Louise Mensch, Conservative MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire and best selling novelist of bodice ripping romance novels under her maiden name, Louise Bagshawe, tweeted her appreciation for the renowned children's/ Young Adult historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff back in August.
I got into a Twitter conversation with Mensch back then, in which I made very briefly the points I intend to make in this post. In light of what seems to be the thrust of education policy in English and History in the English and Welsh National Curriculum review, I feel that they are still valid three months later.
When I was a child, an avid reader from the age of seven, I read pretty omnivorously, "good" and "bad" books with as I remember it little restriction apart from what was available in my class book corner and local library. Sutcliff was a favourite, as was Geoffrey Trease, Barbara Willard, Cynthia Harnett and especially Leon Garfield. These were established, although still active, writers in the 1970s, when I, and Louise Mensch, were at Primary school. I can't now remember whether an adult suggested that I read these authors (although my mum, who was a teacher, had Barbara Willard's Mantlemass series and Cynthia Harnett's The Wool-Pack on the book shelves), but I read them, and still re-read them with a great deal of enjoyment. I particularly admire Garfield's Gothic creepiness and Sutcliff's unwillingness to let her protagonists off easily in their moral and spiritual dilemmas.
Where I disagree with Mensch is in her assertion that "you don't get children's books like that anymore", which may be a throw away comment, but could also be indicative of a certain political thrust, which I will come to later. So I would like to respectfully suggest some reading to her, as I promised in August. Better late than never!
Kevin Crossley-Holland is an author I have shamefully only just encountered, through his wonderful new novel Bracelet of Bones. I picked up a copy of The Seeing Stone, the first in his Arthur trilogy, and I was entranced. First published in 2000, it is the story of 13 year old Arthur de Caldicot, growing up in the Marches between England and Wales in 1199. It is also, via Arthur's "seeing stone", a lump of obsidian, the story of Arthur, son of King Uther and Ygerna, wife of Gorlois of Tintagel, that Arthur de Caldicot can see played out in the stone. Their stories start to reflect each other, and it is through the example of the boy king Arthur in the stone that Arthur de Caldicot comes to terms with conflicts in his own life. The book is beautifully written in the first person, with some chapters less than a page and some longer, but all separated by mediaeval woodcuts. Wonderful.
I first encountered Berlie Doherty during my PGCE; her first novel How Green You Are! was recommended reading. Treason (2011) is the story of Will Montague. In the first harrowing scene, his brother is drowned, although Will is saved by his father. Will's guilt at surviving, knowing that Matthew was his father's favourite son, colours the whole book and explains a good deal about his motivations. Will's family has remained Catholic after Henry VIII cedes from the Catholic church to marry Anne Boleyn; however through his father's sister, Aunt Carew, they have powerful connections. Red-haired Will is offered a place at Hampton Court, as baby Prince Edward's page, but Percy Howard, relative of the powerful Duke of Norfolk, is furious that he was not offered the role and vows to bring Will and his family down. Then his father is denounced as a traitor for not renouncing his Catholic faith, and Will is in terrible danger. With the help of a poor boy called Nick, he must save his father, but who can he trust?
Again written in the first person, this is a more conventionally structured novel; however the historical background is beautifully evoked, the characters are well drawn (in particular the bloated, ageing, quixotic Henry and ambitious Aunt Carew), and Will is a realistic child hero. I loved the unusually sympathetic portrayal of Anne of Cleves, and a very clever foreshadowing of Katherine Howard's fate.
Penny Dolan is another new author to me. A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E (2011) starts when Mouse is a toddler. He is growing up in an English country house, looked after by his loving nanny, until his parents are presumed drowned after a shipwreck. Then his uncle Scrope, an unsuccessful gambler, looks jealously at the presumed heir, and Mouse, too young to know his own identity, is taken to live on a farm with the faithful Hanny. However, even here he is not safe; tracked down by the sinister Button, who has a hold over Scrope via his gambling debts, and Mouse is sent to Murkstone Hall, a cross between Dicken's Dotheboys Hall and Hodgson Burnett's Miss Minchin's Seminary. Here Mouse is in turn bullied, neglected and finally set to work in the kitchens, before he escapes and eventually makes his way to an unnamed city, where he finally learns who he is.
This wonderful story is told both in the first person and through a narrator, from a number of perspectives. As Mouse journeys from Murkstone Hall to the City, he falls in with a number of characters: a tramp, a Punch and Judy man, and in the city, two costume makers and their nieces, and Mr Nick Tick, a watch and clock maker. Even the very minor characters feel three-dimensional and they have a purpose in the story. At 449 pages, this is a big book (although not huge on the the Rowling scale), but the chapters are relatively short, and the shifting perspectives retain the reader's interest.
The reason that I thought again about Louise Mensch's tweets was firstly her appearance on UK comedy news programme Have I Got News For You, but also today this news in the Telegraph, which seems to suggest encouragement for state schools to teach more "traditional" texts. I feel that the report is a little disingenuous; after all, there are a number of texts that appear on both lists (Of Mice and Men, hated by me at school, Skellig and Great Expectations), but also the state school list to me seems more varied and interesting (maybe I'm missing the point here!) However, what I would like to point out to Louise Mensch and to the Conservative commentators urging more "classics" on school children is that in the 80s, when I was at Secondary school, A Kestrel for a Knave, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies were considered too "modern", and schools were urged to teach Austen and Dickens. Everything "classic" was "modern" once. Older texts are not necessarily always better than newer texts, and it is foolish to assume, without having read newer books, that they are. I hope that Louise Mensch enjoys these books!
All are suitable for 9-14, although 7 or 8 year olds may enjoy Treason and A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. read aloud.
Ah, I love this blog, the posts are always well thought out and packed full of interesting tips and ideas. I agree with you on Kevin Crossley-Holland, his Arthur series is so engaging. So now I think I'd best check out Penny Dolan and Berlie Doherty. Thanks, Ali.ReplyDelete
Thank you so much Allison! I think Berlie Doherty is an amazing writer; I love her historical fiction (Children of Winter and Grannie Was A Buffer Girl particularly) but she has also written fantastic fantasy, such as Spellhorn, where she uses fantasy to explore the experience of blindness. Let me know what you think!ReplyDelete
An excellent piece (once again). I have just bought a Kindle and your recommendations are now on my 'to buy' list!ReplyDelete
It's Tracy by the way!ReplyDelete
Thanks Tracy! New name? Do look for Bracelet of Bones, I loved it!ReplyDelete
Lovely blog you hhaveReplyDelete