A Little Princess : Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first timeA Little Princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to begin with Sara Crewe and her magical story of hope and dreams and imagination? Where to begin with this story full of richness, of sweetness, of grace, of aching tears that can’t help be shed by the reader?

Perhaps at the start, perhaps there, and then we shall have some sort of structure to this review other than my incoherent love for this book and as you may know, incoherent love is all very well and good but it is not structure nor is it perhaps intelligible at times.

Sara Crewe has come to England with her beloved father, all the way from India. She is to be sent to school and her father has chosen Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies to serve as her home for the next few years. Just everything about the name of the school makes me tingle with satisfaction. The preciseness of that phrase. The tightness of it. The way it makes your mouth purse, just a little, when you say it loud. Perfection.

Sara is left at school and her father goes back to India. Initially everything goes splendidly for Sara. She lives the life of a Princess, wrapped in money and expensive things, but this all changes when something happens – something awful and almost unbelievable to dear Sara. (Dear Sara, how naturally I write that, god I want to adopt everyone in this book and hug them tight, but maybe not Lavinia). Sara is thrown into distinctly different circumstances than she began her life at school with and who knows what will happen to her?

One central motif in this book is the idea of imagination and of dreams and of the importance of this dreaming. Throughout the book, Sara’s ability to dream and tell stories is emphasised and beloved by the vast majority of her fellow pupils. One of her favourite pretends is to be a Princess and, as Sara herself puts it:

“”It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend that I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one.””

What is more perfect than that little painful quote of hers? You can almost see her jutting her chin out and flushing a little bit as she says it. You can taste the quiet fury in her words and the way that she’s holding everything inside of her and part of that everything is something so precious that she can scarcely even begin to talk about it.

It’s important to acknowledge in a review of this book that there are elements which have dated and are a little uncomfortable when read with a modern mindset. It’s also equally important to acknowledge that this book was written in a very different time and societal context and as such, those issues are very much contextually produced.

Also it’s equally important to acknowledge how beautiful this book is. It is edible. It is full of hope and sadness and joy and grief and it’s all written in such an accessible and graceful way that reading this is like being wrapped in a blanket of words. It is lovely. There are many, many classic children’s books out there which are rightfully still being read and savoured but not many, I think, which can pull a story like this out of the bag and make it accessible and believable and so ferociously lovely that the ending of it makes you cry and smile and sigh with contentment all at the same time. The Railway Children is one. The Secret Garden is another. A Little Princess is well up there with them.

Do note that there are a couple of different versions out there of this, due to the nature of it being originally serialised in a newspaper and then put together as a collected edition. The version I read was via Project Gutenberg and is available here. Go and have a look and swoon at that front cover.

View all my reviews

TiN : Chris Judge

TiN front cover

figure one: TiN front cover with unintentional moody lighting

A book which give me good endpapers is basically my literary equivalent of “You had me at hello.” Good endpapers are a mark of clever work, work that revels in the nature of what it is and knows how to fully utilise that space. I mean, picture books are books that, perhaps more than most, have space to play in. You can do so much here. So much. Continue reading

Let’s talk a little bit about adults and children’s literature

I’ve been doing a PhD (is that the right phrase? Do you do this sort of a thing?) for nearly a month now and so far my brain has resembled one of those Stretch Armstrong dolls I always wanted but never got for one reason or another. You can sort of feel the moments when everything starts to come together, just a little bit, but then you realise that that coming together is somewhere far and distant in the future and what you actually thought was coming together really isn’t, but it sort of maybe is and maybe could if you do this certain thing.

Basically books, man, knowledge and books, like whoah.

And as part of this erudite conversation I’ve been having with myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about adults and their relationship to children’s literature. (If you’ve got time, I’d get you to have a look at this by Dr Matt Finch where he talks about Alice Munro and the notion of what actually is a ‘suitable’ (my emphasis) read for young adults.)

Yesterday, I met with my supervisor again and whilst talking about everything in the world, we touched upon the notion of adults reading children’s literature. This came from a book I’m reading which seems to sort of disregard everything that made the author who they were today. “But when I grew up, I put away childish things”. That sort of thing. 

Which is fine, but it’s not a complete view of the way we get to be who we are as adults.

It’s not acknowledging the building blocks of our selves.

Our readerly journey begins as children and sometimes I think we forget that (and I’m using we in a spectacularly global manner here, please forgive me for the inherent generalisations in such usage). Sometimes I think that people sort of think they came out full formed as readers, that what they read as children does not matter. That what it was was childish. (And oh, how I twinge with that term). That what is was as a temporal experience that cannot and should not be revisited or even, in some cases, acknowledged.

And I don’t know if that’s right.

I don’t know if it’s fair, even, to those books or to us.

We are all made and shaped by literature, by the text that our society is as a whole. By the textuality of our worlds. By the textuality of our existence, our own personal narratives. I love the fact that I read, write and get to research children’s books. I love the fact that I am part of this narrative, this hugely important narrative that shifts worlds and builds people. (Every time you read your books with your kids or take your grandkids to the library or whatever, you are buying into that narrative of change and potential and brave new worlds and I think you’re all world-changers and rather brilliant for doing that).

Children’s literature, young adult literature, picture books, non-fiction, apps; everything that comes under that increasingly umbrella-like term is something that is incredibly vital and something that has made and continues to make who we are. We give it to our children, we share it in schools and libraries, and we do that because we believe in it. We want it to say certain things, to share certain things, to be certain things to the child of today.

The child that we once were.

Belzhar : Meg Wolitzer

BelzharBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s difficult for me this book, and it’s one that I’ve put aside for a good few days before writing this review. My feelings are complicated and I hope to understand the complexities and tensions of that response through this review.

So, let’s begin at the beginning. Belzhar appealed to me greatly through the premise: the heroine, Jam Gallahue, has experienced the grievous death of her boyfriend and as a result has been sent to study at a somewhat alternative boarding school. The Wooden Barn is part therapy, part school, and is a place for teens to deal with what has happened in their lives. Whilst at this school, Jam is asked to join a special English class where they will be studying Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. As part of this class, each inhabitant is given a journal where they need to write their thoughts and it is the journal that ultimately provides Jam with a ticket to ‘Belzhar’ – a place where she can be with her boyfriend once more.

Complicated, yes, but I think this narrative works. I think it works better if you have read some Sylvia Plath, I think you gain some thickness to the allusions in Wolitzer’s text and the great impact of Plath herself, but I do think it works well by itself. There are some moments whereby you do require a healthy suspension of cynicism and I think this is perhaps something missing in the packaging of the book. It’s not a novel of hard and definite edges and don’t expect that upon going in. What it is is a book of softness, of grey, pained edges, and of misty spaces where things can be something both good can be bad.

That’s what Belzhar does well, that graceful smudging of space and reality and of truth and heartbreak, but I think it struggles a little in holding its own voice. In situating the novel so firmly amidst the experience of the Bell Jar and of Plath’s work in general, I think it loses a little bit of its own identity. Whilst that is a gloriously metatextual thing at one point (and something that I rather admire), it’s not something that I feel helps Belzhar. Even that title makes me wince a little bit, the allusions of it, the artfulness of it. It doesn’t feel right for what this book is.

Remember where I said my feelings about it were complicated? I hope that you’re getting that as I circle back and forth in this review and try to figure out where I stand. And that’s something I try to do with every book I review. I try to see a space for it. I try to think of the readers I’d recommend this for and where I’d shelve it in the library. And here’s the thing. I do see a place for this book, I see it in that space where people are reading Plath and want more, in that space where people are discovering their own voices and wanting to define and redefine them. And that’s a good thing. That’s a great thing, really, but it’s a limiting thing in the same breath. There’s a tension in that statement, because it rules out a whole host of other readers for me.

I think that’s the thing about Belzhar. There are such tensions in this book and whilst some of them are tensions that I’m rather spectacularly admiring of, they are tensions nonetheless which require acknowledging and some sort of attempt at understanding. But again, after saying that, I think of that metatextual edge of Belzhar, of that self-referential nature of it, and I think I am rather in admiration of it. I’m not sure I like it though. I’m not sure of that at all.

View all my reviews

War Girls : A Collection of First World War stories through the eyes of young women

War GirlsWar Girls by Adèle Geras

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I begin this review by telling you that this compilation, this collection of stories about World War One is one of the better (if not the best) book I have read this year and I am greedy for more.

The authors that have contributed include: Melvin Burgess, Mary Hooper, Theresa Breslin, Sally Nicholls and Adele Geras. In addition to them we have Berlie Doherty, Anne Fine, Matt Whyman and Rowena House.

There are authors in that list who could sell me a trip to the dentist should it come with the promise of more of their writing.

So we begin with Theresa Breslin and her story: Shadow and Light. It is a story which is searing, as so many of them are, and made me breathless and cry and fall in love. It is the story of Merle, an artist, and to give you any more information would be to do a disservice to this great and awful story. It’s so good. Really. And it sets the tone for a collection full of grace and awe and heartache.

To highlight a few other joys (painful, painful joys) in this collection: Mary Hooper’s tearoom saga is a thing of loveliness, and something I would welcome so much more of. There’s an immense story here that fits into the short story form beautifully but god, I want more but I think that’s always the way when I read Mary Hooper.

I also loved Adele Geras’ contribution but I think I will always love how she writes romance. She catches it so gracefully, that moment where something innocent and unexpected turns into something great and blinding (“Blindly, like a plant in search of light, I turn my face up, and his lips are there, on my lips, and my senses and my heart and my body, every part of me, all my love, everything is drawn into the sweetness of his mouth”)

Whilst it feels odd to highlight only a few stories in a collection where they are all so hugely good, the last one I want to mention is Melvin Burgess’ story: Mother and Mrs Everington. Searing. Scarring. And full of a rage that we rarely see in stories of this nature. It is outstanding. Awful. A voice that spills from the pages and burns, burns, burns.

I love this collection. I love how contrary it is. It’s rather quietly designed, rather gently put together, and it’s only when you hold it and get to know itt that it explodes into vicious and powerful life. Rather metaphorical, really. Rather wonderful. A brilliant thing, this book. Don’t let it not be read.

View all my reviews

A few thoughts on reading out loud

Now that I’m an official PhD student, I am officially researching children’s literature. It is terrifying, awe-inducing and a privilege, all at the same time. It’s letting my mind race, hugely, nervously, tentatively, into odd places and to self-indulgent places because I’m able to do what I enjoy. And what I enjoy is talking about books. Children’s books, in particular. (I know, for those of who have been following my blog for a while, I hope you were sat down for that revelation ;) )

So let’s talk a little bit about reading out loud.

Why? Well, why not. But, what I sort of want to do with this post is tell you a little bit about what reading out loud is, and what it can do, and what we’re engaging in when we do this thing that we sort of tend to accept as just what we should be doing and because of that, it’s so ingrained in our consciousness that we don’t really pause to see the great wonder of what it is that we are doing..

(I’ve just had a Twix. Can you tell? Let’s do this!)

Okay. So. Reading out loud to our children, with our children, is a beautiful thing. It is a shared act of reading. It is us introducing them to literature, framing it through our presentation of it to them (oh look at this! isn’t this exciting!) and it is our way of helping literacy develop in our children. It is not the only way, but it is one of our big ways. We bathe our children in words, we let them wash over them from day one, we name our children and we talk, talk, talk to them and with every word, we’re pulling them into the world.

That’s one of the things that reading out loud does (and to be fair, it’s not just one – there’s a multitude of things to be unpacked in that paragraph above), but it’s not the only thing that it does, and this is the part where it starts to get interesting for me. Interesting-er, if you will.

When you read, you’re bringing a story to life. One sentence: “We’re going on a bear hunt”, uttered in real time, to a face or a crowd, and you’re affirming literature. You are bringing the imaginary into the real world because, for that brief and glorious moment of reading the story, you are the story. The story is you. The text in the page doesn’t exist on the page any more, it exists in you.

How amazing is that? It’s like a superpower that we all have: we can be story. 

It’s through that speech act, that simple click and furl of your tongue, that you do it and you do it every day. You bring story to life. You say to your kids, or the kids you look after, or the kids you teach, or the kids that come into your library, that stories are real. You take the time out to go – look at this artefact, look at this thing that I believe in so much that I’m taking time out of my day to read it and let it live, and here’s the thing, here’s the utterly brilliant kicker, you can do it too.

You can make this story happen. You’re making it when you mouth the words along with me, or when your finger runs along the page. You are story and the story is you. 

Every time we read out loud, we’re letting the imaginary live. We’re making it real. We are affirming our belief in the necessity of literature in our world. We believe in fairies. We believe in magic. We believe in words. 

Jo of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Jo of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #2)Jo of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s very little to say about the early Chalet School books other than to rhapsodise over how awfully lovely they are. And they are. They are like snow on the day when you don’t have to go to school. There’s something other worldly about them at this point in the series and it is something rather special and beautiful.

So! Here we are. It is only book two and the school is still finding its feet. We are on the side of the bluest lake in all of Austria and it includes one of my most favourite moments in the entire series. It’s no spoiler to say that there is a point in this book where Joey disappears and nobody knows where she has got to. Dear wonderful Simone insists on looking for her inside the piano. How glorious a sentence is that? There is everything in this series inside that moment; the earnest belief in ones abilities, the knowledge that Jo is a skinigallee (sp, naturally), and the glorious innocence that characterises so much about these early books. It’s lovely. I adore you young Simone and a part of me wishes you’d retained that romantic dippiness of yours for ever.

The Robin makes her debut in this book and I remember spending hours studying the pages and wondering when she lost her ‘The’. That still fascinates me. The Robin (oh lord, I’m doing it now) is rather lovely here and winsome and a welcome addition to the cast (and one, might I add, who should have had more book than she did, but I digress, yet again).

The other thing that Jo of the Chalet School benefits from, quite immensely, is that Madge is still on the scene. She’s such a glorious character; vivid, sharp and lovely and rather inspirational in her own way. What a character she is, and [potential spoiler alert] what a shame she gets married off so swiftly.

But again, I digress.

What makes this series so glorious in its early days is this sense of greatness about it. You feel that this is real. You feel that this is happening. You feel that this is, to paraphrase a certain somebody else, a very great adventure and you feel privileged to be a part of it. And even now, even 88 years later (!), you can feel that there is something quite beautiful and pure and elegant and joyful about these stories and that is a something which deserves to be treasured.

Plus there’s Rufus.

View all my reviews