Thursday, 29 March 2012

Retreating to the Safety of Children's Literature...

It has been an amazingly busy period, these last few weeks, and it's not over yet...not until the end of next week when my workplace and their community celebrate Easter and the load of preparation that I am working on for all of that is over. I'm spending inordinate amounts of time wrestling with Microsoft Publisher documents, so the last thing I feel like doing when I'm at home is sitting in front of another computer screen. Long hours and computer screen headaches have pushed a lot of reading to one side too - which is a MOST peculiar state of affairs. I can't remember a time that I didn't get through many books each week. At the moment, it's one or two if I'm lucky.

For the main, it's been back to the children's literature collection for undemanding stories. I worked my way through my small collection of Marguerite Henry paperbacks - a must for horse crazy young girls... My two favourites are King of the Wind and Palio, the Wildest Horse Race in the World. Both are fact based. The first is a fictionalised story of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three Arab stallions to whom nearly every modern thoroughbred can be traced. The second is the story of a boy, a horse and a race - the Palio, held in the Tuscan city of Sienna every year. I loved them both as a kid, borrowing and re-borrowing them from my primary school library. I was very tickled to find them both years later in second hand stores and I revisit them about once a year. I have a holiday in Sienna at Palio time firmly on my bucket list!

I also reacquainted myself with a novel that won a gazillion awards when it was published in 1963, Anne Hulme's I am David. This is another novel I first discovered in my primary school library and borrowed many times. I hadn't actually read it for a while, and I'd forgotten the quiet strength of the narrative. It is the story of a child reared from babyhood to the age of 12 in a concentration camp, who is given a lifeline when one of the guards, whom he's always hated as one of 'them' but is aware has watched out for him, organises his escape. He is given the barest of instructions, a bundle with bread, water and a compass, and a quick moment when the power is cut so that he can get through the fence and away - first to a ship heading for Salonica and then north, to a country called Denmark. The only thing he knows about himself is his name, David, and the life lessons taught to him by a older fellow prisoner, now dead. He speaks several languages, but knows nothing of the world he suddenly has to navigate and people he needs to deal with, who find they, in turn, don't know how to deal with this boy who is not a child...

My only other reading of substance - and from the other bookcase... - was Lynn Reid Banks' trilogy that begins with the award-winning The L-Shaped Room. If memory serves me correctly, I first found this one in the high school library, and it would have been fairly recently published at that point. I didn't know until many years later that there were two sequels. The first book is an iconic story of self discovery when Jane, the central character, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after her first sexual encounter in her late 20s. She comes from a reasonably affluent background, which she has somewhat rejected, leading to a level of estrangement from her father, although she still lives in his house. On being given her news, he throws her out, and in a moment of martyrdom, she finds a room in a seedy lodging house in one of the less nice suburbs of London, where she meets the other two main characters, Toby and John. It's an interesting read these days - much of it still stands up, although there are some aspects that are a little dated. Making the comparison in general attitudes between now and the early 70s towards single parenthood is interesting - particularly, given that her choice to have and keep the baby is laden with the knowledge that somehow she will have to find work that can be fitted around an infant, or they will both starve, as there was no welfare available at the time. That and other stereotypes are challenged throughout the book - Toby is Jewish, a struggling writer, and John is a British born African guitarist who has not yet come out, even to himself...

The sequels go on to explore darker emotional territories as Jane's child grows and she finds her way as a self sufficient adult, capable of living alone. Ultimately, learning that lesson is what enables her to shake off the shackles of childhood emotional baggage and meet a man with whom she can have a fulfilling relationship for herself that is also good for her son.

Right now, I'm about half way through Paul Gallico's Jennie - one of his delightfully poignant stories that stretch the imagination. Peter, an eight year old child of an army father and socialite mother, much in the care of a nanny, wishes he had a cat...but Nanny won't have cats. Chasing after a kitten in the street one day, he is hit by a delivery truck and seriously injured. Then comes the magic - the reality of which took me a long time to understand (I was given this book by my aunt when I was very small, and it really seemed like magic...) - he is somehow transformed into a large white cat. When Nanny finds him, she throws him out into the London streets. With no idea of what's happened and absolutely no idea of how to be a cat, he commits blunder after blunder, ending up being thoroughly thrashed by an aggro, territorial tomcat. He is rescued by the tabby stray, Jennie, who sets about teaching him how to be a cat. And then their adventures begin. I do remember crying buckets full at the end, but that's a little way off yet! For anyone who's owned cats, the chapter called When in doubt, wash! is just delightful, and demonstrates Gallico's intense observational skills, as it simply couldn't have been written without spending hours watching cats.

Time to bite the bullet and tackle the weekly assignment, but there will be some reading time today, as my time in front of a screen is going to be curtailed to give my head a rest before I head back into the office on Monday for the last few days of insanity!


  1. Greetings, Kaz. Found you on Kyusireader, and thought I'd take a look. I'm glad I did, this is an interesting post. The Palio must be some kind of event, to be an annual local horserace in a small town that is somehow on radars all over the world. I myself became aware of it while reading Herman Wouk's Winds of War epic (pub. 1971), so it's been a world event for a long time.

    I enjoy children's literature myself, or more accurately, adolescent lit. I think that the sneaky pleasure I get is that it takes me back to those heady days of exploring a brand new world while at the same time having no particular worries about being cared for at the end of the day. Consider this your invitation to visit me at; I have just reviewed one of the greatest children's books I've ever seen, and you may want to put it on your reading list.

    Is your "Dragon Mother" blog going to launch soon? That title piques one's curiosity, and I'm pretty sure I'll check it out when it gets going. If it's not for me, then wifey will probably like it...

  2. Hi Jack,

    Welcome to Book Junkies Anonymous! I took some time out and did some blog cruising the other day, which is when I found your blog. Thanks for the feedback.

    Much of my kid's lit collection dates from a period when the adolescent creature, as we know it today, wasn't recognised as an age with its own status (you might find the discussion following my post on 'Catcher in the Rye' interesting on that point), so I tend not to make the distinction between 'children's' and 'adolescent' lit. I think when an author gets it really right, books written for kids stand up shoulder to shoulder with good adult literature, because good writing and good storytelling is just that, and has universal appeal.

    I visited your other blog - thank you for the invitation, but read it via my phone on the ferry to work this morning. I'll go back on my computer when I'm at home and look properly. Loved the concept of the art book you reviewed, so I would love to get my hands on a copy of that to have a further look.

    Dragon Mother was born in response to a particular newspaper article and then I hit a wall with how to deal with a multitude of possible family ramifications once I started soap-boxing, so it has sat there ever since waiting for me to start breathing fire! Watch out for it - eventually, I'll figure it out. The title is courtesy of my eldest son who, from the age of about 14, told people he was being brought up by a dragon...I'll leave it to your imagination to work out the potential tone of the blog!