A look at Young England (1914-1915)

My speciality is Girl’s Own, but sometimes my interest gets caught by those publications intended squarely for boyish readers. Such it was with Young England, a compiled annual of a ‘story paper’ for boys. I picked up copies of the 1914-1915 and the 1909-1910 editions for an absolute song, intrigued by the size of the volumes and their other-worldliness. These aren’t small things, nor are they subtle. Each is very much orientated towards the boys of the Empire, and ensuring their place in the greater scheme of things. And for somebody who’s fascinated by historical children’s literature, and the way that it can reveal everything about the world, these books are an absolute gift.

There’s an interesting breakdown of the 1914-1915 edition of Young England here, with details of the relevant stories in the volume and also a good luck at the images. I want to offer a slightly different review, focusing instead on the tone of the annual and some of the key themes that come across in it. I also want you to imagine yourself as a ten or eleven year old child reading this. Some of the content is rather remarkable, and Young England certainly makes no bones about the fact that it it sees it as noble to fight a war and noble to give yourself for your country. It’s a difficult read at points, preparing as it is a whole generation for military service and sacrifice, and some of the passages are almost incomprehensible.

This is one such passage. It’s from A Good Samaritan on the Battlefield by Margaret Watson, and it made me stop in my tracks. As with many of the ‘real life’ contributions in this volume, it borders on the edge between truth and propaganda. This definitely steps over towards propaganda, telling the story of a young private named John Smith and how he was looked after by ‘Johannes Schmidt’ when injured. The German keeps John and his colleagues alive, feeding and watering him, until he’s forced to retreat and abandon his wards. Upon subsequent rescue by their own side, the Englishmen pay tribute and thanks to Johannes. I got a little lost in the nature of the tribute itself, as it involves something to do with a cairn and rocks, and I couldn’t work out whether these were metaphorical rocks, actual rocks or indeed some weird ‘I say this but actually mean something quite different’ tic of language back then. I kept coming back to this passage however and wondering over it. Worrying too, I guess, sensing at something beyond the words that I couldn’t ever hope to grasp and trying to figure out the impact of that. As a reader. And as a writer.

I tried to find out something more about Margaret Watson, but she’s not an easy one to find. I wondered if these odd little fables, these morality plays of great and deep import, were all she’d written or if she’d ever looked at doing something else. And, I suppose, I wanted to know how she’d felt being part of this collection that urges young boys so gleefully to a war and to a noble, awful death.

It’s wrong to throw all of this at Margaret’s feet, because she’s one voice out of a hundred here. Young England is dominated by these voices which want players in this great narrative of the Empire and of Plucky Britain Doing What’s Right And What’s Honourable. Many of the stories here involve protracted negotiations of honour, redemption, and I was particularly struck by one serial which sees a young family redeem their father who’s been set up by his business colleagues. There’s another which sees the boys of a nondescript public school sacrifice themselves (metaphorically) so that the other man may benefit from their action. It’s not hard to see the attitude here about the war being a Great Adventure – but it’s also not hard to see why a whole generation of boys believed that.

The war underpins nearly everything in this book. Take a look at this game suggested for the boys to learn. It’s called BUCKET DRILL and it involves being able to throw a bucket of water on anything. Not just throw – actually hit that thing with force. As fires are “in these days” inevitable things, the boys can then help to put out a fire if needs be. They can do their part. (They can also do it by throwing water at a “stodgy, good-tempered boy”, and win points “every time you knock the wind out of him or bowl him right over”, which is a remarkable sentence if ever I saw one). BUCKET DRILL is the subtext becoming text. It’s the palpable fear of invasion being made flesh, and the fact that war is coming to their doorstep. Not if – but when. It’s important to recognise that this was a worldwide publication – as evidenced by stories featuring New Zealand, Canada and China – and so many of the children reading this magazine, and indeed the young adults it suggests that you send it onto – were probably already caught up in the war at some level.

I suspect that hindsight and a fairly liberalistic attitude makes me uncomfortable with what this volume says more than anything. There’s a question to be asked of whether it was actually kind of doing something great. I believe intensely that children need to learn of the darkness of the world in a safe space and in a controlled way. One of my favourite books of all time shows girls a way to fight against the horrors of Nazism and a world determined to eat itself. Why should it be any different for boys?

I’m not familiar enough with the boys juvenilia of this period to answer such a question so I’ll leave that hanging. Suffice to say, this is a powerful volume with some rather moving qualities and should you come across a copy, I’d highly recommend you picking it up. Young England is like a little time capsule of who we were, and what we wanted our children to be. And honestly, it’s rather remarkable.

Reading Young England also reminded me of something I’d read a while back. It took me a moment to dig out the connection, but here it is. Back when he was eleven, George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) wrote a poem called “Awake! Young Men of England” and had it published in his local newspaper:

 OH! give me the strength of the Lion,
The wisdom of Reynard the Fox
And then I’ll hurl troops at the Germans
And give them the hardest of knocks.

Oh! think of the War Lord’s mailed fist,
That is striking at England today:
And think of the lives that our soldiers
Are fearlessly throwing away.

Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if, when your Country’s in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.

Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright

Return to Gone-Away (Gone-Away Lake, #2)

Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It’s always a little difficult coming to a series ‘second book in as it were’ as you do tend to miss a lot of what’s gone on. It took me a while to figure out who was who, and what was what, and then I simply gave up and enjoyed the wild richness of Enright’s writing. This is a summer like no other, as all the best children’s books are, and full of some absolutely beautiful moments. I have to say I struggled with some of this as it’s not the quickest, nor most ‘open’ of books, but it is rather utterly beautifully done. Enright is a Newbery award winner (indeed, for the prequel Gone-Away Lake), and this book is full of rich quality in every word.

It’s rather interesting to parallel Return To Gone-Away with an author much more familiar to me, somebody like Philippa Pearce and Minnow On The Say for example. Both books have this rather thick, lovely quality of heat about them, and share a distinctly child-orientated eye. And maybe that’s it, that’s the mark of a good book wherever it may be found or whenever it appears in the series, that concern for the childish perspective and making that way of seeing be seen. Maybe there’s more to it, this ability to make your writing actually be felt … I don’t know. I suspect I’m wandering a little here, so I’m going to move on. Suffice to say, language is rather an amazing thing isn’t it?

Anyway! It was the artwork that caught my eye. I found this in a second hand bookshop that tends to have some super interesting stuff in, and I was entranced. I managed to pick up a UK Children’s Book Club edition (published by Heinemann in 1963, and for sale at 12s. 6d). It’s illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush and my goodness, they know how to handle a line. Every page is full of interest, life and movement. It’s rather fabulous. You can see some samples of their work here.

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A quick note to say…

  1. I have been celebrating Frances Hodgson Burnett’s birthday weekend by offering TELL ME OF A GIRL (my retelling of The Secret Garden) for free. If this is your bag, you can download it here. For free! Worldwide!
  2. I’m currently reading THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller and it is GREAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT. 
  3. Normal service will resume shortly 🙂

So I sort of self-published a book

Hi, yes, I have a confession.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on the incredibly on brand project that is a poetic retelling of The Secret Garden. I’ve sort of now self-published it and it’s available on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/2QA6TqK

Here is the cover:-

The Story of A Girl cover by LH Johnson

Here’s the blurb: –

“A retelling of the iconic children’s classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911), Tell Me Of A Girl explores the story of Mary Lennox like never before.”

And here’s the opening three chapters:-

 

Tell me of a girl

This is the story of a girl
who lived defiantly until she was wrapped in leaves
and locked behind walls. Tell me of the life she lived,
how her unruliness shone,
and how her loss did not define her.

Tell me of a girl
who survived.

With one hand in the soil

The first thing Mary Lennox learnt of the world was this:
her mother was beautiful and she was not, and she learnt this before she learnt her own name and before she knew what names even were.

Sometimes her mother would come to her room and look at Mary as though they had never met, and on those occasions Mary would look back at her
and find herself lost for words.

She was scared of her mother but proud too;
proud of her beauty, and of the way that people would talk of her in hushed tones.

Sometimes she would not see her mother for days
until she came home with friends, and the noise arrived before they did.

On those days, the servants took Mary to the back of the house
filled her mouth with food to earn her silence,
and together they listened to her mother laugh
too long,
too loud,
and too much.

The darkness

One night, Mary’s mother came to her room
and lit a cigarette in the dark,
let the ash slide onto the floor,
and spoke about how she was a soldier in some great battle and if she had to,
she would fight alone and she would win despite everything
despite her.

Her voice was calm, but the red tip of the cigarette moved like a mosquito through the dark.

The next morning, she left for a party in the hills, and came home two days later
in the grey, thin, light of the dawn,
and as the sun rose, she smashed glass against the walls
and scored the sky with regret.

Mary screwed her eyes shut and lied sleep
as the doctors came to their house and spoke of cholera
for it was a word that, unlike the others, she did not yet understand,
and so it meant nothing to her when the engagements
were not attended; and when her mother did not rise.

 

“Rosa” – Doctor Who, and Malorie Blackman

I’m still shaking after last night’s Doctor Who episode. Written by the illustrious Malorie Blackman, a legend in the world of children’s and young adult literature – and former Children’s Laureate to boot, Rosa was set in Montgomery, Alabama and concerned the equally illustrious figure of Rosa Parks.

It’s sometimes difficult to understand story when you’re crying on the sofa. When you’re made breathless by it, and you can’t look away. When sentences make you sick and horrified at the world and then, in the next breath, make you laugh out loud. Emotions matter. They’re a total asset. And when a story triggers them, whether that story’s rendered on a television screen, written in a book or stuck onto the back of the HP bottle, you know you’re onto a good thing.

Malorie Blackman is a good thing. Rosa broke me and remade me and it reminded me of the utter power of story. It’s an unrelenting episode, stark and unflinching and with a remarkably final ten minutes or so. It’s perhaps more remarkable in that the agency of Rosa herself is never affected. She changes the world. She changes the universe. And she does it herself. There’s no machinations, no zapping of an alien to make her sit in the seat, it’s just the circumstances of history and the power of an individual voice. Beyond that, yes, there’s a Doctor Who episode but there’s also one of the lead characters being threatened with a lynching. There’s a moment where two of the leads reflect on how they face modern day racism. This is raw, horrific, outstanding storytelling and it felt like a statement of intent, not only for the show but also Malorie Blackman’s work. She is a storyteller of intense power.

If you’d like to discover more about Blackman’s work, I’d suggest starting with the outstanding Noughts and Crosses series. I review the first one here.

 

The Ink House by Rory Dobner

The Ink HouseThe Ink House by Rory Dobner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spectacularly produced, somewhat slender in the story department, and full of some rather intensely beautiful artwork, The Ink House is somewhat of a paradox. It’s beautiful, first and foremost; written and illustrated by Rory Dobner, an artist with a substantial and impressive commercial portfolio. His work hovers somewhere about the Neil Gaiman / Frances Hardinge side of things; a wild evocation of otherness, coupled with a firm belief that that otherness may in fact be true. His work is careful, and his lines are richly and subtly done, finding magic in the white space of the page and using that as a springboard towards some beautiful spreads.

Now, the paradox. This isn’t a story, at least not yet. The Ink House is a mansion built on a magical pool of ink. One a year, the artist goes off on an adventure, leaving the house free for animals to move in and have a great party. The artist comes back, the animals leave. That’s a great and eloquent frame, but I struggled with the episodic nature of the moments that hung in between. They felt a little isolated, occasionally disjointed, and I’d have welcome another eye over sentences such as “Panic ensues as the animals prepare to leave” (I’m not sure anybody prepares in a panicked fashion?)

Yet, this is beautiful. Even the line I’ve picked out comes with the most delicious spread of horses cantering through a tiled and pillared corridor in an image that made my heart sing. That’s what I mean about paradoxes; this book is full of them. Lines that don’t quite sit and work, and a story that isn’t quite there yet, but some of the best and most convincing black and white artwork that I’ve seen for a long while.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy

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How to pitch your book for review to a book blogger

I’ve been wanting to write a brief guide on how to pitch your book for review to a book blogger for a while. It seems to be one of those things that a lot of people can’t quite figure out, or get intimidated by, or just sort of blindly hope for the best with. And, really, it’s not rocket science. Pitching your book for review involves a little more than ‘please will you review my book’, but it really does involve a lot less than you think. Here’s my top tips in no particular order.

  • Know who you’re talking to and what they tend to review. There’s no point in emailing a person who blogs about children’s literature if your book is adult crime. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. Be strategic in your efforts.
  • Related, tell me why you’ve come to me. Personalise that standard email a little bit and tell me why you think your book and me will click.
  • Be polite and nice. Niceness on the internet is a good thing. We should all work towards it a little bit more.
  • If the blogger has guidelines for submission, work to them. In all likelihood they’re not getting paid, so respect their wishes. Don’t repeat email if you don’t get a response.
  • Respect time frames. Books don’t get reviewed immediately and maybe never. Sending a copy for review does not guarantee a review.
  • Be prepared for a negative review. Simply thank the reviewer for their time and move on. Don’t burn your bridges in a small community. Don’t make the blogger blacklist you.
  • Be realistic. This is a hard business, and nine times out of ten, you won’t get a response. If you do get a response that says no, thank them for their time and move on (sensing a theme here?)
  • Be passionate, honest, and know your market. YA is not just about vampires (and hasn’t been for about three hundred years). Picture books are not an easy option. Tell me about the heart of your book. Tell me why that matters in today’s publishing world.
  • Don’t pay somebody to do the dirty work for you! I can’t stress this one enough. There are a thousand websites out there that will give you lists and contact details for bloggers. This is usually public information and can be found via a quick Google. Don’t pay. Seriously, don’t pay for public domain info. It’s awful and a blanket email tells me you’ve done no research about who you’re talking to.
  • Do, however, pay for reputable services done by reputable people. There are people out there who can advise you on marketing or promotion. This is a complex thing, and there’s no shame in paying for services. Do however check their credentials, ask to see a sample of their work, or speak to former clients…
  • Don’t be afraid. I want to write about good books. I want to share books that have something important and relevant to say about the world. I want to hear from voices marginalised from that discussion. If I think I can help you out, or give your book a review, then I will.