Book Reviews

Pennington by KM Peyton

Pennington by K.M. Peyton

Pennington: A Trilogy by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this primarily because of the hideous cover, dazzled as I was by this rendering of Patrick Pennington in a way I had never quite imagined him before. And for a long while it stayed unread and at the bottom of my TBR pile, occasionally beaming at me in all its awful glory without ever quite being read.

Of course, I knew the Pennington books and had read them all before in singular editions. In many senses, I was telling myself that I didn’t need to read this, that I knew the books, that I knew what KM Peyton could do. And that – perhaps – this cover, this brilliant monstrosity, was all I had this edition for. I knew the books well enough. I did not need to go back to them.

And then, I did. Weeks of lockdown and a slowly diminishing TBR pile, and this – the survivor – greeting me at the bottom of it. I hadn’t read anything properly for weeks; in a way, I was the pond-skimmer, an insect moving my way along the top of the water and never quite fully reaching that which lay below. I read, but I didn’t. I turned the pages, but I didn’t.

But it is for such moments that KM Peyton is made for. She is a writer who can find the elasticity of a moment, stretching it until everything that it could be and everything that it is has been explored. And although, perhaps of the three, Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer feels its age a little, this is a remarkable, brilliant collection of stories. It is life, it is love, and it is written with such a beautiful and eloquent fluency that I reread whole chunks of it in a slow stupor of wonder. Her eye for detail! The nuance of emotion! The way she can see everybody and allow them to simply be!

Oh the glory of a writer at the peak of her powers, the glory.

(Cover’s still awful though).

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Annotated: Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald

My research has been recently turning towards juvenilia – stories written by girls, for girls, and what that tells us about being a girl – and it bought me to an extract of Sabre The Horse From The Sea by Kathleen Herald (in: Where Texts And Children Meet, eds. Bearne and Watson). It is an extract that stopped me in my tracks and one that I do not think I’m quite over yet. Or maybe ever.

Kathleen Herald is perhaps better known under her married name of KM Peyton. Still writing today, Peyton is a remarkable figure. She is perhaps even more remarkable when we consider that she wrote Sabre… when she was fifteen. Fifteen! Forgive me but I’m going to have to shriek over that a little bit more before we continue. When I was fifteen, I could barely write a coherent sentence let alone deliver something as sophisticated and as fiercely wonderful as this.

Sometimes when I am obsessed over something like this, I have to investigate it. It pays for me to dig beneath the surface of what a story is and how it’s been presented. It’s my first stage of understanding – I need to figure out those intertextual points of reference, those beats that connect to another story in the world, and figure out why this story works the way it does for me. Whether that’s punctuation, or sentence structure, I can only figure it out when I burrow into the text itself and make it my own.

I also thought it might be something fun to share …

Book Reviews

Wild Lily : KM Peyton

Wild LilyWild Lily by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard, sometimes, to write about KM Peyton without descending into ‘ISIMPLYJUSTLOVEHERANDYOUSIMPLYJUSTSHOULDTOO’ and so, I’ve taken my time over this review of her latest: Wild Lily, a novel of the 1920s and beyond, and of airplanes, and of foolishness/bravery/lovelovelove. One of the most foremost reasons for taking my time, was an attempt to gain some sort of critical distance upon it. Sometimes writing about the beloved authors is difficult because it simply turns into something incoherent. Passionate, yes, but incoherently so. Passion is glorious, thrilling, but when you’re on the outside of it? A spectacle, nothing more.

And I don’t want that for KM Peyton. I wouldn’t want that for any of the authors that I write about because I write about their books to share them. One of the greatest things I believe about children’s and young adult literature is that it is for the reader, and everything I do – but everything – is to facilitate that moment of book finding reader and being read. Without the reader, we’d be nothing, and so I give myself distance because I want you to be part of this transaction. You, you, you, you’re vital. You’re powerful.

KM Peyton gets that, I suspect, and she writes outwardly; great swathes of beautiful, eloquent passages dominate this book with their almost physical urge to be read, to swell and grow out of the page and to live. This is a book about life and love, as so much of KM Peyton’s work is, and we follow the titular Lily from her youth through to old age; a life knotted together with people and animals and regret and love and wild, wild exuberance.

I found the blurb of the novel a little opaque and the opening was, I admit, slow. But I suspect a novel of this nature was always going to be slow and subtle to start, and when the narrative properly started to kick into action, I was rapt. I always am with KM Peyton because every now and then she will give me something perfect, something so perfect that I will stop and write it down or simply stare at it and will the day I get to write things like that. She captures love, I think, just love, and the great drunken infuriating joy of it, so well. Perfectly, really.

And this is such a good book, exultant in places, glorious in others, that I can forgive Peyton that slow start and the odd moment of being too deft with her narrative. I can forgive her those moments where she ties things up a little too neatly because in another breath she’ll give me the ragged edge; an unfinished moment where the story is something quite wild and quite beautiful and I feel it, I physically feel it, inside of me, always. A book of light and shade; of dazzling, dazzling light, and it is good really, it is beyond good at points, and I love her, I love her, I love her.

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Happy Birthday KM Peyton!

KM Peyton is my one of my literary heroes. (The others, fyi, are Michelle Magorian, Patricia Leitch, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Frank Cottrell Boyce. But it’s not their birhtday today, and it is KM Peyton’s so I shall save them for another time.)

Happy birthday KM Peyton! She’s a bit amazing she is. More than a bit amazing, she’s outstanding. (coughMBEHERALREADYcough) I’ve spoken before about how much I love her, about how she catches the pure soul-consuming nature of first love, or the way she handles the delicate painful shift of growing up, or how she catches that sudden realisation that you’ve got into situation that is over your head or how she says in such few words everything that ever needs to be said. (KM Peyton archive here. She good, yo.)

So this, really, is to say thank you KM Peyton.

Thank you for Ruth, brave stubborn and brilliant Ruth. Thank you for Sweetbriar, my first equine crush. Thank you for Pennington who wrote an entire section of my MA thesis all by himself. For Dick, gorgeous, wondrous Dick. For the sprawling, luscious and heartbreaking layers of Flambards. For everything, really.


I owe you.

Everything else

Sunday round up and reflections

Happy Sunday! I hope you’ve managed to have an ice-cream this lovely sunny weekend and have had chance to put your feet up and enjoy things 🙂 Here’s the round up of things that caught my eye this week.

1. Zoe from @playbythebook pointed me in the direction of this excellent and powerful piece: “How to Really Read Racist Books to Your Kids” It’s one of those things you really need to read.  It reminded me of this other blog post: “How to be a fan of problematic things”. Both posts are really brilliant in how they approach the issue of reading difficult and problematic texts with a modern day perspective.

2. If you’ve not discovered KM Peyton (who is one of my utter author loves) have a look at this review of Fly-by-night. It totally sums up why KM Peyton is the wonder that she is. Also on a KM Peyton note, have a look at this beautiful piece from Meg Rosoff.

3. I *loved* this. One professor asked his students to do him a comic instead of take a final exam. Clearly the students chose the right option in comic-making 😉 and here are the results.

4. And finally, here’s some excellent posts on diversity with a lot of links in them that are worthwhile to take a bit of time in exploring: “Female Sexuality in YA Fiction : Exploring the range of experiences” and “Heck YA, Diversity! Pro-Tips Edition”.

If you’d like to view other posts in this series, they’re available here. See you next week!

Book Reviews

A Pattern Of Roses : KM Peyton

A Pattern of RosesA Pattern of Roses by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a great love for KM Peyton. She’s one of the authors that has defined my attitude towards children’s literature, to what it can and could be and to what it so very often is. And so it was with great, gleeful, giddy delight that I picked this one up.

A Pattern of Roses is a dual narrative story, balancing modern day Tim Ingram’s life against the story of Tom Inskip who lived in the same house many years ago. It’s a coming of age, timeslip, sort of story which plays the tensions of the boys lives against each others and it’s one that Peyton, as ever, delivers.

“A brief, flaming sunset was scorching the horizon, inked over by a mesh of old elms and black hedgerow and circling rocks.”

If you’ve not discovered Peyton yet, that’s how she writes. A sort of vivid understatement, a painterly writer that draws her images together with a very precise control and vivid skill. She is intoxicating to read for me because I always find something new in her work. Here, she catches that subtle beauty of falling in love when you don’t ever know what love is:

“[She] put out her hand and touched his. His own hand shied away, frightened, but hers followed and took it very firmly and held it. She still walked along, not saying anything, with the primroses round her neck, and he walked beside her, very carefully, feeling that the day had come to a standstill.”

She makes me cry does Peyton, and she makes me very envious. She makes me cry at how she can just – capture – things and hold them and make you see them. She’s one of, if not, the greatest writer of children’s literature that I’ve ever read.

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The New Normal : The Normalising of Creativity

Recently I’ve been thinking about doing a PhD ( Me! A PhD! Me who didn’t even get her GCSE Maths!), and as part of this I’ve been considering what I’d do it on. There’s a part of me that yearns, genuinely, just to get buried in the books and occasionally pop up and produce a paper on the Freudian significance of Hilda Annersley’s changing eye colours … or something.

Anyway, my big passion remains the Chalet School, but my other thing is the treatment of creativity and talent in stories like this. You know my thing by now, I hope, but if you don’t, my big book loves are pretty much: school stories (Chalet School / Malory Towers / St Clares), dance books (Drina! Veronica! Inordinately sexy Angelo!), horses (Jill! Shantih! Ruth!), KM Peyton and every Angela Brazil where she’s not racist or doesn’t bang on about nature. Something’s been striking me recently which is a sort of confluence of a couple of these divergent strands.

And that is this:  these stories tend to normalise creativity.

Creativity / talent / giftedness is, at its heart, a symbol of difference. Plucker and Stocking (2001) talk about this in their work. They state that students have two key schools of thought and influence by which they compare themselves against : the “internal comparison” whereby the student compares their ability at carrying out task X with their ability at carrying out task Y, and the “external comparison” of the ability of their immediate peer group (537).They also discuss the phenomenon that gifted children, once placed in gifted and talented programmes, regularly suffer a fall in grades (538) because they are then surrounded by other gifted and talented children. The initial gifted child is no longer ‘gifted’ when surrounded by their peers who are of a similarly talented nature as their gift has become normalised through context; the gifted and talented child is no longer unusual and different to their peers.

This is a sort of inverse scenario, the normalising of creativity because creativity itself becomes the new norm. The uncreative – the ungifted – become the oddities. That is what I’d argue swiftly happens in Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells books. Dance, artistry, creative expression becomes the norm and those characters who do not achieve an appreciation of this remain ‘out of the loop’. We do not empathise with them because our empathy is based on this mutual code of contextual appreciation and that context is the Arts. Dance. Caroline, gorgeous cake-loving Caroline, practically becomes a new character by the time of the events of No Castanets at the Wells. She becomes normalised within the context of these books.

To survive is to adapt, to fit in is to remain part of the dominating ideology of the narrative – even Grizel Cochrane from the Chalet School series finally gets her doctor and finally fits in, over fifty books since her first appearance in the books . “It’s time for you to eat white bread at last,” says her sagacious, doctor-having, best friend. (shut up Joey). The Collège des Musiciens from The School by the River normalises the creativity inherent in its purpose by only playing host to creative characters – therefore almost neutering the moments of great artistic achievement. There’s a curious sense of flatness to great parts of The School by the River for me. Jennifer’s brilliance, the whole ‘revolution in the city thing’, it’s all just a little bit too run of the mill which is a curious thing indeed for a book solely focusing on gifted and talented characters.

There’s an argument though that the school story (particularly in the era of Girlsown) has this normalising effect by the very fact that it is a school story. The school story genre is one which thrives on nominal equivalence between the characters. Difference is celebrated when it is in forms understandable to the genre: sport, academia, art – but this difference is ultimately subsumed by the needs of the school – the community. The individual matters to an extent, but the greater weight is and always will be the needs of the school.

But then again, there’s an element of normalising talent – of neutering talent – outside of the school story. One of the great examples that strikes me is in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books. Maidlin, as a child, is lovely. She burns from the page. And then, when she grows up, she becomes, well – deeper. “You know how love and marriage have developed Maidlin, who was far too much the artist at onetime [sic]. She’s still an artist and a much finer one than she would have been if she hadn’t met Jock. She’ll be singing again in public in the autumn … and everyone says how much her voice has deepened since she married” (1959:66). So here we’ve got a character who is gifted, intensely so, and one who has been ‘improved’ by her marriage. Her voice has deepened (therefore losing the presumably more girlish higher notes of her youth) and become rounder due to her life experience. Maria Nikolajeva in her excellent  The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature talks about marriage  as an archetypal enclosure suggesting that marrying off a female character allows them to be subsumed into a feminine archetype. (2002:45) If we think about Maidlin, society has effectively normalised and in a way neutered her talent because the gifted wife is more acceptable than the gifted talented, tempestuous and socially abjected teenager. Don’t even get me on to talking about Damaris and her whole marriage episode!

Do you know what? I think I might have an idea for that PhD after all…

(And is traditional here in the land of DYESTTAFTSA, here’s a ‘you made it to the end’ Pikachu. Congratulations! )

Works cited –

Nikolajeva, Maria (2002a) The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature Scarecrow Press Inc: Boston

Oxenham, Elsie (1953, this ed. 1959) A Dancer From the Abbey Wm Collins and Co: London

Plucker, Jonathan; Stocking, Vicki B (2001) Looking outside and inside: selfconcept development of gifted adolescents Exceptional Children Summer 2001: 535-548

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This is why KM Peyton is so great

This is a  quote from ‘Seventeenth Summer’, the debut appearance of Patrick Pennington. Pennington is an incredibly talented pianist who comes from a lower class social context. In this quote Pennington has just met the ‘Professor’, a gentleman who has offered to help teach him. And it’s a quote that says everything. It is a moments like this that make me remember why KM Peyton is just so outstandingly brilliant.

“[Pennington] knew that … the Professor was going to manipulate him, smoothly and cleverly. He was another of them, telling him what to do. But the Professor was more clever than any of the others. Penn sensed it, and it frightened him. He knew he could neither despise not disobey the Professor. He walked beside him in silence. The fact that he had got out of [Prison] meant very little beside the significance of what he had got into.” (p268/269)


The nature of inspiration

Image: gasboyben (Flickr)

I recently went to see the Jersey Boys in London and was struck in particular by the story of Bob Gaudio. Gaudio was the songwriter behind some of the greatest and most enduring songs in 20th century music – ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Rag Doll’, ‘Beggin”, and so many more. There’s a moment in the musical where, in a moment of pure theatricality, Gaudio steps out of the narrative and tells us about how he wrote the song Sherry only fifteen minutes before a rehearsal. In this video he talks about it just popping into his head and having to catch it with ‘silly’ lyrics that eventually stuck.

And that was something that made me think. I’m very interested in genius, creativity and talent and how it’s represented in children’s literature. In particular, I’m very much  interested in the nature of inspiration. The moment where something clicks and somebody creates something superb. Whether it’s a physical thing, a chemical thing or something other worldly – that’s the bit that fascinates me.

I decided to look into it. From my list of books featuring gifted and talented characters, we have a variety of circumstances that push the protagonist into the full exploitation of their talent. By this I mean, those moments where the individual  In no particular order, and from the three books / series’ I know the best:

  • Nina Rutherford (Chalet School) writes her first ‘adult’ piece as a tribute to Joey’s newborn daughter, Cecil. There’s a long note (no pun intended!) in the text where Nina, Joey and the author all realise that ‘the promise of Nina’s future’ is written in this piece. Nina is ‘dazed’ by this, physically feeling the delivery of the piece. 
  • Veronica (Sadlers Wells) reaches her great heights initially through reacting to the Northumbrian countryside. There’s a particularly lovely quote in A Dream of Sadlers Wells where the connection between her dance and her surroundings is made explicit. Veronica is able to read and interpret this beauty through her movement and that’s when she starts to develop as a dancer.
  • Pennington (Pennington series) achieves his greatness through a sort of permanent defiance against a society that seems convinced to stereotype him. His talent is further developed through the benevolent / paternal influence of both Ruth and The Professor, but still retains that initial sense of anti-establishmentism.

So what’s this tell us? Primarily that a sample of three titles isn’t representative of the whole, but what they do tell us is that these books feature a very distinctive form of ‘literary’ genius. The genius in these books doesn’t quite reflect stories such as Gaudio’s. The genius in these books reacts and acts in the context of being book-bound. There’s a tendency to reason from cause to effect (let’s all guess where I got that phrase from 😉 ) and a tendency to ‘explain’ the talent of the protagonist through logical / rational influences.

I do wonder though if there’s a book out there that explores the fragmentary, intangible nature of genius, and seeks to do so without this ‘rationalising’. I look forward to finding it if it does exist!

Book Reviews

Going Home : KM Peyton

Going Home by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things I love in my bookish world is when I discover a KM Peyton book I’ve not read. She’s my book Yoda and one of the writers that I utterly utterly adore.

Going Home almost escaped me. It’s a tiny book of just over 100 pages and was tucked right at the bottom of the shelves. I almost missed it but when I read the title, realised I hadn’t read it, I practically screamed with joy.

Originally published in 1982 (it’s as old as me!), Milly and Micky are sent away on holiday to France as their mother has to go to hospital. The holiday with their Aunt and Uncle on a cramped narrowboat in France proves less than enjoyable, and Milly and Micky come to the decision that they’re going home.

There’s not much here and it’s a sort of unusual read. It’s fragmentary, and reads rather like Peyton was trying something new and testing the water for something bigger. But it’s still brilliant because even in these short few pages, Peyton demonstrates her masterly insight of people. Milly is something very beautiful, understated (as ever in a Peyton book), but written with shadow and light and a genuine warmth.

It’s a brief read but hugely comforting. I always think with a KM Peyton book that we should be singing them from the skies and I await the day when her work is republished and mandatory for anyone who’s remotely interested in children’s literature and writing.

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Fantasy Film Casting : The Boys!

Following on from my lady-centric film casting post of yesterday, this time it’s the turn of male heroes from Girlsown fiction to be cast. I had a little bit of  a Damascene moment when considering Pennington. He needed to be represented by different actors for different periods of his life, so please forgive me for the slightly nerdy detail I go into regarding him 😉 Anyway, here they are in all their glory!

David Wenham as Jem Russell (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent Dyer). Look at that picture. Now look at it some more. Now look at that as if you were a woman in a burning train carriage, needing to be rescued by a handy doctor type. That is all.

*collapses ever so slightly*

Tom Hiddleston as Sebastian Scott (Sadler’s Wells – Lorna Hill).  I almost went with Benedict Cumberbatch for this one, but decided that Tom just edged him out. Primarily because I like the longness of Tom, his ranginess, and yet his utter stillness when he needs to be still. Sebastian is a man of dark arrogance at times but also of utter brilliance. And I really rather love the thought of pairing him against Anne Hathaway who I cast as Veronica.

Arthur Darvill as Jack Maynard (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent Dyer). Now, just to clarify, it’s not Arthur when he has his hair like this. I’d like him to sport the new Rory hair (can you tell what I watched last night?) and a lot of tweed. And um, I’m getting distracted again, so let’s move on!

 Sean Bean as adult Patrick Pennington (Pennington series – KM Peyton). This is Pennington in his later years (approximately around the time of Marion’s Angels if you want to be picky 😉  as opposed to the main books). That shy, bluff nature masking a man with great precise ability and genius. Sean’s an actor with that sort of silent power about him and a guy who acts very naturally. Perfect for the battle-worn brilliance of adult Pennington.

Jeremy Irvine as young Patrick Pennington (Pennington series – KM Peyton). Young Pennington plays piano, bewitches Ruth, beats people up and rails against the class system. He’s basically a proto-Byronic hero and is generally full of all-round epicness. Look at the photo. Yeah. Jeremy could do that *rather* nicely.

So there they are! Alternative casting lists very welcome becauseI’d love to hear your thoughts regarding those people I missed. I couldn’t quite think of somebody to play Reg Entwhistle primarily because of The Proposal…. (frankly I don’t think *any* actor could do that justice!).


Fantasy Film Casting : GirlsOwn Edition

I’m going through a bit of a film phase at the moment, and have got a bit obsessed with the idea of film / TV adaptations of some GirlsOwn titles. So, behold, a fantasy casting of some of my favourite literary heroines. Also, whilst reading this, you may get an idea of what my viewing habits tend to be 😉

Maisie Williams as Joey Bettany (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer). I could quite happily see a tv adaptation of the School at the Chalet though it might need to borrow liberally from Princess for dramatic purposes. I  think Maisie would be pretty brilliant as Jo. She’s got the look, and that sort of insouciant edge about her. Plus, according to IMDB, she can dance so she would have the folk-dance scenes down! PS – True story, I couldn’t remember her surname so googled Maisie Gomme initially …

Anne Hathaway as Veronica Weston (Sadlers Wells – Lorna Hill). Stick with me here. I know Anne has done the ballet bit before, and she’s also done the Northern accent bit before, but I think she could actually really do Veronica well.  This is primarily due to my love for the Princess Diaries films and the massive comedic value Anne can give a scene. Veronica is intensely graceful but she’s also very very funny and I think Anne could work the shift between the two really well. And also I have a major girl crush on her.

Miracle Laurie as Ruth Hollis (Ruth Hollis series –  KM Peyton).  So Ruth, she’s one of those quiet characters with a hidden heart of steel. She’s passionate, vital, and stubborn whilst being outwardly calm. Ruth loves, and when she loves, she loves very big. I reckon Miracle Laurie has that serenity (take my love, take my land) combined with the quiet potential for great things that I think Ruth would need to succeed on the big screen. Also, apparently, Miracle can play the ukele. This plays no relevance towards the role of Ruth Hollis but plays a vast part in the sheer awesome factor.

Summer Glau as Maidlin di Ravarati (Abbey books – Elsie Oxenham). Though I find a lot of the Abbey books a bit too SUNSHINEGIRLSFLOWERS, I really like Maidlin. She’s one of the characters that has something rather special about her and tends to fly off the page whenever she’s on. That is, until her neutered adulthood but that’s a different blogpost. Anyway, we all know Summer can do fractured, fragile heroines, and imbue them with a grace and a musicality that’s intoxicating to watch. It’s because of that that  I’d really like to see what she does with Maidie.

Tune in next week for a casting session for some of my favourite male characters! WHO can we get to play Reg Entwhistle? WHO will take on the plum role of  sardonic God Sebastian? And WHO gets to be the tortured adonis Pennington?

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Marion’s Angels : KM Peyton

Marion's AngelsMarion’s Angels by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marion’s Angels is the story of Marion; strange odd little Marion who is the caretaker of a Church. Her Church is a fragile, beautiful place with stunning carved angels in the roof. It’s beautiful – but it’s crumbling, suffering from time and no money and the ever-present threat of rain coming through the roof and naturally, awfully, inevitably, Marion’s Church is under threat of being demolished.

That is, until she meets Patrick and Ruth Pennington.

One day I fear that KM Peyton might not be good. I worry that I’ll come across a book of hers that doesn’t have life, love and everything in between caught in it like flowers pressed from summer. I wonder if that’s it, if I’ve read her last “good” book.

But it never is. Never.

KM Peyton is beyond perfect. There are moments in this book, elegant and elegiac in their grace where Marion (odd, crazy, perceptive Marion) is so beautiful I wept. Bloody KM Peyton. Bloody bloody KM Peyton, how are you so bloody good?

It’s also a finale, of sorts to the story of Ruth Hollis. We’ve witnessed her grow from gawky, stubborn, pony-obsessed teenager through to love, marriage and motherhood. When reviewing the Pennington books, I’ve said previously how KM Peyton gets the fragile, world-swallowing dichotomy of love. She writes it so precisely and almost understates it at times. The relationship between Ruth and Pat is real. There’s not much more to be said.

Marion’s Angels has dated, I think, looking at it as acutely as I can. There are a few moments which feel a little awkward in today’s read but these are far and few between. This is a story, as so many of KM Peyton’s are, about people.

People don’t date. Not in these books. They could be surrounded by war, or angels, or horses, or whatever, and KM Peyton would still write them with a gloriously perceptive jealousy-inducing clarity.

She would do all that because she’s KM bloody Peyton and she’s that bloody good.

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Everybody sometimes a Yoda needs


Everybody a little life in their Yoda needs hmmmmm? As part of the thought process began here, I wanted to briefly explain who my inspirations were in relation to my writing / blogging about children’s literature, language and literacy and hopefully (she says, sliding back into art-school vocabulary) contextualise my critical practice.

Maria Nikolajeva 

If you read one book about critical theory, make sure you read Nikolajeva’s “The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature“. It is genuinely a game-changer. She discusses how everything from speech tags through to names combine to create character – and it’s all done in a madly readable and fascinating style.

Roland Barthes

I first came across Barthes at university and I’ve remained in love with him ever since and it’s all primarily because of one quote: “Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1979)) Oh. My. God. He gets it. He gets the raw physicality of language and the blunt, near-primal sexuality of discourse. He gets it so right.

KM Peyton

Because, I think, nobody quite writes love like KM Peyton does.

“’What will the Prof say?’ [Pennington] whispered, smiling, moving his face against hers.
‘He’ll say I’m bad for you.’ [said Ruth]
‘Good for me. I need you.’
‘I love you’
‘Yes.’ Pennington’s Heir (1973:12) 

Barbara Kruger

Everybody needs a piece of art that they can just – just breathe. This is mine. Always.

Image from:

So who’s your Yoda? I’d love to hear them! 🙂

Everything else

Ruth Hollis

I have a lot of love for KM Peyton. And I’ve spoken before about how she just gets love. She gets it, warts and all.

But I’ve never specifically focused on Ruth before which is a disservice to a shaded, finely drawn character that does something very unusual in a series. She grows. I’m reminded of some of the other series I love when I think of Ruth and I’m forced to concede that nowhere else does a character grow up, and become an adult with such finesse as her.

Ruth debuts in the book Fly-By-Night. Fly-By-Night is overtly a fairly simple horse tale. Girl gets horse, gets good, and Achieves Stuff. Or well, it would be so, if it weren’t for the skill of KM Peyton. She draws Ruth so finely that it’s impossible not to root for this stubborn, brilliant, puking when things get tense, individual. Fidra Books have a sample of the first chapter of Fly-by-night available here and it’s worth reading if not just to marvel at the subtle shading and weight of Peyton’s prose.

Ruth then appears in the  sequel to Fly-By-Night called The Team. It’s easy to view this again as a standard equestrienne novel but I’d argue it’s more of a bildungsroman. This, as awful and painful as it is to read, is the end of the beginning. It is a novel full of maturity, of letting things go, of saying goodbye, and of falling in love. It’s nominally about horses but, at heart, it’s about life.

I read these two books and I devoured them. And then, for a long time, I didn’t know how Ruth’s story ended. This all changed once I came across the Pennington trilogy. The Pennington books are a trilogy which focus on the tempestuous Patrick Pennington, gifted with preternatural musical ability.

And Ruth falls in love with him. Not any of the other boys she’s seemingly destined to be with, she falls in love with this anti-establishment near Byronic hero. Whilst Ruth is certainly taken with his (and I’m sorry but I can’t think of any other way to phrase this) “bad boy attitude”, I think their relationship thrives on a curious mixture of naivety and adulthood. Pennington completes Ruth. He manifests a part of her nature – the nature which went out and did the exact opposite of what everyone told her to do – and their relationship is a fragile, awkward and yet intensely passionate affair. And it’s real. It’s bitterly, bluntly, beautifully real.

Ruth roots Pennington. She defines him and he, her. They become almost symbiotic in nature, the two of them against the world. Ruth understands Pennington and she does it so very beautifully.

“Ruth … thought of the long afternoon in Kensington on the velvet sofa, listening to Pat playing the piano. The contrast    was so sharp it was hard to believe. Pentonville [the prison] to the sea-wall, the Professor’s town house to this. No wonder Pat was mixed-up. It was all a part of him, what had made him.” Pennington’s Heir (1973:19)

I had a lot of difficulty, at first, accepting this grown up, perceptive, Ruth as opposed to the horse mad creation I initially met. I wept for the girl I had lost, and I felt sad for the ponies. But then, I spent a lot of time with the Pennington books for my research and I realised something.

Ruth is perhaps one of the ‘realest’ female character I’ve ever come across. She could define literary verisimilitude. She’s stubborn, she’s flawed, and she makes mistakes. She was horse obsessed – but she grew, and she changed. It never defined who she was and I find it genuinely masterful of Peyton to allow Ruth to map her own way through life rather than force her down a more stereotypically Pullein-Thompson future. Ruth grows. She grows, and she changes, and she lives her life how she wants to live it.

Ruth Hollis is amazing.

More information on the work of KM Peyton is available on her official website.


Rereading Flambards

Flambards. A trilogy plus one that I first read for the horses, and a series that I cannot let go. KM Peyton’s saga is (excuse the near-tautology) epic; she swathes a group of people in layers of love, loss and life and it is so very near to perfection.

Christina, the central character arrives at Flambards as a child. She is an orphan, rich, and sent to her Uncle in order to ultimately marry his firstborn son. Her life, however, swiftly changes and she’s all too soon wrapped up in a vortex of horses, hunting and tempestuous spirits.  Her world now begins and ends with Flambards.

Peyton is superbly skilled at writing emotion and books which require a repeat reading. There are levels upon levels upon levels in her books. I particularly adore her women, and was overjoyed to rediscover my love for  Christina upon this reading. As Christina grows up, experiencing good (and heartbreakingly awful moments), she remains resolutely real. She is a contradictory soul –  obnoxious, headstrong, confused, lovely, daring – but never dull. Never run of the mill. Never ‘stock’. Never boring.

Peyton also, as I’ve noted before, writes love superbly. A concept that still remains rare in children’s literature today is that of love being as much as a hindrance as it is a wonder.  The duality of love. You love and you hate. Often at the same time. Love in children’s literature often acknowledges the all-consuming passion(viz. Bella and Edward) but rarely acknowledges any alternative to this model of relationships.Peyton does. She does it with Pennington and Ruth so brilliantly, and she does it here as well. The circle (square?) of relationships between the younger generation in Flambards is both dazzling and breath-taking. You know those years when you’re first discovering love? That you can do this – that you want to do this – that you need to do this? That longing for somebody to just – just hold you? Those moments when you look at somebody you’ve known forever and you think you maybe kind of sort of love them in a way you never thought you did? And then – then you think – what was I thinking? It’s X I want, and it was X all along!  That’s what Peyton gets and she gets it wholeheartedly. The bitter reality, the total whole of love. It’s thrilling writing, the way she presents this dichotomy to the reader with such a matter-of-fact air that it can, quite easily, slip you by. You can, as I did when I was young, sit there and go “HORSIE”. It’s only on rereading, on slow and leisurely and damn-indulgent rereading, that you can start to pull these strands out from your former reading experience.

I’ve known these books for over half of my life. And they’ve served their purpose for each and every stage. Whenever I’ve reread this series, I’ve taken different things from them and they’ve moved me in different ways. It’s almost as if Peyton wrote a bildungsroman when she wrote Flambards. But it wasn’t the story of Christina. It was the story of every confused, hormonal, growing up in the countryside, horse-loving, relationship-forging girl who read it. It was, is and seems forever destined to be, in a way, mine.

Everything else

My hero : KM Peyton

I’ve banged on about the magnificence of KM Peyton before (I reviewed ‘Dear Fred’ here, and elaborated on my love for KM Peyton here) and I hope you don’t mind me doing it one more time.

There’s something rather gorgeous about this feature where Meg Rosoff professes her love for KM Peyton. I find it really rather interesting that Rosoff, one of those authors who writes with a pin-sharp clarity, finds KM Peyton such an inspiration. Like flocks to like it seems.

Peyton is one of the authors who never seems to get the acknowledgement she deserves. As I mentioned on Twitter, KM Peyton is an education. You read her books and you just bow and scrape and hope that one day you’ll be able to approach half of her skill.


Book Reviews

Dear Fred : KM Peyton

Dear FredDear Fred by K.M. Peyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished this and I realised that I don’t ever remember reading a bad book from KM Peyton. I genuinely feel that she is one of the most undersung authors in the world of children’s literature.

Stylistically reminiscent of Antonia Forest (with the precision of language both authors use) and the Pullein-Thompson sisters (if they’d written about ponies and then about falling in mad passionate love with the stableboy), KM Peyton is constantly outstanding. And Dear Fred is no exception.

Based initially around Laura’s lust-filled obsession for champion jockey Fred Archer and set in late nineteenth century Newmarket, this novel features horses, love and a healthy dollop of magic.

Peyton writes emotion so well. The confusing, dominating, soul-consuming nature of a first crush and then the mad emotional maelstrom / utter banality of love. She pitches it so beautifully; understanding that sometimes this emotion is everything and then at other times, it’s nothing. She’s one of the few writers who can really handle love and present it ‘warts and all’ without wishing to romanticise the experience. Relationships like Laura and Tiger or Ruth and Pennington (Beethoven Medal) are real. Vivid. Horrible, Mad. Dull. Banal. Beautiful. Real.

What I also love about KM Peyton is her ability to give depth to the adults in her series. They’re not sidekicks. They’re also not automatically right because they’re adults. They mess up equally if not more than the apparantly juvenile protagonists.

KM Peyton makes you feel the world she creates. Reading her books is always a transformative experience. And I love them. I really really love them.

View all my reviews


KM Peyton : an appreciation

Like many other girls, I went through the “horse” phase. In real life I saved up for years to buy a tank of a gelding called Robert (with hooves the size of dinnerplates) and I devoured every horse related book I could find.

KM Peyton is one of the few writers who have stuck with me since that obsessive and occasionally desperate consumption of equestrian texts.

Perhaps the most well known of her stories is the Flambards series – four books which tell the story of Christina, Mark, Will, Dick, the roan mare Sweetbriar (God I didn’t have to Google that, I’m impressed – and slightly freaked out), and the changing wartime world. It’s a sweeping saga which covers love, loss, passion, pain and horses. I reread it recently, noting the layers of the story that I missed as a child. It moves me to tears each and every time.

Peyton also wrote a series which I’m working with at present for dissertation purposes. The saga of Patrick Pennington – told in several novels – amazes me. She has the ability to write stories that are so adult in nature and yet accessible. I fell into these following my experience with Ruth Hollis (Fly-by-night and The Team) and lived Ruth’s experience of love alongside her. It’s the mark of a good writer when a story just feels so easy to read and yet punches straight to the depths of the emotional turmoil of young love. It’s not patronising. It’s not “adult talks to teenagers”. It’s sympathetic and taught and powerful writing. I love her. She reminds me in a way of Antonia Forest – both writers have that same beguiling competency.

So a reccomendation; if you’re after a horsey novel to turn a young relative onto the classics, go to Fly-by-Night. It’s a wish fulfillment saga of the greatest kind with hidden depth. For love and loss and angst: Flambards. And for one of the most broodingly sexy Byronic heroes ever, start with Pennington. And, after that, if you’re still after a broodingly sexy hero, you can try Sebastian from the Sadlers Wells series but that’s another blog post…