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Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Friday 19 November 2010

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

I don't remember much about learning to read at school. The mid to late 1970s was apparently a time of great innovation in Primary education. Radical teaching methods bypassed my Home Counties small-town Primary; my mum assures me that we learnt through the Phonic method- learning letter sounds and then building them in words, but I don't remember much about my first years at school except the home corner and fancying a boy called Paul Madison, because he had long hair and wore elasticated plimsolls.

I do remember Janet and John books. I'm not sure if they were the main reading scheme books we used- but I remember thinking they were boring and it was a lot of effort to sound out those words under the bland pictures, only to find out that Janet was helping mummy (Good girl, Janet!). Besides, my dad was reading me the Narnia books at home; they were exciting, full of plot and my dad is a brilliant reader-aloud, so I thought I wouldn't bother finding out whether Janet and John ever swapped roles, with John helping mummy (Good boy, John!) and I wasn't even motivated by their dog Darky (Look, Janet! See the dog run!)

Reading didn't make sense to me until I was nearly 7. I remember that it was wet play, and I was looking for something to do, and for some reason I went to the book corner. I hadn't gone there much because the book corner was two bookshelves, jointed in the middle. They joined together and could be locked, and were only used by the teacher and the "free readers" who no longer had to read Janet and John and the other more interesting reading scheme books for children who weren't "slow readers". I picked up a Through The Rainbow Silver reader. I remember it had a story about Robin Hood in it, and had very detailed coloured pictures. I could read it! When she came back from her break, I convinced my teacher to let me read it to her- and low and behold, I went from Slow Reader to Free Reader!

My strongest memories of reading at Primary school are in fact being read to. My teacher in 3rd and 4th year Juniors was called Mrs Stowell, and she read some great books to us. I have very strong memories of The Dark Is Rising, the second in the Dark Is Rising sequence. We were in a mobile classroom not far from Buckinghamshire, where Susan Cooper set the novel, although I can't say if that was why the book resonated so strongly with me: in fact, until I reread it I forgot it was set not far from where my aunt and uncle live. But the sense of place in the novel is extremely powerful. The fourth chapter, The Walker on the Old Way has a description which is so vivid I was convinced that the novel had been dramatised on children's television in the late 70s. Will Stanton, an eleven year old boy who is the seventh son of a seventh son, has discovered that he is one of the Old Ones, the defenders of the Light, who are striving to defeat the rising power of the Dark. Will has just discovered his power, but doesn't yet know how to use it, and on his way home after Christmas shopping, he decides to instruct a fallen branch to burn:
"And there on the snow, a the fallen arm of the tree burst into flame. Every inch of it, from the thich rotted base to the smallest twig, blazed with licking yellow fire. There was a hissing sound, and a tall shaft of brilliance rose from the fire like a pillar. No smoke came from the burning, and the flames were steady; twigs that should have blazed and crackled briefly and then fallen into ash burned continuously, as if fed with other fire within."
Will's impulsivity has a consequence of course: it attracts the Dark to him, but it also convinces the Walker, who has been doomed to carry the second Sign of Power for centuries, to give it up to him.

I read the whole of the Dark is Rising sequence because Mrs Stowell read to us. I think I bought Over Sea, Under Stone, Cooper's first children's novel. I vividly remember reading Greenwitch, where Will meets Simon, Jane and Barney Drew in Trewissick, Cornwall. The section where Jane joins the local women in building the Greenwitch, a pre-Christian fertility figure, has stayed with me for thirty years. (Thankfully Jane's character is much developed from the Anne from the Famous Five crossed with Susan from Swallows and Amazons in the earlier work). I look forward to re-reading the rest of the sequence: The Grey King and Silver on the Tree.


  1. Had to chuckle at the Janet and John memories. John never did help Mummy (oh dear John).

    Great post.

  2. I only discovered The Dark is Rising books last year, I don't know how they passed me by growing up. I think they're incredible and the sequences with Jane and the Greenwitch are really affecting. Great post Ali, enjoy re-reading the rest of the series.

  3. Thank you both! Yes, Janet and John was awful. The Pirate books were much better.

    It is odd how that happens, Bearf. My teacher was really into fantasy; she read us this and Greenwitch, and also some Garner and other fantasy. She, a children's librarian and my dad were really big influences on my reading. However, I did miss out on a lot of realistic children's novels (like Judy Blume) that I encountered later through my younger sister.