Book of the Week, Children's books, Forgotten books

Book of the Week: A Time to Dance

It’s been a couple of weeks of Girl’s Own type books, so I’ve no regrets about making another of them this week’s Book of the Week and carrying on the theme of theatres and dancing.

A Time to Dance is a standalone ballet career book about the first couple of terms of a newly established ballet school in the north of England. It follows a selection of the pupils as they study dance, help promote the school and try and work out if dancing is really what they want to do. It’s quite gentle and there’s no peril really at all – even less than usual in these books if anything, but I particular enjoyed the fact that it focussed on several of the girls and the different challenges they faced.

Most of the time in ballet books you have a school-age heroine who is convinced that she is destined to dance and that there is nothing she would rather do with her life. But this has a couple of older pupils who have left school are trying to balance learning to dance with jobs and the need for cash. And it’s got several girls who are studying even though ballet isn’t going to be their career. Of course it does have a desperate to dance or two too, but I appreciated the variety and the realism it added to the mix. This was written in the early 1960s and has a more modern feel to some of the other books – the potential distractions for the students include television adverts and modelling.

I haven’t read any Robina Beckles Willson before but this was charming. Goodreads only has this and a couple of picture books under her name, and I didn’t get a chance to look her up to see what else she might have written that hasn’t made it into Goodreads database!

I got my copy at one of the book sales at conference, but I suspect that most of you aren’t going to be interested enough in the genre to want to buy it! If you do, you’ll probably need a specialist bookseller or a lot of luck.

Happy reading!

book related, Children's books

Book Conference 2022!

Four years ago now I wrote a post about my weekend at the Bristol Book Conference. We should have been back there in 2020, but we all know what happened in 2020 so it’s been four years before my second weekend of fun and frolics with other aficionados of Twentieth Century Books for Girls. As you saw yesterday I came home with a big old pile of books, but what else did we get up to?

Well the theme this time was Eccentrics, Oddballs and Misfits and as there are plenty of those in these books there was plenty to talk about! Gum from Ballet Shoes got a mention, and we had a whole talk on the basically insane Oeuvre of Rita Coutts – it sounded so mad I bought myself one to see for myself!

As you know my gateway books to the genre were The Chalet School, Drina and Sadlers Wells – which were the series that were still in print in paperback when I was about the right age. So one of the joys for me is discovering new to me authors that were already collectible hardbacks when I was little.

But also it’s talking to the people. There are not many people that I can make jokes about singing people better out of comas with, but this weekend there were nearly 100 of them! And they all want to talk to you about their favourite book or tell you why you’re wrong to thing that Professor Richardson (who single handed builds his own rocket to try to fly to the moon) is the most eccentric character in the genre…

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend -even if my team didn’t win the quiz – and we’ve already made some suggestions for possible talks in 2024. Oh and I’ve got a new WhatsApp group of friends to chat to. Delightful.

Children's books, children's books, series, Series I love, Uncategorized

Series I Love: Swallows and Amazons

As it’s been a week of Girls Own content, lest carry it on with another classic children’s series – this time an adventure one for boys and girls.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the series, they follow a group of children going on outdoor adventures during the school holidays. There are three families – the Walkers (the Swallows), the Blacketts (the Amazons) and the Callums (the Ds) – who appear in various configurations across the series, but the opening books (which are my favourites) mostly centre on the Walkers and the Blacketts who start off as rivals but become friends. Sailing is often involved – and many of the books are set in and around the Lake District in the North West of England.

I first encountered the Swallows and the Amazons when my Year 3 teacher read the first book out loud to our class and I carried on reading most (if not all) of the rest of the series by borrowing them from my local library. What’s not to love about a group of children going off to camp on an island and sail around a lake all summer long. There’s “pirates” and actual crime and it’s just wonderful. Let’s be honest, which child didn’t wish they’d had a grown-up free holiday or two, or been allowed to roam around without supervision for days on end – I think it’s one of the reasons why Secret Island was one of my favourites of the Enid Blyton series when I was little.

I should say at this point that I am not by any means an outdoors person. We never went camping when I was a child, so when I was first reading these the idea sounded fun – I think I “camped” on the floor of my bedroom for a few weeks after reading the first book, but I was not a big walker or hiker. I also suffered from travel sickness so being on a boat of any size was always pretty awful, but I loved the books – and still continue to enjoy them whenever I get a chance for a re-read. There’s something about children with a secret code between themselves and who go on what are basically quests that just really appeals. Also you learn a lot about various countryside-y things from the mid 20th century – most of what I know about charcoal smoking and dowsing for water comes from this series – which of course means I’m hopelessly out of date, but I didn’t know that at the time.

There are a couple of books in the series that get a bit weird – and as with a lot of books of similar era, there are some bits that haven’t aged well. I probably should have had a reread before I posted this – but I remember that I found Missee Lee very weird when I read it when I was about 10. And I don’t own all of them – I have some from when I was little and I’m picking the others up as I see nice copies at sensible prices. But I do own the first two on audio book and have listened to their fairly regularly. I treated myself to Pigeon Post (my other childhood fave) the other week and it’s next on my to listen list.

The first book has been turned into a film twice – it’s been a while since I saw the original film, but I remember it as being fairly true to the actual plot. I have seen the most recent one has had a fair few alterations to the plot – and not just the fact that they renamed the unfortunate to modern ears Titty. I’ll leave you to judge for yourself from the trailers!

Anyway, delightful outdoors fun, even if pemmican – real or fake – sounds disgusting!

Happy Friday everyone one!

Children's books, Series I love

Series I Love: Sadlers Wells

I am off to book conference this weekend, so in honour of all the fun I’ll be having, this week’s series I love post is a Girls Own one.

Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells series follows a series of young women as they embark upon careers in dancing. The first book, A Dream of Sadlers Wells was first published in 1950 and follows newly orphaned Veronica Weston as she tries to carry on learning ballet despite having moved to live with her cousins in Northumberland. The second book follows Veronica as she embarks upon her training at Sadlers Wells ballet school (now the Royal Ballet) and the other books in the series all follow girls who have a link to Veronica somehow.

Despire being clumsy and coordinated, I loved ballet books when I was a child and moved on to Sadlers wells after I had started on the Drina series – as both had reissues at about the right time for me. But the Sadlers Wells ones were harder to find – and didn’t go the whole way to the end of the series, so some of the later ones I’ve only read in the last five or so years. And the end of the series isn’t a good as the start, but the first half dozen or so are just great. Because they focus on different people you also get glimpses of your old favourites as you carry on. In fact a bit like romance series, some of them set up the next heroine in the previous book!

And where Drina is a city girl through and through, nervously learning to love the Chiltern when she’s sent to school there for a term, she is worried about getting injured and ruining her dance career (and she does indeed twist her ankle at one point) the women of the Wells books embrace the outdoors. Veronica, Caroline, Jane and Mariella romp around the countryside on their ponies, swim in lakes and clamber around the hills. They made me want to visit Northumberland – although not learn to ride a horse.

It’s only thinking about it as an adult that I realise that, like many Girls Own books of the era, they’re subtly quite subversive in their way. In the first two books, Veronica refuses to give up her ambitions of a dancing career in the face of various trials and tribulations – but also in the face of a potential love interest. Sebastian is a musical prodigy and in one quite awful speech when he’s trying to persuade Veronica not to go to London, he says that women don’t have to have careers and could (and maybe should) leave it to the men. But Veronica carries on – and gets the success and the love too. In the later books you can see her and Sebastian, married but she’s still dancing. And if they don’t do a very good of listening to their daughter Vicki, they don’t really do a worse job than any of the other parents in the book! But the message is there – girls don’t have to just grow up and get married, they can do things and have a career too.

Happy weekend everyone.

Book of the Week, Children's books, children's books

Book of the Week: The Unforgettable Guinevere St Clair

Last week it was a graphic novel, this week it’s a middle grade novel, I’ve got mystery book posts planned and all sorts for June. I really am giving you the full range this month aren’t it!

Amy Makechnie’s The Unforgettable Guinevere St Clair is about a ten-year-old girl who moves to Iowa to try and help her mother’s recovery from a brain injury that has left her unable to remember anything past the age of 13. Crow is where her parents grew up and Jed is desperately hoping that coming back will jog Vienna’s memories. Gwyn and her little sister Bitty are used to the bright lights of New York, so small town life comes as a bit of a shock to them, especially their new neighbour Gaysie Cutter. They soon make friends with Gaysie’s son Micah and his friend Jimmy, but they also discover that Gaysie was friends with their parents when they were at school. When Gaysie’s only friend, farmer Wilbur Truesdale, goes missing Gwyn is determined to solve the mystery but she may also find out more than she wants to know about her parents’ past.

Because of Jed’s absence and the age of Gwyn’s grandmother, the children are able to spend a lot of time running around outside without a lot of adult supervision. This gives the story an almost out of time feel – except for the references to current pop culture. The neighbourhood is full of interesting characters for Gwyn to met and things for her to try and work out. Gwyn has decided that she wants to be a lawyer and she is obsessed with finding out people’s stories, but often jumps to the worst possible conclusions (which is understandable given what has happened to her family) but also isn’t actually very good at asking the right questions or showing empathy to people. She wants to solve problems because there is one big problem that can never be solved – Vienna:

Gwyn calls her mum Vienna – because she’s not a mum to her because of her injury. Her dad is obsessed with trying to find a cure for her but as you go through the book you realise that what is initially described as memory loss is actually not amnesia, but massive and irreversible brain damage. Gwyn knows this. Gwyn’s grandmother knows this, everyone in town knows this – even if they’re not saying it – but Jed thinks a miracle is possible, because Vienna has survived this far. This all means that Gwyn is older than her years in someways, but she has her own trauma from what happened to her mum. She’s taken on the role of her sister’s protector, but she can’t see when she is hurting other people’s feelings – most notably when she is throwing herself into what she has decided is a murder investigation- heedless of Micah and Jimmy’s feelings.

Looking through the reviews and blurbs for this, I can see comparisons to To Kill A Mockingbird and I can sort of understand that – small town, weird neighbours, gang of roaming children – but there are a lot of differences too. Lots of things about Gaysie Cutter do remain unexplained, but she is a much more visible character than Boo Radley is, and you can often see glimpses of what is going on and understand her a little bit, even if Gwyn can’t.

It’s a really interesting read – and I’ve just realised that I’ve got this far without even mentioning that Gwyn has a pet cow, or the Big Peril at the end. It even made me get a bit teary eyed. And I’m still thinking about it, a couple of days on from finishing it, which is a recommendation in itself.

Anyway I read this in paperback (as you can see from the photo!) but it’s also available in Kindle and Kobo. I bought my copy online a so I’m not sure how easy it will be to find in stores – but I suspect it will be tricky as I can’t find it at all on Foyles website… But if you do happen across a copy it’s worth it.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, Children's books

Book of the Week: Rex Lee, Gypsy Flyer

This week’s BotW pick falls into the bonkers book category – and I just had to tell you all about it. A bit of background – my trains are not great on weekends, so when I work a weekend I stay over in London so that I can get to work on time on a Sunday morning. In the before times, it would be at one of the Youth Hostels near work, and I would go out to the theatre after work, or meet friends for drinks. In lockdown, the hostels are closed, so I’m in hotels. And this weekend’s hotel has a Design Aesthetic that includes putting old books in your room as decorative features. And Rex Lee, Gypsy Flyer from 1928 was on my bedside table and I *had* to read it.

Copy of Rex Lee, Gypsy Flyer

When we meet Rex at the start of the book, he’s just left his friends at the military flying school because he’s inherited a hardware store in California. He is very unhappy about this, because being a pilot is his dream. On the train to the coast, he reads a story about Slim Lindy and his record breaking flights (it’s basically Lindberg) and decides that he wants to be just like him. When we rejoin Rex, he’s flying a taxi plane between an island off the California coast and the mainland. Just as the summer season is starting to end, he gets tangled up in adventure and saves the day and saves people’s lives. And thus the pattern for the rest of the book is set – because gypsy here is being used in the same way as it is in the theatre for dancers who move from show to show (see: the plot of A Chorus Line). Next up, Rex is flying fire spotting planes in Oregon, where he’s in charge of a group of pilots, stands up to authority figures, saves the day and saves people’s lives. Then he flies a mail plane, where he saves the day even more. And he saved the day a lot in Oregon. He ends up stopping a war. I kid you not.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All of the saving involves crashes, near crashes, people clinging to the outside of the plane – either to balance it out, or on one notable occasion to hold a wheel on so the plane can take off – and stunt flying. Lots of stunt flying. I know I’m giving a lot of spoilery detail here, but I’m not seriously expecting that many of you are going to go out and buy it – and those of you who do will buy it exactly because of this sort of craziness. And trust me when I say there’s much more in the book than I’ve told you about.

All in all, it was the perfect way to spend a few hours on Saturday night, once I’d finished watching Drag Race. As regular readers will know, when it comes to old school children’s books, I mostly read Girls Own, but I’m not exactly averse to some Boys Own adventures when the opportunity arises. An obscure part of the University of Missouri: Kansas City’s website tells me that the author, the marvellously named Thomson Burtis, was actually a pilot who did a lot of different types of flying, but I can’t work out if that’s from jacket copy, and his Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about that. I suspect that if you are (or were) a Biggles (or Worrals) reader, this series would float your boat.

Anyway, I have no idea where you would get a copy of this if you want it – there are copies on Abebooks, but there all in the US and the shipping is *insane* – it’s definitely not worth spending £30+ on. But if you see any of the other titles in the series – there are 11 – in a second hand bookshop then maybe give it a try.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books

Book of the Week: How Nell Scored

Last week was a lot. I thought hard about what to pick today, but eventually decided that the craziness that is this Bessie Merchant book was the thing I wanted to write about.

How Nell Scored is not a long book, but it packs a lot in to under 100 pages. Nell lives on an isolated farm in New Zealand along with her extended family. At the start of the book her parents leave for the nearest town, to look after her older brother David who is sick. Nell and her sister Sue are left in the care of their aunt, the magnificently named Angelina Ann. No sooner are the parents gone, than a ship is wrecked on the rocks near the house and Nell and Sue (but mostly Nell!) has to rescue two of the crew from the wreckage. One man has a broken leg, the other is your stereotypical Girl’s Own “bad lot” – he tries to get out of helping rescue his shipmate and then when they’re back at the farm acting suspiciously while alone in the room of his colleague. When the sick man wakes up, he confides in Nell that he has a belt full of pearls that he needs to get to the nearest town or – and here’s a real shocker – Nell’s brother will be ruined. Yes. In one of those weird Girls Own coincidences, Nell’s brother stood surety for the mystery man and if he doesn’t get the money to town soon the bank will come to collect. This is the mystery reason why David has fallen ill. With me so far? A lot of plot isn’t it – and we’re not even halfway through! The latter part of the book involves a quest to find a doctor which turns into a 30 mile trek to New Plymouth.

It’s a lot. It’s mad, it has so very much plot and yet is strangely missing a final confrontation between Nell and the villain. It didn’t really matter though – I was too bamboozled to care. It was the bonkers adventure book I needed last week. My first Bessie Marchant, but I suspect not my last.

I have no idea where you’ll get this from. Honestly. My copy came from the local vintage emporium. It cost me a pound. And it was money well spent. Honestly the most bonkers book I have recently read – and it will take some beating to be the maddest book of the year!

Happy Reading!

book adjacent, Children's books, Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Baby-Sitters Club

Another in my occasional series of posts about things that have been getting me through the Coronavirus, and this is one that dovetails with my love of middle grade books, despite the fact that I’m no longer a middle grader – and in fact am easily old enough to have a middle grader of my own!

If you’re my sort of age, The Baby-sitters Club was up there with Sweet Valley High as a series that you binge-read from the library. Or at least it was for me.  The books – with the building blocks logo and the house with the illustration of the story in the window were instantly recognisable. It’s hard to remember so many years later, but I’m fairly sure I read almost all of the first 50 books, and all the early super specials as well as some of the mysteries. So, I was excited – but also a little trepidatious – to see that Netflix had adapted it. How do you update a series written in the pre-internet, pre mobile phone world so that it works for children today?

As it turns out, they’ve done it really, really well. The personalities of the girls are the same – but Dawn is Hispanic and Mary Anne is biracial. Stacey still has diabetes, but now she has an insulin pump rather than having to do injections. There are mobile phones, but Kristy and Mary Anne still have flashlights to signal between their houses – because Mary Anne’s dad is so overprotective. Would modern parents really trust a bunch of barely teenagers with their kids? Well the series does try and address that. It’s got a strong focus on social justice, which I think is both true to the original books and inline with what the kids today (!) are interested in and it has enough easter eggs in there for the grownups too – like the handwriting on the episode titles being the “right” ones for each girl from the original books, Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mum, Kevin from Brooklyn 99 as Mary Anne’s dad. As grown up, sometimes it was all a little bit ott but I’m not the target audience- and i find that with a lot of children’s shows. It was perfect though for watching while ironing. And low-stakes drama is about all I can deal with right now. At the end of the series Mallory and Jessi were introduced, which means I’m hoping there are plans for a second series – but obviously these strange times we live in could have thrown all that up in the air and mean that the cast age out faster than expected.

Anyway, you can find the Baby-sitters Club on Netflix – and I’m off to read one of the new Babysitter’s Club graphic novels which have been adapted by Raina Telgemeier.

Happy reading!

 

Children's books, Recommendsday

#Recommendsday: Finding Langston

I had a hard time picking my Book of the Week yesterday, because there was a lot of good stuff I read last week, but picked This Book is Anti-Racist as a call to action for the times that we’re in. So as a bonus for #Recommendsay, I’m writing about the other book which I read and loved last week and just needed to tell you about.

Cover of Finding Langston

Langston is eleven and he’s just moved to Chicago with his dad. It’s 1946 and the move was prompted by the death of Langston’s mum. Unsurprisingly Langston is struggling with all the upheaval in his life, not helped by the fact that he is being bullied at school for being from the South. But Langston finds a refuge in the local library. In Alabama, the library was only for white people, but his nearest branch is for everyone. And inside Langston finds his namesake – the poet Langston Hughes, who has the words to express how it feels to be uprooted from the south and transplanted to the North.

This is just such a gorgeously written book. While you’re reading it you can see post-war Chicago absolutely vividly and clearly and understand the life that Langston and his dad are leading, on the edge of poverty but hoping for better times soon. It’s about loss and upheaval and the Great Migration, but it’s also a love letter to books, words and poetry and the power they have to help you through difficult times. This is Lesa Cline-Ransome’s debut novel (she has previously written several picture books) and has won a ton of praise and totally deserves it. It has a companion novel about one of the bullies that I would now really like to read as well. This is a middle grade novel and would make a great addition to school reading lists or just for kids who like books about people who like books. And maybe have some Langston Hughes handy for afterwards because it will make you want to read more of his poetry. It’s just wonderful.

I borrowed my copy of Finding Langston from the library, but it is available on Kindle and Kobo and in paperback. At time of writing, Amazon has just a couple of copies left of the paperback, so it may be out of stock at your local indie too, but do put it on order.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books

Book of the Week: The Good Thieves

As mentioned yesterday, monthly stats are coming on Thursday, so I can keep to my regular schedule of Book of the Week on Tuesdays and mini reviews on the first Wednesday of each month. And this week, for the first time in a long time, my pick is a middle grade book – Katherine Rundell’s The Good Thieves.

Hardback copy of The Good Thieves

Vita and her mother got the first boat to New York when the letter from Vita’s grandfather arrived. He’s been cheated out of his ancestral home by mobster Victor Sorrotore. Vita’s mum wants to move him to London, but Vita can’t bear to see her grandfather sad and broken and is determined to get Hudson Hall back for him. But Sorrotore is a powerful mobster – how on earth can she beat him? Well the answer involves a pickpockets, animal tamers and a trapeze artist and a thrilling heist caper through Prohibition New York. I love a strong female heroine and Vita is great – she’s fierce and brave and believes that she can do anything – she’s not letting her age or her dodgy foot (affected by polio) stop her. And if his means that she sometimes makes some stupid decisions (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there), they are totally in keeping with who she is. This is fast-paced, there’s loads of suspense and both the characters and the setting are so brilliantly drawn you just can’t put it down. And on top of that, the writing absolutely sparkles – the descriptions of Vita and her friends and of New York are brilliantly evocative – you can really see them and the menagerie of animals in their little corner of the city by Carnegie Hall.

My love for heist-y adventure-y books is well known, as is my fondness for middle grade fiction (despite the fact that I have not been a middle grader since the 1990s) and along with the interwar setting, maybe it’s not surprising that ticked a lot of my boxes. This would be great for children who’ve read the Enid Blyton …of Adventure series or the Famous Five, or more modern series like Robin Steven’s Wells and Wong books and Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair mysteries. I loved tales of derring do when I was at the top end of primary school – and read the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew voraciously as well as series like the Three Investigators, most of which I either wouldn’t recommend for modern kids or aren’t in print any more, and this would fill that gap for kids with similar interests today.

My copy of The Good Thieves is a delightful signed hardback that I bought from Foyles – who made it their children’s book of the year last year – but it’s also out in paperback on June 10th according to Foyles. And of course you can get it in Kindle and Kobo as well.

Happy reading