Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Stories for Kids

I don't know why ( maybe a recessive gene), but I seem to have a fascination for the past, be it history, biographies, antiques...even my husband is older than me! Part of that fascination naturally spills over into my choice of books. I collect children's books, and the bulk of my collection dates back to what I would call children's classics. There is a certain innocence to the children and their problems in those books which is endearing and much easier to deal with than the modern children's books which deal with drugs or dating, divorces etc. Even books which do have serious problems at their heart feature children who are lovable and child-like in their outlook.

William has already featured in a blog. Another children's writer whose books I adore is Noel Streatfeild - famously referred to as 'the shoe books' in the movie You've got mail. Her books are set during WWII and thereafter, and feature children who face genteel poverty. There are several different themes, from show business, which she does amazingly well from experience ( Ballet Shoes, Wintle's Wonders, Movie Shoes, Curtain Up, Apple Bough) to catching spies, playing competitive sports (Tennis Shoes) and so on. There is a stock cast of supporting characters of the Nanny type , and the children also fit into broad patterns - there is the vain child, the one who worries about everyone and one with a chip on his or her shoulder. There is also the child who is always wholly, naturally himself or herself. Despite the recurrent themes, there is a universal appeal even to those children born today who may not understand the context of WWII in Europe or the concerns of those children.

Another children's author who is incredibly good at relating to and painting the world of the child is Beverly Cleary. I have just started reading her memoir, A Girl from Yamhill, and am enjoying discovering all the interesting stories in her own childhood that she later wove into the life of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, among others. She is extremely good at painting life from the perspective of the child even while she reports what is going on in the life of the grown-ups in the book.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is another favourite. Her books are memoirs, not fiction, and she has written about life as a pioneer girl going out West with her family in the America of the 1880s. As she grows up through the series, the perspective changes so the reader grows up along side. The language is simple yet evocative and is a wonderful record of life in those times. I am awed by her ability to remember the details of what happened when and where, since she wrote these books many years later - I'd be hard put to it to remember what happened yesterday.

Edith Nesbit is another children's author whom I enjoy reading, though I confess I usually re-read The Railway children more often than Five Children and It or the other stories. There is a certain resemblance to Noel Streatfeild in The Railway Children in the characters of the children in the book, and the issues they face, how they face them. The supporting cast is also similar, which may explain my fondness for the book.

What makes most of these books firm favourites for me is that the characters are alive. As a fledgling writer myself, I am going through the struggle of finding the 'voice' of different characters and differentiating one voice from the other. The plot and character development both complement each other; one does not compromise the other in these stories. And of course, the pay-off, as with Biggles - the good guys always win. Not a win as they would have pictured it, perhaps, but a win nevertheless.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Just William

William is an endearing child - though only from a distance. If he was my son, I'm sure my BP would be way over normal. He gets up to all kinds of mischief, from running on fences to letting sheep out of their pens. He is constantly into mischief. He loathes school and wants to found a society for suppression of cruelty to boys, abolishing school and baths, among other things. He is always the fearless leader of his gang, and is to be found outdoors, ideally as dirty and mud-soaked as possible. His imagination constantly runs away from him, and he cannot perform the simplest of tasks without injecting an element of fantasy into them. He talks endlessly, he can be shrewd and manipulative when needed, and has a secret soft corner for extremely feminine girls.

William Brown was the creation of author Richmal Crompton, who came up with the boy in 1919. From then until her death in 1969, she wrote 38 novels featuring William and his band of outlaws. What is incredible is that despite somewhat repetitive storylines, there is some twist or other to keep you engrossed through the series. She has managed to capture the mind of the child ina completely natural way, as the best of children's writing does. At the same time, her books are cleverly layered so that they appeal to adults as much, if not more. One of her cleverest stories, for instance has to do with a critique of communism. In it, William's elder broether and the brothers of his friends band together to create a bolshevist society and decide that since everyone should have an equal share of everything, they will ask their fathers for a fair share of everything their fathers own. William and his band naturally overhear all the rhetoric, and fired by it and believeing it implicitly, do their best to even up the injustice of the world by helping themselves to a fair share of their brothers' possessions. That's when the brother and his friends realise the weak spot - it's all very well asking for other people's things but it's a different matter when someone else asks you for their share of your things!

Richmal Crompton also unerringly puts her finger on the foibles of the older generation, be they parents, or youth - William's brother and sister, or the endless stream of relatives and neighbours who populate William's world, from victorian Great-aunts to the vicar's wife, to a nouveau riche culture vulture. The books are set in what I like to think of as 'Merry England', not Robin Hood's time, but a time before the two world wars, when life seemed to have a gentleness and an innately gracious rhythm the world has not seen since. Though several of the books do take place during WWII, encompassing some of the events that Britain went through, including air raids, bomb shelters and rationing, life is still a fun adventure, rather than something serious to be analysed and pondered over.

Reading William always puts a smile on my face, though I daresay I won't let my son read these books before he's in his teens (don't want him to get any more ideas for mischief). I'm sure if I were William's mom I'd go mad. But I do find it sad that we live in a world where I need to send someone to supervise my son, rather than letting him run to the park by himself, and envy William and his friends their ability to range across field and wood, at their will.