A Month of Favourites: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in wintertime.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on effect it had from the beginning.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick calls his debut, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things”.  It was the movie ‘Hugo’ which made me go and seek out this beautiful book – for a book it certainly is – and I purchased the very last copy in Waterstone’s whilst on a post-Christmas shopping trip.

‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)

The book was the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal in 2008, the award usually applying only to picture books.  The film also won five Academy Awards in 2012.  I am so pleased that I have a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret to sit in pride of place upon my bookshelf.  Just like the film, it is a thing of beauty – lavishly illustrated in black and white, with attention to detail present on every single page.

The style of the book is so very interesting: “With 284 pages of original drawings, and combining elements of picture book, graphic novel, and film, Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience”.  It is quite unlike anything which I have ever read before, and the mixture of narrative types and techniques works beautifully.

Selznick’s blurb, too, is beautiful:

“Orphan, clock-keeper, and thief, twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric girl and her grandfather, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.”

Hugo and Isabelle look out over Paris

The novel takes place in 1931, ‘beneath the roofs of Paris’.  Selznick has woven in the true story of French filmmaker Georges Melies, and has created fictional elements alongside to build his very inventive plot.  His sense of place is sublime, and I love the way in which the story was told, making use of its glorious Paris surroundings throughout.  Hugo’s world is so well evoked.

Hugo Cabret is one of my favourite child characters.  He is so very determined and so headstrong, and he is also incredibly industrious.  I love the way in which he looks after himself and is able to fend for himself in such a large city.  I adore the levels of his curiosity, and the way in which he will work at something until it is fixed and he is satisfied with the result.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is exquisite, and it is truly a work of art.  The entirety is enchanting, and its characterisation perfect.  The pace which Selznick has stuck to works marvellously with the unfolding story, and the book and film are certain to charm both children and adults alike.

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One From the Archive: ‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty Macdonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas. 9780099583356

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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The 1968 Club: ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes *****

I was hoping to be able to read and review something new for the wonderful 1968 reading club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, but my best intentions have been swallowed up in thesis writing.  I therefore thought that rather than miss out on contributing entirely, I would schedule a review for one of my favourite books, Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which just so happens to have been published in 1968.

indexThe Iron Man tells the story of a ‘man’ made entirely of metal, thought at first to be an enemy of the people.  He is found by a group of local villagers whilst snacking on their farm equipment, and they decide that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to build an enormous pit and lure the Iron Man inside.  This they do.  What they don’t factor into the equation is that the Iron Man is able to escape.  This he does.  A friendship with a young boy named Hogarth ensues, and to prove his worth to the sceptical adults, the Iron Man is tasked with saving the earth from an evil space creature.

This sounds very sci-fi, I know, and my wariness of choosing this as my first Hughes book to read was based purely upon the fact that I don’t overly enjoy science fiction as a genre.  All of my apprehension about it dissipated on the first page however, and I found The Iron Man to be an incredibly enjoyable little novel.  The story is one of the most inventive which I’ve come across in a long while, and I loved the way in which Hughes crafted his tale.  Despite the other-worldly beings, the writing style and descriptions throughout made it appear almost believable.

As a character, I adored the Iron Man.  He was wonderfully invented, and the passage about how his destroyed body rebuilt itself was so beautiful and startling that I read it numerous times.  Hughes’ imagination is a marvellous one, and Andrew Davidson’s monochrome illustrations which accompany the volume are beautiful.  The prose throughout is enchanting and vivid, and is certainly no less fascinating to read as an adult than I imagine it would have been to read as a child.

As a youngster, in fact, I would have been both terrified and utterly enchanted by the brilliant and memorable story and its characters.  There is nothing at all in the novel which I feel could be improved, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.

I feel that I should end on the wonderfully heartwarming message of the book:

“You are who you choose to be.”


The Book Trail: Lost in the Woods

I am kicking off this Book Trail with one of my favourite books, written for children by one of my favourite lyricists, Colin Meloy of Portland-based band The Decemberists.  The books which follow largely deal with children lost in the woods, or trapped in adult-free lands; a good theme, I feel, for a not-too-obvious Hallowe’en post.

1. Wildwood by Colin Meloy 10431447
‘In Wildwood, Prue and her friend Curtis uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval–a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much greater as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness. A wilderness the locals call Wildwood. Wildwood captivates readers with the wonder and thrill of a secret world within the landscape of a modern city. It feels at once firmly steeped in the classics of children’s literature and completely fresh at the same time. The story is told from multiple points of view, and the book features more than eighty illustrations, including six full-color plates, making this an absolutely gorgeous object.’


2. Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver
‘Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice,until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.  That same night, an alchemist’s apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable.  Will’s mistake has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.  From New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver comes a luminous and magnificent novel that glows with rare magic, ghostly wonders, and a true friendship that lights even the darkest of places.’


3. Juniper Berry by M.P. Kozlowsky
9869553Juniper’s parents have not been themselves lately. In fact, they have been cold, disinterested and cruel. And lonely Juniper Berry, and her equally beset friend, Giles, are determined to figure out why.   On a cold and rainy night Juniper follows her parents as they sneak out of the house and enter the woods. What she discovers is an underworld filled with contradictions: one that is terrifying and enticing, lorded over by a creature both sinister and seductive, who can sell you all the world’s secrets in a simple red balloon. For the first time, Juniper and Giles have a choice to make. And it will be up to them to confront their own fears in order to save the ones who couldn’t.  M.P. Kozlowsky’s debut novel is a modern-day fairy tale of terror, temptation, and ways in which it is our choices that make us who we are.


4. Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
Max ‘the Wolf’ is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat) – all of whom talk – and who are as clueless as Max.  Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world…


5. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton 7843500
Ten-year-old Persimmony Smudge leads (much to her chagrin) a very dull life on the Island at the Center of Everything . . . until the night she overhears a life-changing secret. It seems that Mount Majestic, the rising and falling mountain in the center of the island, is not a mountain at all-it’s the belly of a sleeping giant, moving as the giant breathes. Now Persimmony and her new friend Worvil the Worrier have to convince all the island’s other quarreling inhabitants-including the silly Rumblebumps, the impeccably mannered Leafeaters, and the stubborn young king-that a giant is sleeping in their midst, and must not be woken. Enhanced with Brett Helquist’s dazzling illustrations, Jennifer Trafton’s rollicking debut tells the story of one brave girl’s efforts to make an entire island believe the impossible.


6. The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell
Twelve-year-old Clara Dooley has spent her whole life in the Glendoveer mansion, where her mother is a servant to the kind and elderly matron of the house. Clara has never known another home. In fact, she’s confined to the grand estate due to a mysterious heart condition. But it’s a comfortable life, and if it weren’t for the creepy squawking birds in the aviary out back, a completely peaceful one too.  But once old Mrs. Glendoveer passes away, Clara comes to learn many dark secrets about the family. The Glendoveers suffered a horrific tragedy: their children were kidnapped, then drowned. And their father George Glendoveer, a famous magician and illusionist, stood accused until his death. As Clara digs deeper and deeper into the terrifying events, the five birds in the aviary seem to be trying to tell her something. And Clara comes to wonder: what is their true identity? Clara sets out to solve a decades-old murder mystery—and in doing so, unlocks a secret in her own life, too. Kathleen O’Dell deftly weaves magic, secret identities, evil villians, unlikely heroes, and the wonder of friendship into a mystery adventure with all the charm of an old fashioned classic.


99728787. The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer
Like the other children who have journeyed to the village of Xibalba, Martin Maple faces an awful truth. He was forgotten. When everyone else in the world disappeared one afternoon, these children were the only ones left behind. There’s Darla, who drives a monster truck; Felix, who used string and wood to rebuild the internet; Lane, who crafts elaborate contraptions for live entertainment; and nearly forty others, each equally brilliant and peculiar.   Inspired by the prophecies of a mysterious boy who talks to animals, Martin believes he can reunite them all with their loved ones. But believing and knowing are two different things, as he soon discovers with the push of a button, the flip of a switch, the turn of a dial…  A whimsical apocalyptic fable that carries readers to a future world without adults, a journey filled with dark humor that every reader will want to take.


8. Vanished by Sheela Chari
Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument was a gift from her grandmother-intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.  When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, strange clues surface: a tea kettle ornamented with a familiar pointy-faced dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela’s instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. Even if Neela does track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?  Sheela Chari’s debut novel is a finely tuned story of coincidence and fate, trust and deceit, music and mystery.


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Reading the World: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago.  I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation.  Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.9780062456212

I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap.  The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another.  He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away.  Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion.  They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it.  Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’.  The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’

The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly.  She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls.  She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’.  When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery.  Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose.  Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle.  He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room.  He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.

The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden.  It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’.  The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters.  When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit.  Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.

The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour.  Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism.  The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times.  I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child.  The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear.  The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.

I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740.  This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity.  The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact.  The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely.  I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead.  There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.

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‘Keeping Henry’ by Nina Bawden ***

Keeping Henry by Nina Bawden – an author who is a firm favourite on the Modern Classics list – is one of the first of her books to be reissued by Virago for a younger audience, complete with new illustrations by Alan Marks.  First published in 1988, the Observer calls it ‘a subtle and many-layered story, one of Nina Bawden’s best’.  The aim of the new Virago series for children, which will expand to twenty titles at the end of 2017, is to publish ‘timeless tales with beautiful covers that will be treasured and shared across the generations’.  Other titles upon the list as it currently stands are a charming mixture, ranging from the likes of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful The Secret Garden.

9780349009193Keeping Henry revolves around a young squirrel, who is found by a wartime family who have relocated from London to Wales, after the youngest son Charlie accidentally catapults him out of his nest.  Unable to be released back into the wild, the family keep the squirrel as one of their own, and swiftly name him Henry.  Keeping Henry is, in part, based upon Bawden’s own childhood, as she herself kept an abandoned squirrel as a pet, and was, like the family in the novel, evacuated to rural Wales during the Second World War.  The blurb plays upon this, describing Keeping Henry as a ‘winning combination’ between an evacuee and family story, and an ‘unlikely, mischievous pet’.  Indeed, the family within Keeping Henry were: ‘upturned from their old life just as Henry was “tipped out” of his nest.’

Keeping Henry, which is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed girl, opens in the following manner: ‘My brothers, Charlie and James, have always blamed me for what happened to Henry.  Even now, years and years later, Charlie still says it was my fault.’  Her ‘sharp-eyed’ brother ‘had spotted the nest high in the tree by the brook; who watched for a while, several days, and then fetched his friends, Tommy and Stan, and his big brother’s catapult.  A lucky shot for a little boy only seven years old, though not as lucky, of course, for the squirrels.’  Thankfully, the boys’ mother is accommodating, and does not mind looking after stray or lost creatures: ‘She was mad about animals.  Sometimes I thought that she preferred them to people.  Except for Charlie, of course; her baby, her favourite.’

As one familiar with Bawden’s work may have come to expect, Keeping Henry does include a level of psychological insight about the family, and their circumstances.  Charlie particularly is shown as being troubled by their uprooting to rural Wales: ‘Charlie had heard the bomb fall, and although it was three years now since we had left the city to live on this farm in the country, he still jumped and went pale when a tractor backfired or Mr Jones, the farmer, was out shooting rabbits’.  Whilst such occurrences are not shied away from, there are some wonderful evocations of the countryside within the pages of Keeping Henry.

Children are set to learn information about red squirrels as they read, and will come to care immensely for the animated Henry and his fate.  Bawden’s children’s books add something a little different to the genre; they are sweet but also witty, a little quaint at times but not old-fashioned, and as knowledgeable as they are perceptive.  Bawden characteristically deals with a lot of issues in Keeping Henry, but the main thread here is displacement; the children are away from their home and their father, who is in the Navy, just as Henry has lost his family and his nest.  Marks’ whimsical illustrations are comical and sweet, and fit well with the text.  Keeping Henry is sure to delight both nature-loving and thoughtful children, and to charm adults just as much.

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