A blog mostly about children's reading and literature.
A note on ages: I am interested in children's literature from an adult, academic perspective, as well as my own enjoyment. However, many of my readers have children and I thought this may be useful. Please use my age banding as a very rough guide for minimum ages- this is sometimes due to content and sometimes accessibility of text.
I was good at English, and at the age of about 11 won a school prize for a short sci-fi story which was terrifyingly psychological (I’ll spare you the plot summary). The prize was a book voucher and it was presented to me by the children’s writer H. E. Todd, who was famous for the Bobby Brewster series, although to be perfectly honest I’d never read any of his books. He came mainly to give us a talk about writing, which was fun; I remember a short, round, wheezy man in his seventies wearing braces and NHS spectacles; his main message (or the one that I was left with, at any rate) was the magic of the number three in stories: “Think of the Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks and the Three Bears – two isn’t quite enough, you’ll leave your readers thinking ‘is that it?’ while four is too many, you’ll send them to sleep. But three is just right.” I still have a signed copy of Bobby Brewster’s Torch although I think I’ve still never read it. I’ll have to test it out on the boys.
Schoolboys in literature: Grimble (Clement Freud, ill. Quentin Blake), The Compleet Molesworth (Geoffrey Willans, ill. Ronald Searle), The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ (Sue Townsend)
Another book I think I got from the school book club was Grimble and Grimble at Christmasby Clement Freud. At this time my peers were reading (if they were reading anything at all) The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which I could never get into. Fantasy was not really my thing; I much preferred realism and humour, preferably at the same time. Grimble is a boy of “about ten” whose parents are so vague that they don’t even know the exact date of his birthday (they make up for it by presenting him with a cake at random intervals). They are absent for most of the story, having at the start taken off to Peru (what is it about Peru?) leaving Grimble alone to fend for himself. You could probably not even write a children’s book in which that happens these days for fear of catching hell from the Daily Mail crowd, but actually I’m sure that a lot of children, maybe even all of them, love the idea of having the house to themselves. (I myself was often technically home alone, even though mum and dad were only downstairs in the shop, which felt really just like another room of the house.) Grimble’s parents seem so ordinarily distant that when they’re not actually there it barely makes any difference to their son, who appears quite indifferent. In any case, they haven’t actually abandoned him, but have been sure to leave him with an oven full of sandwiches, a fridge full of flasks of tea and and a list of addresses of family friends he can visit. Each day he goes to a different house, although instead of finding someone at home, there’s simply a recipe and ingredients for a different dinner. Among the unlikely dishes he makes are a coconut tart, eggs in mayonnaise, and – the best one, in my opinion – biscuits in burnt chocolate sauce, which he cooks in a saucepan on a camping gas fire in a railway signalman’s hut.
Another schoolboy character I loved as a schoolboy was Nigel Molesworth from The Compleet Molesworthby Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. (I know Willans was the writer and creator of the character, but it seems unthinkable not to co-credit the books to Searle whose magnificent spindly illustrations were perfect for the chaotic language and period detail.) Even though the Molesworth books were set in a public (or prep) school in the 1950s with jokes in Latin, and I was a comprehensive-educated eighties child with a decidedly flakey grasp of precisely what the Romans had done for us, the books were still hilarious and easy for me to identify with. I even found myself fantasising about being in Molesworth’s “skool” myself, wishing that my own school life was more like his, probably because it belonged to a bygone age, and a fee-paying boarding school was more like a “community” compared to the humdrum daily life of a modern comprehensive. I said earlier about Grimble that I much preferred my books to be realistic, but when The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole came along, even though I devoured the book I still preferred the “lost realism” of Nigel Molesworth’s 1950s school to Adrian’s educational experience, possibly because the latter was an experience I shared. As a character in a Woody Allen film put it, “Too much reality is not what the people want”, and in a weird way, the Molesworth books became my preferred fantasy fiction. The Adrian Mole books (I only include the “original” ones, i.e. The Secret Diary and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole – I lost interest in the many sequels) were massively successful when they came out in the early eighties, although when I look at them now they feel more dated than the Molesworth ones. What I loved most about the Mole books was the diary narrative; often I struggled to work my way through long chapters (I still do), but with a series of short diary entries the pages just flew by. I started writing a diary myself at the time and remember one of the entries read “Am on page 86 of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole ALREADY!!!”
Adrian was a year or two older than me, so reading his diary was like having an older brother, which as an only child was a good thing. That said, with his various problems he wasn’t exactly a role model, although he was basically a good person and certainly lucky to get Pandora Braithwaite to be his girlfriend (or to get a girlfriend full stop, I think – something that Townsend has said is largely due to the fact that the books were written by a woman). I’ve forgotten almost the whole book now but the part I always remember involves Adrian joining (after finally deciding he can’t beat them) school bully Barry Kent’s gang. The gang hang around deserted shopping centres after dark and one of them smashes a bottle on the ground; later, after they’ve all split up for the night, Adrian goes back, picks up the pieces of glass and puts them in a bin because he hates the idea of a “little kid” falling over on it the next day. In another scene Adrian goes to Barry’s home where “once I got used to the funny smell in the house, I started to relax for the first time in weeks”. Adrian is a very human, humane, “normal” boy in a world of mostly (with some notable exceptions) selfish, objectionable people. In this I suppose there are superficial similarities with Harry Potter; I sometimes wonder how many millions less Sue Townsend made from Adrian Mole than J.K. Rowling did from Potter because the former was “just too real” (not to mention the lack of merchandising rights).