Favourite Children's Books

A little while ago, there was an article in The Guardian, in which Lucy Mangan gave (very funny) summaries of the children’s books that “that have meant the most to me, that have taught me vital lessons about life, love, truth and camping – books no child should be without.” As a result, Judith Ridge did the same thing in her blog, and I have also been inspired to join the fun, although it’s taken me weeks to get around to it. I’ve decided to define “books read in childhood” as books that I read for the first time while still in Primary School (i.e. before the age of 12).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

I’m told I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was six. Naturally, I don’t remember this first reading, and I’m pretty sure I was a bit older by the time I read most of the other books in the series, but I do know that I read them again and again and again during my Primary School years. Both Lucy Mangan and Judith Ridge included this in their lists, so I don’t really have much to add about the book itself, except that I was another reader who completely and utterly missed the Christian allegory. Even when I got the connections of The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, it didn’t occur to me that there might also be a Christian side to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For me, it was just a great story about a magical world with talking animals.

Enid Blyton

For about eighteen months of my life – I think aged about seven to eight and a half – pretty much the only books I would read were Enid Blytons. Lucy Mangan said “I am listing Blyton instead of a single book because the fact is, she wrote the same one eight billion times a year: it is both pointless and practically impossible to elevate one above another”. I am doing the same thing, but for almost the completely opposite reason: although I read almost all the Blyton series (except, for some reason, Mallory Towers) and vast numbers of the stand-alones, at different times, different genres were my favourites. I probably started with the Faraway Tree books (fantasy), then had a lengthy period of devotion to the Famous Five (adventure), followed by St Clares (school stories) and finally the Five Find-Outers and Dog (classic detective). The Cherry Tree Farm/Willow Farm books fitted in somewhere as well – they taught me all I know about fauna of the English countryside. I think Blyton had a great talent for capturing the essence of a genre, and although she didn’t flesh it out a great deal (or at all), her stories provide a wonderful introduction to the concept of plot, basic characterisation, and the other fundamentals of good storytelling, and offer a starting point from which to move to more subtle, nuanced children’s books.

The other thing I remember about Blyton is that, at some point after I had completely outgrown her, I saw my first ever production of Romeo and Juliet on television. It probably wasn’t a great production, but I was terrifically moved, and the only way I could unwind enough to get to sleep that night was to pull a Blyton off the shelf and reread it.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

I’m not sure when I first read Black Beauty, but it was probably after the Blyton period. It may or may not have been my first experience of death in a book (something both Lucy Mangan and Judith talk about) but it was certainly the first instance of a book in which I skipped a certain section on every re-read. Thirty years later, I can still remember that in my edition, the chapter about Ginger started in about the middle of a right-hand page, and finished near the bottom of a left-hand page. I’m certain that at one point in my Primary School days, I unhesitatingly described Black Beauty as my favourite book.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Since my M.Litt. treatise was on the subject of Noel Streatfeild, and a substantial portion was a comparison of Ballet Shoes with Streatfeild’s first (adult) novel, The Whicharts, I feel somewhat written out on the subject. For more information on Ballet Shoes, see my Noel Streatfeild website.

Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott

Lucy Mangan and Judith each included a 19th century “classic” girls’ story in their lists – What Katy Did and Seven Little Australians respectively. For me, it was Little Women. I don’t quite know why, but I think it might be that Jo was the first real character to catch my imagination. She had some of the rebelliousness and independence of George from the Famous Five, but so much more personality and depth and capacity for growth. (As I said above, Enid Blyton had a talent for simplifying down to the fundamental essence, thus providing a stepping stone to much more sophisticated authors.) But why it was Jo rather than Katy, or Judy, or Anne (of Green Gables) or Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm) I really can’t say. I also liked Beth a lot, so maybe it was partly the strength of the Jo-Beth relationship that worked for me. I was never very interested in Meg, and I actively disliked Amy.

As far as I can remember, I was never one who wanted Jo to marry Laurie. I liked him, but I thought he was a bit too superficial and immature for her (though I did think he deserved better than Amy). In fact, I never had much of a problem with Jo marrying an older man, who provided her with stability. But I do wish he wasn’t actually described in the text as physically unattractive. I’d like to be able to think of him as like Gabriel Byrne in the 1994 film of Little Women, so that even if Amy’s husband is younger and richer, Jo’s is sexier. But unfortunately I can’t, as it is directly contradicted by the text. However, even though Professor Bhaer isn’t particularly sexy, I am still much happer to see Jo with him than with Laurie.

Elidor by Alan Garner

Actually, my favourite Alan Garner book is The Owl Service but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read that until I was in High School. Elidor, however, I definitely read earlier, and loved right from the start, though I’m sure I didn’t appreciate all the subtleties of it initially. At first, I just took it in the same spirit as Narnia – a bunch of children from the real world going into a magical one – though I did like the fact that a lot of the story was set in the real world, with the magical characters impinging. And I loved the humour of the scene where the Treasures make all the electrical appliances play up.

But the more times I read the book, the more I came to see the complexities, the lack of clear black and white, the tension of the relationships between the characters. And I also came to see that it is not, ultimately, a happy book. Yes, Elidor is saved, which I do think is important, in spite of the rather ambivalent presentation of Malebron (who is not at all the Aslan figure I thought the first time I read it). But part of the power of the book is that the situation is not clear-cut. On an initial reading, I think I equated Roland with Lucy Pevensie – the youngest member of the family and the only one who can truly see and understand the magic. I still believe Roland is closer to being “right” than Nicholas, or even David, but I have come to realise that he is idealistic and obsessive, and that Elidor is not necessarily the symbol of perfection that he believes.

And the ending of Elidor is more gripping than anything in Narnia (though, to be far to Lewis, he was writing for a rather younger audience). Findhorn’s death is tragic, and the fact that, both structurally and symbolically, this is Helen’s fault makes it even worse. And I find the closing lines of the book intensely powerful in the way they convey a sense of bleakness and emptiness:

[The children] threw their Treasures. They struck together, and the windows blazed outward, and for an instant, the glories of stone, sword, spear and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light.
The song faded.
They were alone with the windows of a slum.

I don’t think I paid much attention to this when I first read the book – I was caught up in the fact that four normal children had saved a magical world – but as I got older they became increasingly evocative. The children have gone through intense physical and emotional stresses, and have saved another world, but … now what? They are left with absolutely nothing. The book ends not on a note of celebration, but on one of emptiness. It is more than simply anticlimactic: it is actively stripped of emotion. And although I didn’t recognise this initially, I now believe it is among the most powerful endings I have read in a book.

The Lost Echo (Barry Kosky and Tom Wright) – Sydney Theatre Company production at the Sydney Theatre

The Lost Echo was supposed to be innovative and cutting edge. Maybe I missed the point, but I didn’t find it to be either of these things.

It was a mammoth production – about seven and a half hours, over two nights, based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The four acts were all very different from each other, and, with the possible exception of Act II, I disliked all of them for different reasons.

Act I (The Song of Phaeton) concentrated on the stories of Phaeton, Callisto and Actaeon. It was mostly done like a musical – song and dance numbers, with dialogue – and in contemporary Australian dress. With nudity, sex and anatomically improbable fake penises. It was quite fun, though pretty lightweight, and at times a bit tasteless (though maybe I was supposed to see it as confronting, or shocking), but hardly innovative. There were two cases of cross-gender casting. Deborah Mailman was very funny as Satirino, but I really didn’t like Paul Capsis as Diana. I think this is because Satirino was done purely for laughs, but Diana was involved in storylines that could have been quite moving, but that lost their emotional effect with the central character being done as a rather over the top drag queen.

Act II (The Song of Mestra) was the stories of Myrrha, Salmacis, Beryl, Arachne and Procne and Philomela: all done by the actresses speaking directly to the audiences. This was actually very powerful, although to release the tension, in between each story there was a musical interlude, with more sex, nudity and fake appendages. Pamela Rabe was (unsurprisingly) very good as Salmacis, but I think the story that had the most impact was Procne and Philomela: Deborah Mailman, as Philomela, could not speak, so told her story in sign language, with Amber McMahon translating, and the effect was electric. Particularly at the end, when Philomela started screaming.

Act III (The Song of Bacchus) I believe came fairly directly from Euripides, although set in the most disgustingly filthy men’s room you could imagine. More sex, nudity and fake appendages, plus a lot of violence. It wasn’t ineffective, but I think maybe the two main actors – Dan Spielman as Bacchus and Martin Blum as Penthius – didn’t quite have the stage presence to carry the whole thing.

Act IV (The Song of Orpheus) was without doubt the most boring piece of theatre I have ever sat through. In fact, I seriously considered walking out, except that the actors would have seen it, and it didn’t seem fair to them, since it wasn’t their fault. Given that he was working with an Actors’ Company – the relevant word being actors – where the players range from the eminently capable up to the truly powerful, what can have made him think it would be a good idea to have a whole act of singing and symbolic, stylised movement? They were all competent singers (certainly far better than I would ever be) but they were employed as actors, and yet they weren’t really given the opportunity to do so. There was an okay bit in the middle, where the story of Echo and Narcissus was read out, and performed in dumb show; and it finished up with a song and dance number that I quite enjoyed (though I may have been, in the words of Antonia Forest, “confusing artistic appreciation with relief that the end was in sight”); but aside from this I was bored, bored, bored. On the plus side, the fake penises weren’t used in this act. On the other hand, by the end the actors were wearing nothing but their underclothes, and not all of them were really up to the challenge of this level of scrutiny. Though it was interesting to see which of the women were allowed to wear more than just a bra and pants, and to speculate on what the reasons for this might have been.

So, other than the fact that it was long (not necessarily a virtue), I didn’t really see anything special, or new, or exciting in this production. I’m kind of hoping that the next play we see (Fat Pig) will be a nice, straightforward, traditional production, with a linear storyline, non-symbolic characters, and a nice solid (if invisible) fourth wall between the actors and the audience.