“It is a truth universally acknowledged that every rainy day requires a very good book”

I wish I wrote this sitting in the kitchen sink but I don’t, I write it upstairs and I write it staring out onto a grey and rain spotted day. The sky’s a smudge of sadness and the roofs are slat-dark with the rain that’s pounded on them since first thing this morning.

So what do we do on such days? We read. Books are made for rainy days; for days where the only thing that matters in the world is you and a blanket and a sofa and time, time, time to wallow and read and to lose yourself.

Here’s five of my favourite recommendations for such days.

1. Roland Barthes – “A Lover’s Discourse”

A dipping book this, one to pond-skim and then to dive in wholly and hold your breath until the text releases you. This is a book that reminds you of the quality and power that language can yield. It is a book of constant inspiration for me; a book for breathing, in and out, and realising just what words can do.

2. Frances Hodgson Burnett – “A Little Princess”

There is a part of me that could populate this list with just repeated references to this book. Rainy day reads are reads that should transport you, that should take you to other worlds and times and places, and do so quite ferociously and fiercely and vividly. The tale of Sara Crewe and her attic is that book.

3. Dodie Smith – “I Capture The Castle”

Grace, bold and lovely and heartfelt and awful, this book is full of grace and of heart and of romance and of love. Read it slowly, read it richly, read it slowly and selfishly and when you’ve finished reading it, read it again and remember how perfect a book can be.

4. Michelle Magorian – “A Little Love Song”

To talk of Michelle Magorian and her work, is to talk of a writer who is simply very very good. A Little Love Song is lesser known, I think, than ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ but it is, I think, better. Can books be better when they are all so good? I think so, yes, I think Rose and her seaside coming of age story is one of the most perfect books to ever dawn the world of children’s literature.

5. Susie Day – “Pea’s Book of Holidays”

A classic in the waiting, this series ; all of them are written so beautifully that I fall in love with them afresh each time I read. Day’s books and this one in particular sing of life and of warmth and of love and of people. What better to read on a rainy day than this book of sunshine and of humour and of Enid Blyton and of adventures and wish fulfillment in every sentence? These books are a constant, constant joy and ‘Pea’s Book of Holidays’ is a book that I am feverish with love for.

Back Home : Michelle Magorian

Back HomeBack Home by Michelle Magorian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a lot of love for Michelle Magorian, one of the great dames of British children’s literature. I’ve spoken about Back Home before, briefly, in a list of books featuring Dartington Hall, the place where I went to University. It was, however, a too brief mention and so I returned to Back Home in order to review it properly.

And, to be honest, I returned because I’ve spent too long without reading a Michelle Magorian. She’s one of those writers who simply is and always will be there in my life and her stories are ones that I return to when I need comfort, or when I just need to remind myself of what can happen when people are really good at what they do.

Back Home is a gorgeous, powerful book. Virginia is returning to the UK after being evacuated during the second world war to the United States. She’s come back with a new nickname, Rusty, and a new more confident personality. Fitting back into the world that she left is hard. Her family still expects her to be the Virginia they let go, her grandmother basically loathes her, and the war torn nature of Britain comes as stark contrast to the life Rusty led in the United States.

And so, perhaps inevitably, Rusty is sent to boarding school to bring her back to the girl that various people want her to be. It does not go well.

Alex Baugh sums it up excellently in this review by calling it “a misfit come of age story.” What’s particularly interesting is that this by no means refers solely to Rusty. There’s a strong feminist slant towards some of the novel, particularly the storyline affecting Rusty’s mother, and so Back Home is not just the story of Rusty figuring out who she is now. It’s the story of a whole lot of people figuring out who they are after the world changed all around them.

Magorian’s language and writing style are vivid and heartfelt. There’s points in this where you feel every single step taken by Rusty and, as ever with a Magorian, there will be tears. But there’s more than sadness in this book, it’s not just about those sorts of tears. It’s about hope and joining these characters on their journey of discovery.

Michelle Magorian is outstanding. You should all go read her stuff, now. I’ll write you a note for PE and I’ll phone your boss for you. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part one)

Artichoke Hearts – Sita Brahmachari

Brahmachari stormed into publication with this stunning tribute to life, love and growing up. Told in first person by the engaging Mira Levenson, Artichoke Hearts covers some difficult topics but does so with such warmth and love that it’s hard not to fall in love with this rare gem of a book.

Similar to : Itself.

Jasmine Skies – Sita Brahmachari

The sequel to Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies sees Mira exploring her heritage in India. Kolkata and India are intensely drawn with a lush richness that is gorgeous to read. Mira faces some difficult decisions and, in a way, completes the ‘coming of age’ story began in the previous novel.

Similar to : Artichoke Hearts (ha, sorry but it really is!)

Who’s afraid of the big bad book – Lauren Child

Both a stunning treatise on the book as object, the act of reading and also a metatextual treatment of fairytales, this book is superb. Plus it’s really, really very funny. I adore this.

Similar to : Revolting Rhymes

Beowulf – Gareth Hinds

Adapting an epic poem into graphic novel form is no mean feat (have you seen a graphic novel version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for example?) but Hinds does it with brilliant skill. His book has dark, macabre artwork that is so vital that it practically sings from the page.

Similar to : The Odyssey (Gareth Hinds)

Unhooking the Moon – Gregory Hughes

Another book which deserves to be a classic, this is the story of Bob and his sister ‘The Rat’ on their way to New York to meet their long lost Uncle. If you’ve not read this, you’re missing out on one of the greatest female characters this century: The Rat. She’s adorable, gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Similar to : Jack Kerouac meets Willy Wonka.

A Little Love Song – Michelle Magorian

This is one of Magorian’s lesser known titles, this is the story the summer where Rose fell in love, A Little Love Song is one of – and perhaps – her greatest. Set in the middle of the second world war, and featuring the ‘holiday’ town from Goodnight Mr Tom, it is a stunning achievement.

Similar to : I Capture The Castle

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

What to say about this stunning multi-award winning book? It is devestating, stunning, and deserves to be a forever classic. Based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd and ultimately written by Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, Conor faces the unfaceable in the shape of a monster who visits him at night and forces him to confront the worst things in his life.

Similar to : Neil Gaiman (His ‘Sandman’ series in particular)

Life : An Exploded Diagram – Mal Peet

Sometimes we need a book to just go giddy and revel in what it is. Life : An Exploded Diagram is such a book. Stretching majestically over countries, lives, and years, this book is vividly human and alive. Alive. It’s an interesting thing for a book to be, but this one is.

Similar to : Brideshead Revisited, Flambards, Where the Wind Blows

Claude on Holiday – Alex T Smith

This is probably one of the only books which has transferred the ‘saucy British seaside’ aesthetic into a witty, astute and very very funny picture book suitable for all ages. Claude, and his best friend Sir Bobblysock, go to the seaside and naturally hijinks ensue. This book is gorgeous.

Similar to : That postcard your Nan sent you from Southend

Dead Man’s Cove – Lauren St John

Laura Marlin deserves to be on the national curriculum. A funny, brave, Buffy-esque heroine (without the actual violence!), she’s sent to the seaside to live with her mysterious Uncle and rapidly discovers there’s mysteries in her new home.

Similar to : Nancy Drew meets the Famous Five

Tune in next time for part two! It’ll be a picture book / graphic novel special 🙂

A Little Love Song : Michelle Magorian

A Little Love SongA Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I seem to come back to A Little Love Song whenever I need comforting and so, it was with no surprise to myself when I found my way back to it recently. It’s a wartime bildungsroman, the story of the summer where everything changes for the central character Rose. Rose and her beautiful sister, Diana, are sent to the seaside town of Salmouth in the care of a guardian whilst their mother goes off to entertain the troups. It’s when the guardian doesn’t arrive, the two sisters have to make a vital decision. Do they stay in the supposedly haunted cottage, the home of ‘Mad Hilda’, or do they go back to their real lives?

Michelle Magorian is perhaps better known for Good Night, Mr. Tom and is one of those authors who produces masterpieces every couple of years. A Little Love Song is one of those masterpieces. It’s written very quietly; the prose is effortless and there’s no place for high-dancing metaphors here. It is a story very much concerned with the quiet nature and sheer wonder of life and how people cross and move throughout their stories.

Rose’s summer is a delight, a heartbreak, a wistful page-turn. As she discovers more about the previous inhabitant of the cottage – the so called ‘Mad Hilda’ – she seems to discover more and more about herself in the process. The development and resolution of Mad Hilda’s story is heartbreaking and comes to bear more weight on Rose’s life than either she or we ever thought possible.

A Little Love Song is the work of an author who is, I think, often forgotten and shouldn’t be. This novel holds the hallmarks of some of her greatest work, the sensitive portrayal of a young individual bordering on adulthood and trying to find their way in the world.

It is a beautiful, beautiful book.

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A most unusual place : Dartington Hall and its role in children’s literature

University wasn’t meant to be like this. I’d come to this place, possibly the furthest away place I could have chosen, and here I was in a room – a studio! – with thirty other individuals and I was creating a collaborative theatre piece.  Devising. Group. Theatre.

I was a most shell-shocked individual. My first week at university saw massive, immense periods of free time, coupled with breathless moments of incredulity. It was not easy to comprehend. I had come here (to write! I write! I do not contemplate my inner tree!) and I’d not come anywhere near a pen yet. I hadn’t even found anybody else who was doing my course!  It eventually turned out that there were others, mythical others, but I was the only one in my Halls of Residence.

This, then, was my university. This was Dartington College of Arts. Nestled in the greenest of Devonian hills, it was most definitely another world. I had come here for an interview (after finding the prospectus on the floor of my Careers room at school) and fallen in love. There was a Henry Moore statue in the gardens! There. Were. GARDENS. (A University? With GARDENS?) And a cinema on site! And listed buildings! And countryside – great swathes of lush countryside – that were perfect for a country mouse such as myself .

Dartington was, is, amazing. My time there proved to be life-changing. I have no bones about saying that, it truly was. I learnt confidence. I learnt that what I do can be good. I learnt about art, and the construction of words and language and I learnt how to master my talents and make them my own.  The university itself is now merged with Falmouth, and based there, but I’ll never forget my time at Dartington Hall.

I loved it. Is that obvious? I would go back there in a heartbeat. In a way, I search to replicate that feeling everyday.

But then I started to discover Dartington in children’s literature. The site itself has an illustrious history. Established as an artistic colony – a safe harbour – during World War Two by the Elmhirsts – Dartington Hall played host to some of the finest creative minds in history. The estate also included a school which was both revolutionary and incendiary (famous, for example, for mixed sex nude swimming). There’s an excellent, albeit somewhat romanticised, history of the estate available here and a fascinating account of Dartington Hall school here written by an ex-pupil.

The first book that most definitely features Dartington Hall school is Michelle Magorian’s “Back Home

Michelle Magorian, perhaps most widely known for ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘, is one of the most outstanding writers for children that we have.  Her bibliography is not huge and the gap between these is lengthy, but the quality of her work speaks for itself.  ‘Back Home‘, based just after the Second World War, tells the story of Rusty who is returning to the UK after being evacuated to the USA during the war.

I won’t spoil what happens in the book, but Dartington Hall school makes a definite appearance. It’s identifiable through the local geographical data – Magorian mentions the Plymouth train, Staverton bridge, the river Dart and there’s a town which I’d suspect to be Totnes.

Magorian has a near tangible-competency about her which is a delight to read. She handles growth superbly and in particularly female growth, the way women and girls interact. Back Home could be defined simply as a school story but there’s a wealth of social commentary here. It is a quietly brilliant book.

Upon checking the details for this post, I was really pleased to see that there have been recent reissues of Magorian’s titles. If you’ve not read any of her titles, I can’t reccomend them enough.

The second book I discovered that mentioned Dartington was “The Dragonfly Pool” by Eva Ibbotson.

I miss Eva Ibbotson. I really do. She died last year and the more I discover of her books, the more it saddens me that I discovered them so late. ‘The Dragonfly Pool’ is a particularly magical book which follows Tallie from her experiences at Delderton Hall, a somewhat “alternative” school,  through to when she arrives in the Ruritanian-esque kingdom of Bergania as part of a folk dance competition.

Delderton is Dartington. Ibbotson attended it herself and although it appears under a pseudonym, the connection is clear. She speaks of it in her introduction to the book, drawing the parallels between this school and the one she herself attended, and concludes: “I soon realized this was a school like no other.”

The Dragonfly Pool is fantastical, as many of Ibbotson’s titles are, and requires a suspension of disbelief in order to make it work. But this, I think, is what makes it so beguiling. There’s a lot of love in this story and a lot of innocence. It is childlike and it is beautiful and yet, when it calls for it to be, it turns into sharp social commentary. Tallie herself is one of those, perhaps somewhat Pollyanna-ish, heroines who might irritate if met in real life but, when met in this context, this magical and fantastical and dreamy (un)reality, she works beautifully.

These are the two most notable examples I’ve found, but in the process of researching this post I came across another – “Daniel and Esther” by Patrick Raymond. The only cover image I’ve found is this fairly dated effort. I’m trying to track down a copy of this and will do a review of it when / if I find it. (Update 11/2/2012 – It’s found and reviewed here!)

What is interesting in both the Ibbotson and Magorian books, Dartington seems recognised and accepted because of its difference. This is what makes it work. It is presented as a home for those children who have, or would be unhappy, anywhere else. It is the anti-establishment for those children who are, though they’re unable to verbalise or even recognise it, distinctly ‘agin the government’.

I love that. I love how Dartington, a place which was replete with creativity and inspiration, has this second life which perpetuates the ethos and ideals of the place. It wasn’t perfect. Nowhere is. But what it was was a place for people to discover what they could do.

And to memorialise that in literature seems a peculiarly graceful form of tribute.