other treats from their mother and the nearby farm.

The more I read of their invented world, the more I recalled some of the adventures I had with my large group of cousins during our own school holidays, leaving the house just after breakfast and sometimes not returning until it was time for tea. In between we roamed the hillsides building dens to ward off imaginary invaders sustained with some wild berries we managed to forage. For the children of Swallows and Amazons their adventures provide a form of education. They learn practical skills like how to handle the dinghy or how to cook on a camp fire but they also learn a lesson in life – the importance of not taking things at face value and of valuing other people’s property. It has a clear didactic element but it’s handled fairly lightly (certainly in comparison to Little Women!).

On the whole, though I wouldn’t want to read any more in the series, this was a fun read and I found I could easily skip the details about sailing. I loved the way it sparked memories of my own childhood – I wonder whether kids today still make up their own imaginary worlds or has this become a victim of the easy availability of virtual reality and gaming?


The Book: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was published in 1930. So popular has it proved over the year that multiple TV and film adaptations have been issued, including one by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films in 2016. (it attracted criticism because out of some odd idea of sensitivity, one character’s name was changed from Titty to Tilly).


The Author: Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds but spent large parts of his childhood in the Lake District, using that detailed knowledge to inform his novels. Ransome had already written 20 novels but it wasn’t until third of the Swallows and Amazons series was published did he achieve commercial and critical success.  After the success of his first Swallows and Amazons novel he gave up his journalist career and devoted himselfto to writing adventure stories for children.  The  Arthur Ransome Trust set up to honour his work, continues to operate today, providing children with some of the same experiences as the children in his novels.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been a set text for my children’s literature course.

Snapshot November 2016

Another chapter in my reading year in which I try to capture a picture of what I’m reading, thinking about reading, buying on Nov 1, 2016.


Most of my reading at the moment is for the course on children’s literature that I foolishly decided to embark upon. It’s a level 3 (equivalent to third year university) delivered via the Open University. It’s my final module on a BA Honours Lit course I started about 12 years ago I think, persuaded by a friend who heard I had an idea for a non fiction book and recommended I sharpened up the academic research skills first. I tossed about the idea of history but got swayed by my other love of literature. It was meant for me to be ‘fun’ – I already have a lit degree so why would I need another one???  But now the end is in sight.

I finished Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson last week and now am ploughing through Little Women by L.M.Alcott and absolutely hating it. I know it’s considered a classic but it’s so full of saccharine I feel an urgent need to visit the dentist every time I read a chapter. And it’s so long! Little Women (which in America is marketed as part 1 with part 2 called Good Wives) comes in at 470 of densely typed pages. Give me strength while I grit my teeth.

wakinglionsBy way of an antidote I am also crawling my way through Waking Lions by the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. It’s not the fault of the book – just my lack of time.  It’s quite an intriguing story which looks at how the decisions we make on the spur of the moment can have long term repercussions. In this case, the decision is made by a surgeon who accidentally runs over a man on the road. Should he leave the injured man who is clearly on the path to death or should he summon help. He chooses the former. But then the victim’s widow turns up at the door intent on a very unusual form of blackmail.


lietreeRather a lot of new purchases recently. One by Sarah Crossan, a verse novel about conjoined twins which won the CILIP Carnegie Medal – an annual award for children’s fiction. Also purchased is another contender for the medal, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge which won the Costa Book of the Year 2015. It’s described as “deliciously creepy novel”. Both of these were bought all in the interests of research you understand for my children’s literature course (what do you mean you don’t believe me!). I succumbed to an offer at the bookshop and bought The Vegetarian by Han Kang, The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa Mcinnerney which won the  Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016.


The BBC did a short series with Andrew Marr looking at three different genres of books: detective fiction; fantasy epics and spy stories. I’m part way through the one on detective fiction where he argues that these follow a set of “rules”. See more about this series at the Open University web page


After my recent disappointment (described here) with my first experience of Marjorie Allingham’s detective fiction, Karen at kaggsysrambling recommended another of her titles – The Tiger in the Smoke. I’ve managed to get an audio version of this. Early days yet but the characterisation at least feels more authentic than in the other title I tried. I’m also enjoying the flavour it gives of post war Britain. Apparently J. K. Rowling has described this as her favorite crime novel

Time Harry Potter came off the banned list?

harry_potterLast week was Banned Books Week, an annual even run by the American Library Association to highlight challenges to our freedom to read. As always this event comes with a reminder of which books groups have campaigned successfully to have prohibited from school and public libraries. Children’s authors who frequently show up on the list  include J K Rowling, Phillip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson often because religious groups feel the texts are at odds with their own beliefs. The other key reason given for a ban is that the book is  deemed to contain content inappropriate for children, such as sex or drugs.

It was a surprise to me that Harry Potter was so frequently on the banned books list. I never read any of the novels when they were published (why as an adult would I want to read a children’s book was my thinking at the time). It’s only because of my course on children’s literature that I ended up reading the first in the series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I know there are some among the literati who were very sniffy about this series. The critic Anthony Holden  for example called the books ‘pedestrian, ungrammatical… patronising, conservative…derivative. ”

That seems rather harsh. Rowling’s narrative may not be as multi-layered as say Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but we should give her credit for reinventing the traditional school story as a form of fantasy. The magical elements have cited by various religious groups as reasons to restrict children’s access to the series but it seems this rather misses a key point. Yes the books contain wizards and spells but the magic is not set up to be a superior force – in fact it’s logical reasoning, not spells, that enables the trio of Ron, Harry and Hermione to discover the philosopher’s stone. Nor is the magic used without fetters – from his first connection with the non-Muggle world, Harry is instructed on the proper and improper, legal and illegal, uses of magic. He is not to use magic in the Muggle world during summer vacations, for example, and while at Hogwarts he is expected to follow the rules around the appropriate and inappropriate uses of magic.

Focusing so much on the magic also seems to miss the point that this is a novel that is firmly grounded in the kind of morality and codes of behaviour that surely parents want their children to understand and follow. Read beyond the magic and you’ll find Harry gets several ‘lessons for life’ during his time at Hogwarts. This is a novel very much in the tradition of the Bildungsroman where Harry changes from an unkept, unloved, abused child to the hero of the hour who has defeated the forces of evil. Along the way he learns the importance of study, of loyalty among friends and that while it’s fun to challenge and break the rules, there are undesirable consequence. By far the most important thing Harry learns in this novel, however, is not that he is special and has magical power but that it matters how he uses this power. He has a choice to use it on the side of goodness or to follow the example of Lord Voldemort and go over to the dark side. Every challenge he encounters at Hogwarts are tests of his character and his resolve to be the good guy.  young readers can identify with Harry not just because he defeats Voldermot but because he makes the right choices. Why would that be something dangerous for children to read about – instead of seeing him as something bad and dangerous, isn’t he in fact a good role model for children?  Instead of trying to ban the spectacled kid, shouldn’t we embrace him?


Armchair BEA: Children’s Literature

BEADay 6 of Armchair BEA and the chosen topic is the problem world of children’s literature.  I say ‘problem’ not because the world depicted in these works is one necessarily of danger or difficulty, but because the very term children’s literature comes bundled with the question of definition and the issue of control.

When we say ‘children’s literature’ what we’re generally talking about is literature written for children rather than literature written by children. So it’s a form of literature written by adults — not only do they write it, but they also decide what gets published and marketed and what gets into libraries and bookshops. So at every point in the chain, adults decide what children can and cannot read.

How do they make those decisions? Frequently they involve value judgements – judgements based on our individual cultural assumptions about ‘childhood’ and how it should be represented in fictional works. How many of us have a view that childhood is a time of innocence and freedom that should be protected? Then there is another set of assumptions made about what is acceptable reading for children. Hence the issue of control.  Adults intervene to decide what children can and cannot read instead of letting the readers themselves make their own judgements.

A quick look at the list of books banned in the school and public library system in North America shows just how much of an issue this is. The most recent list of banned/challenged books maintained by the American Library Association contains a high number of books often cited as classics of children’s literature: Huckleberry Finn (number 14) and Of Mice and Men (number 5) for example. Number one on the list is the children’s fiction publishing sensation of the last decade – the Harry Potter series. And at number 8 comes that other hugely successful series – Pullman’s His Dark Materials

Why are they challenged? Because adults don’t think the subject matter of these books is ‘appropriate’ for children or because the world view they suggest is counter to the one in which the adult believes and want their children to believe. So Pullman is challenged because his books are considered to denigrate Christianity and Rowling because her books promote witchcraft and sorcery. Judy Blume whose books try to deal with the reality of childhood rather than the rosy view, gets challenged because she talks about taboo subjects like menstruation and early explorations of sexuality.

I have no issues with people who feel deeply about certain subjects. I do have an issue about using those beliefs to exert a form of reading censorship on a group categorised by their age alone.

Adults and children – a different reading experience?

My Open University course on children’s literature started yesterday so I’ve been immersed in the pages of Northern Lights, Little Women and Harry Potter for the past week.

The first part of the course is about defining the term ‘children’s literature’. Do we mean literature specifically about children or written specifically for them or even written by children? With the increasing popularity of cross-over fiction like Hunger Games, the boundaries – if they ever really existed – have become ever more blurred.

Reading the course material has also got me thinking whether children and adults read differently. I don’t mean just in terms of the complexity of vocabulary or sentence structure but in terms of what we look for in the act of reading itself.

According to David Beagley who lectures on children’s lit at Trope University in Australia, children tend to read externally by which he means that they use novels to explore and discover experiences that they have not yet had themselves.  Experiences such sleeping out of doors (Swallows and Amazons),  coping with  the first days in a new school when you don’t know anyone (Harry Potter or Blyton’s Malory Towers for example), being falsely accused of being a liar (Jane Eyre) etc etc. Read many books aimed at younger readers and you’ll find a large “education” element mixed in with the pure entertainment element  – showing and guiding the reader on appropriate ways to behave and that some reactions are natural aspects of growing up.

I’d never read any of the Harry Potter series until recently but what struck me was how well  J..K Rowling balances the ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’  elements. Strip away  the fantasy and the magic elements and you’ll find there are plenty of messages about appropriate ways to behave whether that’s about being loyal to friends or sticking up for what you believe in. There are also multiple examples of situations which a child reader could encounter themselves – so we see how Harry deals with bullies like Malfoy and how he decides who will be the friends that are really worth having.

Little Women stands in complete contrast to this.  It’s so heavily didactic that I became frustrated with it – far too many episodes ended in a moral lesson from Marmee or a little homily from one of the sisters. But of course, this is my view as an adult reader. Was my experience different when I read it as a young girl? Undoubtedly it was. Reading it as a 10 year old, I never noticed how much sugary ‘lessons in life’ it contained. Instead, I was entranced by the character of Jo Marsh. I wanted to be a tomboy like her and not have to worry about whether my socks were falling down or my dress was stained. So in a sense I was reading as Beagley indicates – I was reading to discover an experience of what it would be like to climb trees. And then I put that knowledge to use by taking my bunch of friends and cousins on our own adventures in the hills near my grand-parents’ home. But now of course, I’ve had those tomboy outdoor experiences so I am less entranced by what Little Women can tell me, which means other aspects of the book (the role of mothers versus fathers in society for example,) come more to the forefront. And they are not substantial enough to keep me as an adult reader engaged.


Next on reading List: Mortal Engines

Following my new plan of rotating between a Booker prize winner; a novel from the reading list for my children’s course and one novel just for fun, the next novel to take its place on the bedside table is Mortal Engines. It’s by Phillip Reeve and took him more than a decade to write (he was fitting writing in with his main job as an illustrator)

I am not exactly enthused by this prospect because its science fiction or science fantasy ( I don’t really understand the difference). This is not a genre I enjoy at all. Decades ago I read some of the John Wyndham novels – particularly Day of the Triffids and the Midwich Cukoos and enjoyed those. But since then I have tried authors like Pratchett and Douglas Adams but given up very early on. I am it seems firmly in the camp of those who prefer their literature to be realist.

So Moral Engines is going to be a struggle. Apparently it is set in a post-apocalyptic world (not very original), ravaged in the past by a nuclear holocaust.  To escape the earthquakes, volcanoes and other instabilities, a Nomad leader called Nikola Quercus (why do science fiction writers insist on giving characters such stupid names), who changed his name to Nikolas Quirke (sensible man) , designed a system known as Municipal Darwinism, where entire cities essentially become immense vehicles known as Traction Cities, and must consume one another in order to maintain themselves in a world deprived of most natural resources.

To keep my sanity while reading this I might dip into something more my cup of tea – there is a collection of Guy de Maupassant short stories that have been hanging about for some time. Now could be a good time to begin reading them.

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