Janie Steps In : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Janie Steps In (La Rochelle, #7)Janie Steps In by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know where to begin with this delightful little box of tricks, so perhaps we shall be like Fraulein Maria and start at the beginning for that is a very good place to start. And beginnings, really, are a strange thing to find in this book because it is the end of the La Rochelle series and many of the characters face the fate of being interwoven into that series. This is not a problem, if we are precise about it, for Janie Steps In holds approximately 303048 individuals who are destined to be head girls and prefects within its pages. But, it also holds a chapter called The Apple Riot, shines a spotlight on the epitome of dysfunction that is the Chester family, and, what’s more, throws in a little lesson on ‘don’t marry the first hottie you meet’. To be frank, this is Brent-Dyer at her chaotic best.

Our interest in this episode is Nan Blakeney who hasn’t got over the death of her mother quick enough. She is not helped by her cousin having quite the family likeness (really not Nan’s problem for not getting over things then, is it?) and thus is sent off to Janie Lucy who is the spit of Joey from the Chalet School books and clearly one of Brent-Dyer’s great literary loves. Everything gets a bit hysterical, the servants do all the work, The Apple Riot is an outstanding chapter borne from something I can only attribute to a fever dream, and this is just good, brilliant stuff. Everyone is jolly, and everyone loves each other in a hearty sort of fashion (except Rosamund who is CLANNISH and Cannot Cope With Interlopers) and did I mention the apple thing?

I honestly think this might be one of my favourite Brent-Dyer books. She could hit some lows, and I’ll never be backward in pointing those out, but she could also hit some heights. This is amongst the best of her work; it’s warm as sunlight, easy and friendly (even when dealing with the more dramatic bits) and lovable. These characters are occasional tools, but madly vibrant. You finally get to figure out why everybody was super weird about Barbara Chester when she joined the Chalet School. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s even one of those spectacular EBD ‘there’s no clues but X has been pregnant and whoops here’s a baby’ moments.

I loved this. I really, really did.

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Five Fall Into Adventure : Enid Blyton

Five Fall into Adventure (Famous Five, #9)Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a little part in this where Julian, after detailing the current predicament that the Famous Five have gotten themselves into, remarks, “…This is all very stupid and melodramatic” and it’s kind of the highlight of the entire book for me. It’s a breaking of the fourth wall, a moment where Blyton throws all of her stubborn fire at the critics and goes ‘well, yes, it is kind of melodramatic but it’s what happened and besides I’m writing this and not you’ and I love it. The Famous Five are such iconic figures, even to those who maybe have never read any of the original books, that Julian’s wry little comment sings of wall-breaking and authorial intervention, and it’s great. Give me more of this Blyton, more of this author and her stubbornly determined narratives that barely pause for breath.

The ninth of her Famous Five adventures, this is a fairly standard sort of affair. Something happens, something else happens, somebody pops up, shenanigans, shenanigans, everything’s fine and we’re back at home in time for tea. And oh the food in this book! It’s great, and a reminder of Blyton’s childish eye for detail. Note that I don’t use childish in the pejorative manner, but rather as a recognition of Blyton’s eye for perspective. She got children. She understood them. And, for a book first published in the 1950s, she knew what made them tick. Food. Fun. Friends.

This isn’t high literature, and that’s a debate that, in a way, I’m bored of when it comes to Blyton. What I find interesting and exciting about her work is how it is so fiercely determined to make sure the reader has a good time. These are books that will be read even when the reader isn’t sure that they want to do such a thing and they’re still remarkably accessible even to present-day readers, what with her use of syntax and bluntly direct prose. It’s not pretty, but it is remarkable and so very, very, brilliantly readable. I suspect that it’s long past time to bring Blyton in out of the cold, and let her be remarked upon as one of the canonical lights of children’s literature.

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Seven Scamps : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

This is my last read of 2017! I wish you a lovely new year, and if festivities aren’t your thing, I also wish you the chance to spend the evening with a Very Good Book….

Seven Scamps (La Rochelle)Seven Scamps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a delightfully weird book. I’m aware that’s a label that can be applied to much of Brent-Dyer’s work for me, but here it feels particularly pertinent. The Seven Scamps are actually a bunch of brats, abandoned by their restless father who goes off abroad, picks himself up a new wife with a daughter of her own, and then pops back. There’s some mad oddness here, with the father being attracted to his new wife and her daughter because of the daughter’s blonde plaits, a theme that carries on with the father being proud of his own children’s hair. It made me think of how long hair, and the ‘inappropriate cutting there of’ is actually quite a strong theme throughout Brent-Dyer’s work (see Janeways, Lavender, etc…). There’s a thesis in that. Could somebody write it for me?

Every now and then though this book steps away from weirdness, and hits raw and ferocious heights. Brent-Dyer still can’t handle a proposal without getting lost in a knot of euphemisms and Meaningful Looks, but she can handle a sickbed scene. The one in Seven Scamps is something else and for me, made the book what it is. She might not be able to cope with the new style she was attempting to adopt here (“episodic lolz”) but when she writes about people, the fragility of them, and the strength of love, she is remarkable.

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The Wrong Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Wrong Chalet School (The Chalet School, #28)The Wrong Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so wholeheartedly a good book. In a way, it’s a prototype for the ideal school story. The new girl arrives; highjinks jink, a Talent Is Discovered, and another girl gets her comeuppance. The difference with The Wrong Chalet School is that it’s so fiercely dippy that you can’t be held back by doubt or questions. This book is what it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself and that’s what makes it so special.

Katherine Mary Gordon is our new girl, and could it be that she’s been sent to the wrong Chalet School? Of course she has, and that’s where the joy of this begins. It’s delivered with such conviction and such heart that even as the coincidences continue, and the plot gets delightfully caught up in itself with pay-offs and cross-references, you just love it more. And when Brent-Dyer cracks out one of her patented moments of heartbreaking loveliness, you just cry and then you love it a little bit more.

I’ve been on a Chalet School kick at the moment and I suspect that I’ll leave it at Wrong for a while. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to these books because I will always come back to my beloveds; but rather, to say that I don’t want this read to be diluted. The ‘island’ phases of the Chalet School have always had a special place in my heart because they are just so richly done; more so than ‘stately home in the country with a Queen Anne vibe’ and, forgive me, than ‘the kind of magically extendable Swiss Platz’. I believe these books in the Tiernsee and here, where the girls hold ridiculously elaborate pageants in the sea, and have swimming lessons and accidentally get stung by jellyfish. I don’t know, this is my heart maybe, this place of ridiculous joy.

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The Chalet School and Barbara : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Barbara (The Chalet School, #34)The Chalet School and Barbara by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the point in the series where we have what we’d now refer to as a reboot. There are now two branches of the Chalet School, plus St Mildred’s, plus the girls who act as companions to sick relatives and sort of pop in every now and then for a bit of algebra, and it is all very confusing. But then that’s always been the way if you look at the detail of this series. The Chalet School is not one for precision, not consistency, nor parsing the timetable and wondering if a girl has her lesson with the lower or upper form does that mean that the entire school is studying the same subject at the time?

I’m digressing; this is charming. It’s gentle, too, in that sort of delightfully comforting way these books can be. Nothing really much happens; people think about how much Beth Chester’s turned into a fox and how sad she’s not been snapped up, we have the phrase “the very latest thing in lifts” which is so unbearably delightful I can’t bear it, and the equally joyful piece of ridiculousness that is “put forth a tiny rootlet”. It is too, too delightful.

To return briefly to the point about Beth for a moment, it’s important to remember that this book was first published in 1954 and that a whole generation of women would have still been coming to terms with their status in a new world. There’s something oddly mournful here for me, and it centres, perhaps, on the way EBD clearly yearns for marriage for so many of her characters. Even Grizel gets married (and she’s a right nightmare). I won’t dwell on this topic any more here but will simply recommend Helen McClelland’s outstanding biography: Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer. It’s great, and sensitively done.

So! Charming, gentle, and oddly beautiful, this book’s a joy. It’s one of those Chalet Schools that revels in the detail and you don’t really care, because you’re discovering this new world at the same time that the girls are. I can imagine this obsessive detail about the pattern on the curtains (I’m still not 100% sure of what cretonne is), the order of morning baths, and Clem’s weird ‘stick a leg out of your curtain thing’ might pall to new readers, but really if you’re reading this then you’re not new. You’ve been indoctrinated, and your life is all the better for it. These books are ridiculous. They are wonderful. They are everything.

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Ottoline Goes To School : Chris Riddell

Ottoline Goes to School (Ottoline, #2)Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for somebody who reads a lot of books to miss an author. And yet, equally, it’s also very easy to have a consciousness of who and what that author is and how they do what they do. This is where I stood with Chris Riddell; conscious that I hadn’t really read much of his work, but conscious that his work was good. And I’d come to that decision for a variety of reasons, not just for the quality of his art work which burns from his books like fire, but also because of the children I knew who pretty much swallowed each and everything he’d published. Sometimes the biggest thing for me, as an adult who’s involved in children’s literature, is to step back and recognise my position as a guest in this space. And if an author’s work is devoured, furiously, hungrily, then that’s an important thing to take note of.

I picked up Ottoline Goes To School after Chris had delivered a charming and annoyingly inspiring lecture at Homerton College. I didn’t possess the persistence or elbows to get to the bookshop first and grab the sumptuous Travels with my Sketchbook which I’ve had my eyes on for a while, but Ottoline Goes To School was an appropriate, and by no means secondary, choice. I was intrigued to see what Riddell did with the school story because they are sort of my thing. And when I got it signed by him, I did my traditional slightly incoherent stare and babble because that too, is also my sort of thing.

This, the second of the Ottoline series, is a delight. Ottoline is off to the Alice. B. Smith School For The Differently Gifted; a boarding school for children with a special an often quite peculiar gift. As she’s trying to figure out what her gift might be, a ghost starts to haunt the school…

I was trying to figure out the best way to describe this lovely book and the idea I kept coming back to was cleanliness. That’s perhaps a little bit of an odd phrase to use and one, I suspect, which doesn’t crop up in children’s literature criticism that often so let me explain a bit more about what I mean.

Ottoline Goes To School is one of those books that balances word with image and does so without compromising the integrity of each. In fact, it’s so beautifully and carefully balanced, this mediation between the visual and the textual, that every page is a delight. And it’s challenging too! Whilst Ottoline is engaged in the complexities of a new school and a Slightly Tremulous New Friendship, Mr Munroe is carefully scouting out the school and trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s the cleanliness, right there, that ability to balance and deliver whole, heartfelt, narrative in word and image without compromising or pressing on the space of the other elements within the spread. This book is so clean, so crisp and sharp, that it’s a joy.

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Here I Stand : Amnesty International UK

Here I StandHere I Stand by Amnesty International UK

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this pained, poised collection of short stories and much of that comes from its careful and classy curation. The authors, ranging from Frances Hardinge through to Sarah Crossan, and Chris Riddell, sit alongside a foreword by a human rights lawyer and an afterword, of sorts, consisting of an interview with Chelsea Manning. Most contributions to the collection have a brief afterwood explaining the context behind the piece, though one of the strongest – ‘Barley Wine’ by Kevin Brooks doesn’t have one and I wonder if it’s actually stronger without such. That brief quibble aside, this is a smart collection and one which hits home, immensely.

‘Here I Stand’ has the subtitle of ‘Stories That Speak For Freedom’, and covers a wide range of topics including genital mutilation, human trafficking, terrorism and racism. An obvious caveat applies around the element of trigger warnings here, but as I recommend with every book of this nature, read it yourself and use it sympathetically and with an eye towards being led by the relevant child’s response. Books like this offer such a valuable spotlight on those issues which often don’t get spotlit and when carefully and considerately mediated, that spotlight can often be revelatory.

I don’t want to speak of highlights here because somehow this doesn’t feel appropriate, but rather I want to look at those pieces which sang out for me. The collection is immensely powerful, but as I said previously, Kevin Brooks’ contribution was something quite remarkable. Ditto ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ from Chibundo Onuzo, a story on the topic of child soldiers, which instead of taking the more expected motifs of its theme delivers something quite astounding. This is the gift of collections like this, the gift of perspective. Sight. A new eye on the familiar. Sometimes stories do become familiar and thus unseen; to deny that familiarity is a great thing. Onuzo’s bare, pained eloquence here speaks volumes.

I like this volume, and I like the careful craft that lays behind it, from Chris Riddell’s beautiful artwork through to the stories, poems, and especially the graphic contribution from Mary and Bryan Talbot with Kate Charlesworth. I think it’s important to recognise that stories, particularly of this nature, aren’t just these neat things tied up in bows and that embrace of diverse form is another point in Here I Stand. It’s a tired phrase to call something important, but then again, so many of the books being published at the moment are. Here I Stand stands firmly with those, and indeed manages to carve a space of its very own.

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