For this week’s BotW, we’re back in the world of the boarding school books that I love so much, after I happened upon this on the collectible shelf of the charity shop last week for the bargain price of £2. My love of the Chalet School, Drina books and boarding school and ballet books in general is well known, but I’d never had a chance to read any of the Dimsie series – which was out of print by the time I was old enough to read them. This is the sixth book in the series, and so probably not the best place to start, but I’m not one to let a trifle like that stop me!
Dimsie is a prefect at Jane Willard Foundation, and the start of this book sees the prefects shaken by the unexpected departure of the head girl Erica and her replacement with the dreamy second prefect Jean. The title gives it away that Jean’s reign may not be a long one, but it’s a lot of fun watching how it all unfolds. Dimsie is a butter-inner, slightly lacking in tact, but utterly devoted to her school. When she sees that Jean isn’t pulling her weight in the way that she should be, she tries to set the Head girl on the right track. When one of the new prefects proves to be too officious and inflexible in her dealings with the younger girls, it’s Dimsie who tries to sort the situation out. To be honest, I’m surprised she wasn’t Erica’s replacement in the first place – except for the fact of course that that if she had, the author wouldn’t have had a book!
It wouldn’t be a boarding school book without the Middles causing trouble – here it takes the form of insubordination to the prefects, illegal pet keeping and midnight feasts. What more could you want? And yes, this is a slightly higher level of spoilers than I usually give out – but to be honest, I can’t imagine that many of you are going to be able to lay your hands on a copy of this! Which is a shame really, because it’s not half bad – some of it is funny in a way the author didn’t intend but that’s one of the joys of reading a book written for children in the 1920s now! It does have some of the usual problems of outdated language and a very homogeneous cast, but that’s sadly to be expected in a children’s book of this era and it’s by no means as bad as some.
This was my Dorita Fairlie Bruce book, and I suspect it won’t be my last – I’ve already been playing on the used book websites to see if I can find more. Because of course what I need at the moment is more books. Of course it is. The big worry is if it sends me off down another rabbit hole of classic school story authors that I haven’t read.
I know, you all looked at my list of books I read last week and just knew that this was going to be my pick for BotW didn’t you? So sue me. Today feels momentous and a little terrifying with what is going on in the world, and what better way to take your mind off what may or may not be about to occur than a charming children’s novel about school girls solving mysteries.
Long standing readers will be familiar with my love of Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong series (see here, here, here and here) and Mistletoe and Murder (which incidentally shares its name with a Daisy Dalrymple mystery which is also very good) is the fifth installment in the series and sees the girls spending their Christmas holidays at Cambridge visiting Daisy’s brother. But of course the girls can’t help but run into an investigation – this time in competition with their rivals at the Junior Pinkertons. But soon suspicious accidents have turned deadly and the girls are in a race against time to figure out who did it and why.
I’ve said before that these books are the perfect blend of Agatha Christie and St Clares stories and I stand by that – they’re brilliant and inventive and I wish they’d been around when I was the “right” age. I practically gobbled this up in one sitting, which was a mistake because I’d already read the Halloween short story and now I have to wait months and months and months for the next one. This would make the perfect Christmas book for the young reader in your family – or the big kid if you’re like me. It’s the perfect escape from the trials and tribulations of the grown-up world.
But if you’re not into middle grade fiction (more fool you) and still want some escapism, I can also heartily recommend Gail Carriger’s latest novella – Romancing the Inventor – in which we see one of the most beloved side characters in her steampunk world, Madame Lefounx, finally get over the pesky Angelique and find love again. It probably works best if you’ve read the Parasol Protectorate series, will work even better if you’ve also read the Finishing School series. I loved it – it’s a great, fun love story with some guest appearances from old favourites. What more could you want?
Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong books should be available where ever children’s books are sold (if they’re not, ask them why), but here are links to Mistletoe and Murder on Amazon, Kindle, Waterstones, Foyles and Kobo.
Romancing the Inventor is one of Gail Carriger’s self published works – so it’s not quite as available in the shops, but you can get it on Kindle and on Kobo or special order it in paperback from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles.
I know, I know, I know. This is a day late. I have excuses – relating to post nightshift haze and then a few days away and only remembering I hadn’t written this post at 11pm after a couple of cocktails. And as drunk blogging doesn’t end well, I thought it could wait til the cool light of day and rational thought, especially as this week’s pick is Important to me.
So this week’s BotW is Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors and Trailblazers who changed history. Written by Sam Maggs, this is a series of potted biographies of women who you may not have heard of, but who have played an important role in various areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Espionage and Adventure – aka areas that tend to be seen as traditionally masculine. There are 25 featured women – but at least the same again get bite-sized mentions too. I’m a history graduate (admittedly specialising in British and European history) and there were a lot of names here that I had never come across before – and many fascinating stories.
I’m definitely not the target market for this – which is written (I think) very much with tweens/early teens in mind – and some of the language started to annoy me a little, but that’s because it’s written in a vernacular that is not really mine, although I do think that the choice of language will appeal to the intended audience. It’s got lovely illustrations for the 25 women, which is a nice touch. My copy was an e-galley for my kindle e-reader so I don’t think I got the full effect, but from what I’ve seen the actual book itself looks attractive and appealing.
This would make a good book for an upper-primary school/middle school age girl and would also be a great addition to school libraries for that sort of age of child. I’ve said there that it would be a good book for a girl – because I think young girls need reminding that they can have adventures too, and be brave and daring and that careers in things like science and tech aren’t just for boys. But boys need reminding that too – and that there have been women through history doing important things, often against the odds and against societal expectations. I saw this video last week, and it may have been the nightshifts, but it got me all emotional. And it’s an important message for children to get – girls can be anything, do anything – nothing is a man’s job – or a woman’s job.
Anyway, lecture over. As I said, my copy was an e-galley via NetGalley, but this is out now and you can get it from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles as well as on Kindle and Kobo – although I think it would look best in the hardback actual book.
Gosh this was so hard this week. My favourite book I read last week was one I read to review for Novelicious (which is returning to the internets in full force very shortly) and my rules dictate that I can’t make that my book of the week here as well. My second favourite book of last week was the second Corinna Chapman book – and my rules dictate that I can’t pick that because I picked that series last week. So after that it’s not so much Book of the Week as Book I Quite Liked of the Week. And that’s not really in the spirit of the thing. I was prepared to cheat if I managed to finish one of the books I had on the go on Monday morning, but I didn’t so I couldn’t justify that either.
So what I’ve decided to do is write about Judith Teaches by Mabel Esther Allen – which I read last week and which interests me on a few levels. Judith Teaches was part of a series of career books for girls published by Bodley Head in the 50s. Various different authors wrote the books which each feature a different career suitable for young ladies to do before they got married (and had to give up working to look after their husbands). Other titles in the series cover jobs like floristry, farming and modelling as well as some becoming a doctor or being a veterinary student.
Judith Teaches covers the first year of the teaching of Judith and her friend Bronwen who get jobs at a secondary modern school straight out of training college. They have a friend who is already teaching at the same school who they share a flat with, and although the book mostly focuses on Judith you hear about the other girls lives as well. The three are clearly Nice Well Brought Up Grammar School/Boarding School girls who have a bit of a culture shock with the pupils at their new school (dirty! desperate to leave school to go work in the factory! not interested in reading! can’t spell!) and some of these sections feel very of their time. But it does cover the potential ups and downs of teaching in a way that would have given the school girls that it was aimed at a realistic look at what they might be letting themselves in for – not all the children will be clever, not all the other teachers will be friendly, it will be stressful and tiring and you won’t be able to please everyone – in a way that you don’t get in boarding school books (which as regular readers will know Mabel Esther Allen also wrote along with my beloved Drina books).
I don’t think I knowingly read a career book as a child – unless Shirley Flight, Air Hostess counts – as the only ones I ever remember seeing were about nursing and that only interested me (as a weekend job, while being a teacher during the week) for a few days when I was about 6, so I’m not sure how representative this is of the genre, but Judith Teaches gave me several interested hours of reading – and a few wry smiles. It also made me realise how far the world has come for women in 50 years. After all, no one’s going to expect me to give up my job if I get married and I don’t think anyone would think I’m over the hill yet. There’s still a long way to go – but I like to hope that my sort-of-nieces who are at primary school today won’t need a book to tell them that they could be a doctor if they wanted to.
Anyway, Judith Teaches has just been republished by Girls Gone By if you’re geeky like me and want to have a peruse for yourself.
This week’s Book of the Week is Mabel Esther Allen’s Chiltern School. Regular readers will already be aware of my love of the classic school story and this one last week was a real treat for my sleepy post-nightshift brain.
Chiltern School tells the story of Rose Lesslyn – who has lived with her grandparents since her mother died and her father moved to work abroad to get away from his pain (as people frequently seemed to do in books in this era). Her father decides that she needs to go to school – much to her grandmother’s dismay – and she’s dispatched from her home on the Isle of Wight to a rather progressive (for the 1950s anyway) school in the middle of the Chiltern hills. There she struggles to fit in but eventually finds her feet, makes friends and (re)discovers a hidden talent.
Chiltern School was written in the 1950s – and sold to a publisher, but never published until Allen published it privately in the 1990s. And she was only able to do that because of the success of a reissue of another of her series – the Drina books in the 1990s. The Drina series (the subject of one of my very early posts on the blog) were written under one of her pen names – Jean Estoril. I had no idea about this until I read the forward of this book – I’d bought it because I’d really enjoyed another of her (many) other books The View Beyond My Father (about a young blind girl escaping from her domineering father in the 1910s) back in primary school days. I was thrilled to discover that my love of the Drina series in the early 90s had meant that Allen had money to do this in her old age – and that someone who’s books I’d liked so much had written so much more than I thought!
And Rose does have similarities to my beloved Drina (that series started 7 years later). Both live with their grandparents – with a stern grandmother and a kindlier grandfather, although both of Drina’s parents are dead as opposed to just one of Rose’s (there are a lot of dead parents in children’s books of this era). And trying not to give too much of the plot away here, Drina doesn’t know about her background at the start of the series but later choses to keep it secret – while Rose knows but doesn’t tell.
Both also feature the Chilterns – Drina’s ballet school has a boarding department there, where she stays in Drina Dances in Exile (the green book as it always is in my head because of it’s cover) and where she returns to several times in later books to visit friends. Now since reading Drina, I have acquired a boyfriend who comes from that part of the world – so I got an extra level of enjoyment from Chiltern School’s mentions of places that his family live or have lived and where we have been. And the area is a big feature in the book – it’s beautifully described – you can practically feel the wind rushing through your hair as Rose and her friends cycle around.
It’s not perfect – it is of it’s time and is not as diverse as you would (hope to) find a children’s book written now would be. But Allen’s writing style is charming and every readable – this is a fun romp that will make you wish you could have gone to boarding school (in the 1950s) with Rose and all her friends. That is if you couldn’t be a ballerina and be Drina…
My edition was published by Girls Gone By – who as I’m sure I’ve said before – specialise in republishing classic children’s stories that are now out of print. They do the same for my beloved Chalet School and for authors like Lorna Hill, Malcolm Saville and many more. Check out their website and see if they’ve done any of your childhood favourites.
I went straight on from this to Allen’s Ballet Family books (bought in the same spending spree back at the start of the year) which appear to have been published under Allen’s name and then reissued under the Estoril pseudonym in the 90s to capitalise on the success of Drina. I don’t know how I missed them at the time – but they are a cross between Drina and Lorna Hill’s Jane goes to the Wells – with a ballet school that’s not The Royal Ballet and a family of 4 ballet students – who’s mother is still a ballerina. And I really want to go back and reread the Drina series too.
Oh I do love a good children’s detective yarn – and I had two to pick from when I was selecting my BotW this week. I went with Julia Lee’s latest – because it’s out on Thursday and doesn’t feature any murder – so I think I can give it to my 7-year-old niece who has the right reading age, but who can’t cope with too much peril!
Nancy Parker is 14 and has just left school. She gets her first job – as a housemaid to the rather glamorous Mrs Bryce. It’s not her dream job (who dreams of cleaning at 14!), but its more exciting than she expects as soon the whole household is living in a rented house at the seaside. There are parties, talk of movie-making, a reputed air-ace but also a cook who seems to be hiding a secret, a string of burglaries and chores – lots of chores. Nancy teams up with two other children from the neighbourhood to try and work out what is going on.
The book made up of a combination of extracts from Nancy’s journal (given to her as a leaving gift by her school teacher) and a third person narrative – which covers what the other children are up to. It’s fun, engaging and fast-paced. As someone who loved all of Enid Blyton’s mystery series (but particularly the Five Findouters) this really worked for me and filled that gap. And unlike those Blyton stories, this books shows the range of experiences in the 1920s – Nancy would only have appeared in one of those as the maid providing the picnics for the other children. And there’s also nice nods to the other realities of the 1920s like shortages of men for women to marry and women having to give up their jobs to returning soldiers.
As an adult, I figured out what Mrs Bryce was up to quite early on – but that’s because I’ve read a lot of the grown-up versions of this sort of story, but I think for a young reader it would be a fun, thrilling and non-threatening mystery. I love Robin Steven’s Wells and Wong series and also enjoyed the second book in Katherine Woodfine’s Clockwork Sparrowbook last week (the other BotW contender) but they are definitely a level up from this in the scares and peril – which isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that you need to be bit more mature to be able to cope with them. I’m desperate to give my niece Murder Most Unladylike – but murder is quite a big deal for a 7-year old – at 10 I was terrified by some of the Miss Marples*. But Nancy Parker’s adventure feels like a new equivalent of a Secret Seven or a Famous Five – which is A Very Good Thing.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance proof – but you can get your copy from Amazon, Kindle, Waterstones or Foyles. I don’t know if it’ll be in the supermarkets – but it feels like it might as the Katherine Woodfine was. Happy Reading!
After Books for Guys and Books for Girls, I give you Books for Kids! I buy books for all my nieces and young cousins every year. I think boys and girls should be encouraged to read books with male and female protagonists, so hopefully there’s something for everyone, but obviously these are going to be influenced by what I’ve read and what the girls have read and told me they liked. I don’t have kids, so if some of my suggestions seem really obvious to those of you reading who are parents, I’m sorry.
An oldie but a goodie to start for the upper end of this age group – Janet and Alan Ahlberg‘s The Jolly Christmas Postman. They need to be past the ripping things apart stage and be able to cope with the little letters without losing them. Mog is everywhere this Christmas, and it’s totally deserved – Judith Kerr writes wonderful children’s books. My favourites are obvious ones like The Tiger Who Came to Tea and all the Mog books, but also The Great Granny Gang. Jon Klassen‘s books have gone down well with the little people I buy for – I’m still getting fish drawings based on This Is Not My Hat. I also like Chris Naughton‘s books like Oh No! George – but Little Sis-the-teacher reckons she prefers her picture books with more detail so you can get the kids to describe them. And finally, if you haven’t already seen them, Oliver Jeffers‘ books are gorgeous – I love Lost and Found.
Five to Eight year olds
The Nieces are in love with Jenny Colgan‘s Polly and the Puffin – we got a postcard with a puffin on it from their latest holiday and a note saying it was because of the book. If you want to give something educational, but also absolutely beautiful and engrossing, go and find a copy of Aleksandra Mizielinska andDaniel Mizielinski‘s Maps in your local bookshop. I think this is gorgeous and it teaches stuff subtly as well, a bit like Richard Scarry did for younger kids. Their Welcome to Mamoko is equally beautiful. I’m also debating buying My Sewing Machine book for the nieces – as they have a Grandma who is big into sewing and patchwork – but I’m not sure it’s fair to let her in for the extra work!
Eight to Twelve year olds
School Ship Tobermory by Alexander McCall Smith went down well with Eldest Niece (just under this age bracket, but a keen reader) – who wouldn’t love a story about a boarding school that’s on a tall ship? I read it and thought it was fun and clever and modern. In Waterstones last week I saw some lovely new editions of Noel Streatfeild‘s Shoe Books. I haven’t read them all, but Ballet Shoes is amazing – although I was a little annoyed there wasn’t a similarly pretty version of White Boots (which I still have on my shelf upstairs) which is sometimes called Skating Shoes to make it fit the series. If you want to give some classics, my local branch of The Works had a variety of Enid Blyton Boxsets – including Famous Five, Secret Seven and The Faraway Tree – although I can’t find all of them on the website.
Also mentioned here before are Robin Stevens‘ Wells and Wong mysteries – I can’t wait for Eldest Niece to hit the right age (I think murders are a bit scary for her yet), Murder is Unladylike is the first one, but First Class Murder is the latest and is all you’d hope for from a book that is boarding school story meets Murder on the Orient Express. For the top end of this age bracket, I’d also suggest Simon Mayo‘s Itch (which I’ve read) and its sequels Itch Rocks and Itchcraft (which I haven’t) which are sciencey thriller chase stories.
No surprise that I’m going to recommend Gail Carriger‘s Finishing School series. Her books are one of my obsessions – I’m currently working my way through her audiobooks on my walks too and from work. Etiquette and Espionage is the first one, and would be a great gift for someone who has read St Clares/Malory Towers or similar when they were younger. I really enjoyed the Geek Girl series earlier this year, which would make a great choice for a girl who is into her clothes and fashion, but which isn’t afraid to show the less glamourous side of modelling as well as the difficulties of not fitting in at school.
I read Jenny Valentine‘s Fire Colour One back in the summer and it would make a good choice for someone who’s read The Fault in Our Stars (they’ll almost certainly already have TFIOS, but I’ve put the link in anyway), but doesn’t quite want to cry as much again. One which will make you cry (especially if you’ve read other Pratchetts) is the final Tiffany Aching book The Shepherd’s Crown. I spoke about it at length earlier this year, but I really think that this book is the culmination of a brilliant series. If you’ve got someone who’s read Harry Potter and/or The Hobbit and is looking for the next move, start them on The Wee Free Men and you may be the originator of a Discworld love affair. If you’re buying for someone who’s not as much of a reader, may I suggest the first Lumberjanes book. I loved this graphic novel, and even The Boy pronounced it “quite good, but it ended just as it got interesting”, which presumably bodes well for Part Two.
Finally, if in doubt, there’s always a book token. But lots of your old favourites from when you were that age may still be in print, but out of fashion, so the kids may not have them. my mum’s getting My Naughty Little Sister for one of the little girls she buys for this year. I bought Eldest Niece The Worst Witch for her birthday in the summer (and I’ve heard a passage from The Worst Witch being used in a school entry reading comprehension test!) and I think she’s since asked for more of them. Meg and Mog, Hairy McLairy, The Enormous Crocodile and Peace at Last are all still out there too.