The Skylarks War by Hilary McKay

The Skylarks' War

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Endlessly beautiful, in that way that only Hilary McKay can be, The Skylarks War is perfect. I thought it might be on page ninety-seven, and then when I finished it and let out a great gasping sob at that ending, I knew it was. This is rich, wild and lovely storytelling, and reading it is like reading something you have known your entire life. I wonder sometimes at how McKay can do this, and then I realise that I don’t need to wonder. I simply need to be glad that she can, and does, and that books like this are in the world.

It’s a big book as well, this, it doesn’t shy away from some hard and precise horrors in the world whether they are familial, and of individuals who do not know how to love their children or indeed, whether they can, or bigger, made of people fighting and dying in landscapes far away from home. This is World War One, and McKay does not shy away from its great and dark horrors. Some of her writing here is some of her best, I think, encompassing a curious mixture of numbness and truth and sadness and fear and honesty that makes the pages feel almost like a primary source. That they’re written from that time, from that space, from that darkness.

I am concious that I’ve not told you much about the book itself, and in a way I’m not sorry. I want you to feel the texture of it, that great depth that gives you so much in a single sentence, and does so in a way that only McKay can do. This is deep storying, and it is done in such an unafraid and simple and matter-of-fact way that makes it something else. It is a coming of age story. It is a story of family. It is a story about growing up and figuring out who you are in the world. It is a story about figuring out what the world will let you be.

But most of all, I think this is a story about love. Love for family, love for friends, love for each other, and a love of those summers where nothing is impossible. Love that brings pain and love that brings strength, love that brings hope and understanding and heartbreak and joy. Love that is love and love that is given freely, hopefully, tenderly, painfully. Love, love, love. Always love.



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Harriet Takes The Field by Catherine Christian

Harriet Takes The Field

Harriet Takes The Field by Catherine Christian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I loved this, even though I knew nothing about Catherine Christian before I saw it. Turns out she was a prolific author with credits spanning over fifty years and topics as diverse as Arthuriana, Guides, and Egyptian history, and that’s an achievement in itself. I’m ashamed I’d never heard of her before, but better late than never.

The Harriet of Harriet Takes The Field is Lady North and for some reason or another, she’s been lumbered with some ungrateful Guides. Inevitably she manages to turn things around, and they soon worship her in a rather Angela Brazil-esque fashion. Yet Christian manages to shy away from simplistic narratives of hero worship, and instead delivers something complex, deeply political and rather radical. It’s not often you have people discussing how women give birth in a 1940s children’s book for example. Of course the detail is skirted around, but the discussion is present. It’s such a radical, bold move.

These moments of radicalism persist throughout the book. As the war progresses about them, Harriet and her girls become increasingly present participants in a narrative of war and strife. Though much of it remains distant, Harriet herself suffers from the stress and is called up. Again, a lot of this happens off screen, but the effect of it is very much within the text. She’s moved to tears by a child confessing that he wasn’t alive during the last war; she talks to the girls about how to find security within themselves when all is lost, and the suffering of those in mainland Europe is foregrounded to a heartbreaking extent. England must survive, and everyone must do their part.

Much of this is directed towards the reader, and some of it has dated. That’s a caveat you must always apply to books of this nature, but equally you have to recognise those moments when it does something rather brilliant and rather utterly wonderful. There’s a lot of Harriet Takes The Field that slightly misses the moment, but every now and then it gets it. It really, really does. Take the below quote where Harriet muses on the teenagers that she knows:

“They’ve been fine,” she thought, “Fine, all of them. It isn’t for my generation to be proud of them. We’ve thrown our dice and lost. We had twenty years to build a wall against the floods, and we failed. Now these youngsters are fighting knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder with us to save what can be saved. It isn’t for us to condescend to our peers.”

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A Stranger At Green Knowe by L. M. Boston

A Stranger at Green Knowe (Green Knowe, #4)

A Stranger at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’ve always had a messy relationship with the Green Knowe stories. They’ve appealed to me less than I suspect their components ought. In other words a mysterious story set in a strange house in the English countryside should have been my absolute jam and yet hasn’t ever. I’ve tried The Children of Green Knowe several times now and failed to launch. Resolutely. Intensely. Might I even call it a bit dull? I might. But then, there’s a lot here that doesn’t appeal to me underneath the surface. Magic’s never really been my bag in children’s stories. Occasionally it can be, in the hands of say a Joan Aiken or Eva Ibbotson, but mostly it’s not. Magic just feels like a slight dodge. Don’t even start me on The Box Of Delights.

And so, you might be surprised to see that I picked up A Stranger At Green Knowe at all. I know I was, but it was the illustrations that caught my eye. That slender, determined line. The eyes of Hanno looking out from the page. Those isolated, clean, powerful moments. Peter Boston’s work here is remarkable, dancing as it does between raw intimacy and intense power. He made me go back to Green Knowe and I am glad he did for A Stranger At Green Knowe is something else. It’s the sort of book I want to refer to in every proposal for a project for now on, because I just want to say ‘I want my work to feel like that moment just after you finish reading A Stranger At Green Knowe’.

Much of that moment is driven by the tone of A Stranger At Green Knowe. It’s not unusual for a children’s book to wear its heart upon its sleeve, or to make great statements of intent from the get-go. Somebody like Katherine Rundell has this great gift of giving you the blueprint of a story from page one, spilling out sensation and richness from the first page, before letting you actually discover what happens. And that’s what A Stranger At Green Knowe does. It gives you that texture, that richness, of what it will be from the very start.

This book does not shy away from what it is. It is magic, but it is found and real and vital magic, and it is unsustainable magic and it is magic that hurts as much as it gives. There’s a message here of love and tolerance and acceptance, but there’s also something more. You learn that the impossible simply cannot be. Nothing lasts forever. Every bubble bursts. Even the one about Green Knowe. That doesn’t take away the magic of what can be held within; rather, it asks you to look again at it. To savour that moment. To live.

I will go back to this series again, and it is all because of this book and its beautiful tragic heart.



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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 Dangerous Mission by Bessie Marchant

A Dangerous Mission

A Dangerous Mission by Bessie Marchant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The more I read of Bessie Marchant, the more I enjoy her. She is a writer who hybridises Elinor M. Brent-Dyer at her Ruritanian best with the entirety of the Boy’s Own Genre, and makes it her own. She is rather fabulous, and her books are a joy.

Here’s the Wikipedia summary for A Dangerous Mission: Tatna is a young school teacher in Petrograd, Russia. She gets caught up in a bread riot and escapes, disguised as another teacher who is bound for a school in the remote countryside, where she discovers that she has a talent for teaching the local people about responsible government. .

Amazing, right?

Published in 1918, this is naturally a story which is trying to say a particular thing in a particular point of time. There are certain elements which stick from a more contemporary reading; the notion of the uneducated masses being told what to do is just a little problematic, and the sub-plot with the Baroness (there is always a subplot of this sort of nature in this sort of book) sticks just a tad. Marchant manages to get away with all of that because she is so utterly, utterly devoted to making this readable.

A Dangerous Mission is popular fiction from one hundred years ago, and it wouldn’t have won any prizes then, and it wouldn’t now. This isn’t the highest work by any means, but it is rather fabulous. Tatna is a spirited heroine and somewhat richly impetuous; she doesn’t quite think as much as Marchant clearly wants her to, and there’s something delightful about an author struggling to catch up with one of their creations.

The final movement of the book rather escapes both Marchant and Tatna; there’s some shenanigans, some Fortunate Appearances At The Right Time, and some Problems Getting Resolved, but honestly, it’s hard to be negative about this. This is such a richly readable, rampantly nutty, kind of fabulous story about a girl who changes the world about her, and I will always love such things.



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No Medals For Guy by Lorna Hill

No Medals for Guy (Marjorie, #6)No Medals for Guy by Lorna Hill

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will defend Lorna Hill to the end of time, but I will not defend this book. It isn’t great, and it hurts me to write that but it’s true. No Medals For Guy is the book that finally convinced me of the great fact that Guy Charlton is a douchebag. Grown up Guy is kind of great if you squint a little and concentrate on him being a dashing rescuer type, but juvenile Guy is the sort of boy you want to throw things at and lock your doors against. And the curious thing is that Lorna Hill is rather besotted with him; this is a book about Guy, and she’s determined to make him rather fabulous, and she’s going to – but she sort of achieves the opposite.

And in expending all this effort to make you love Guy Charlton, Hill manages to rather neglect the others. The things I could tell you about Marjorie and Esme and all the others (two of which I’ve just had to look up the names of) wouldn’t fill more than a minute, and even then I’d be tentatively reaching out at best. There’s an odd subplot involving a girl that the gang make friends with, and an even odder subplot about a ghost and a reporter just gaily spending the night in somebody else’s house, and then there’s this weird and rather over-handled thing about swimsuits.

It’s a strange book this, and a little too blindly convinced in its own merits. Hill was always at her best with stories of the individual, and her early Sadlers Wells stories – of Veronica and Caroline in particular – are transcendent things. No Medals For Guy doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of that for me. It hits similar beats for sure, but never quite with the same conviction or indeed the same heart. It’s a shame because Hill could be something else; but here, she’s not. She’s so very definitely not.

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