Category Archives: History

Collecting coupons

I mentioned David Copperfield the other day. There are two of him on my foreign shelves. One in the original, and one an adapted version translated into Swedish.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In my childhood there was a series of classic children’s books called Sagas Berömda Böcker. They were a little out of my price range, so I believe most of mine were gifts from the Retired Children’s Librarian.

I liked them a lot, and they helped give me a slightly wrong idea of what’s a classic and what’s a children’s book. Because when they are translated, and adapted (=abridged), it usually makes books child friendly. They caused me to consider Ivanhoe a children’s book, which surprised the Resident IT Consultant quite a bit to begin with.

How could I know it wasn’t?

This series gave me Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, as well as David Copperfield and Ivanhoe. I was desperate to collect enough of them. If you got five (I think) of the coupons attached to the books, you could send off for 50 personalised Ex Libris stickers, and I wanted those really badly.

The Ex Libris

As you can’t see, I must have scraped enough together for my stickers. The one above is the blank one that came with the book.

I have a dreadful feeling I never did put all of them into books. I think I tired of them before I got to the end. But it’s a clever way of making young readers want more.

As I grew older and possibly more sensible, I felt a certain amount of shame for having read abridged books. By now I feel it was OK. It got me started, and the books were not short by any means; just ‘adapted.’

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Where the World Ends

Geraldine McCaughrean isn’t kind to her characters. The ones in her Carnegie-winning Where the World Ends are not purely fictional. Something like her story did happen for real. And if you want to know what, I suppose you can look it up. Or you could pay close attention as you read the book, and that might give you useful hints.

That’s what I admire about really good authors; the fact that if it’s in there, however small, it’s probably there for a reason. Or you could be like me and simply plod blindly on and wonder and hope for the best. Will she kill all those boys she has marooned on a faraway sea stac off St Kilda, or will they survive? How many of the nine will still live at the end of the book?

It’s less Lord of the Flies than I’d been afraid, because there are three grown men with the boys. Although being men does not necessarily make them more sensible in times of hardship and struggle.

Geraldine McCaughrean, Where the World Ends

Set nearly three hundred years ago, these boys were already used to a hard life, but as their three weeks on Warrior Stac turns into nine months, life becomes almost impossible at times, even for those used to being cold and wet and hungry.

You learn a lot about sea birds, and not just in the first sentence where Quilliam’s mother gives him a new pair of socks and ‘a puffin to eat on the voyage…’

Quill is a lovely and resourceful and unusually mature older boy, and so special that I found it hard to imagine he would be allowed to live. The other boys are the way boys often are, a little mix of everything, including the one who’s a bully. But they have such strength and so many skills, climbing and hunting for anything in this bird world that might make their survival possible.

It’s a beautiful but harsh place, and I have absolutely no wish to go there. I’ll take Geraldine’s story and that will be quite enough. I know why it won her the Carnegie medal, and so will you when you’ve read it, puffin in hand.

The Power-House

‘It’s very short, has absolutely no plot, and would make a good film.’ That’s roughly how the Resident IT Consultant summarised his first holiday read. And I had wondered, because at 108 pages John Buchan’s The Power-House, from 1913, seemed like a book that would be over before he’d even begun.

John Buchan, The Power-House

On that basis, I decided to have a go too, and was given the blessing that I’d not find it hard to read…

I have a certain fondness for the lives of these [purely fictional?] heroes who go about their lives in the early 20th century with not a worry. They have money and usually a good job – this one is both a lawyer and an MP – and they know everyone and they ‘dine out’ all the time, living in ‘rooms’ with a man to look after them.

This one, Sir Edward Leithen, fancies a holiday in the West Country, so buys a motorcar, employs a driver and off he goes! These men can go travelling at the drop of a hat and they buy whatever they need for their adventures. I have long wondered if there ever were real men like that.

So there is a mystery, which we never really understand, but Leithen takes it upon himself to solve it, and through lots of odd coincidences he ends up deeper and deeper (in shit, as we say these days), until his own safety is at serious risk. It involves Russia, and a wealthy and powerful man in London. Leithen is a bit naïve at times, but good will conquer all.

As short thrillers go, this is pretty thrilling. And yes, apart from there being virtually no women in the story at all, it’d make a really good film. The nice thing about it having been written in 1913 is that John Buchan can’t have had either Hollywood or Hitchcock in mind.

Besides, don’t you just love the kind of set-up where marooned ‘gentlemen’ could simply call in at a respectable house and be taken in and fed and watered and given a bed for the night?

Childhood covers

Freda M Hurt - Andy books

I didn’t even remember the author’s name – Freda M Hurt – but the books have stayed with me. Especially the ‘rule’ quoted in Andy Gets the Blame, whereby twins don’t save on buying Christmas presents, because while they can share their gifts to others, they still ‘have to’ buy each other a present… Odd how very weird little things remain in one’s mind for half a century.

When hunting these books out again, I was struck by how much like Blyton’s George Kirrin Andy looks, and it’s not surprising since the same cover artist was used, H Baldorf Berg.

The Andy series of books number about ten adventures, from the mid-1950s to the middle of the 1960s. I liked them a lot. I only own two, but will have borrowed others from the library. Trying to find out more, I discovered that they only appear on French Wikipedia, but it seems Freda wrote several children’s books series as well as adult books.

Did anyone else read these?

Spot the Mistake

Or Journeys of Discovery, as it’s called.

Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley, Frances Castle, Journeys of Discovery

‘What’s wrong with this book?’ ask the authors, Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley, at the beginning of the book. If I may, I’d say it’s too large. It’s large for me, and would be even larger for a child.

But it’s fun. I used to adore finding mistakes in those Find Five Mistakes cartoons. Here you have a whole book full of mistakes!

There are poodles, and dodos, and the odd Viking, just where you don’t want them. Or at least I think you don’t. Look carefully at the illustrations by Frances Castle, and then read what Amanda and Mike have to say.

You will learn a lot, and possibly end up cross-eyed with the strain of finding all the wrong floral suitcases at the South Pole. And all the rest.

Escape from Lochleven Castle

I mentioned last week that today’s children know a lot less about Mary, Queen of Scots than their parents or grandparents do. This is why Theresa Breslin wanted to write a picture book about Mary, to help children understand who she was and what happened to her, and why they should take an interest in Mary.

Also, as someone said last week, much in Mary’s life was unsuitable for younger readers, because it’s not as if she had a wonderful life. But the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots in Lochleven Castle wasn’t too bleak, in comparison.

Theresa Breslin and Teresa Martinez, Mary, Queen of Scots - Escape from Lochleven Castle

The book first gives the reader a very brief but thorough summary of who Mary was and what had happened to her, and her husbands, her son, her parents, and so on.

Then we find out what happened on that small island in Loch Leven, when Mary was desperate to escape and didn’t know how, and how a young boy came to the rescue and she got ut.

Unfortunately, her success didn’t last long, and the rest of her life was a bit downhill, especially after she asked her sister for help. But this short story helps both with understanding Mary’s life, as well as making her into a real person for that brief time at Lochleven Castle. We get to know her, so we learn to care.

This is a good way of making history relevant today.

The illustrations by Teresa Martinez make Scotland look glorious, and now I want to go and see Loch Leven.

Das Schiff ohne Hafen

Aquarius. Reading about this ship, full of people who have left their homes and countries, and that turned out not to be welcome anywhere, until it was finally permitted to land in Spain. It’s an appalling situation, and one which reminded me of a book I’ve mentioned here several times. I’ve just not gone into detail, or reviewed it, because it’s not available in English, and now I suspect it never will be.

It is Lisa Tetzner’s Das Schiff ohne Hafen, or Skepp utan hamn, in Swedish. Ship with no harbour. Part of a series of books about the children of a tenement in 1930s Berlin, Mirjam and her aunt Mathilde have travelled through western Europe to join a ship that will take them to a new life in South America. They are Jewish, so know they need to leave Europe.

The Garibaldi is not a regular passenger ship, but is now full of paying, desperate people, hoping to escape. There are all sorts of passengers, from the wealthy and successful to the destitute, who have already suffered greatly. The children on board make friends with each other, as far as they can, due to class differences and personality.

Lisa Tetzner, Skepp utan hamn

The journey is eventful in various ways, but it’s not until they reach Brazil that it becomes obvious that things are not going to end well. There is illness on board, which means the ship is not given permission to land in some places. And where they do get to land, immigration officials are strict and refuse to accept many of them, sometimes because their papers aren’t ‘in order.’ Or they are ‘too old,’ or the single women ‘too single.’

The reasons given are the same we hear today for today’s unwanted. So the ship sails on, along the coast, with a few passengers allowed to enter their new home countries, but the rest have to stay and the ship gets all the way round to Peru before disaster strikes, and only a few of the children make it out alive, [conveniently] finding a desert island [where, in the next book, they try to live and survive].

Rich or poor, no one escaped this fate, and they have to make the best of things. Because this is a series of books shaped by WWII, there is much that is bad in them. But because the series ends after the war, Lisa Tetzner also lets there be much hope and friendship and belief in a new future for all. The last book is an inspiration, like a miniature United Nations.

Now, of course, we know a bit more about that as well. But when I first read it, my heart swelled with happiness and pride.

Just goes to show how the world works. If I’d written more about this series earlier, it would have been possible to still believe. I left it, hoping that someone, somewhere, would translate and publish the books. I also stupidly believed in a basic level of decency among people. Well, it exists, but the waves of hating your neighbour seem to be a necessary evil too.