Children Behaving Badly: ‘The Wind On The Moon’

The Wind on The Moon by Eric Linklater, Jane Nissen Books

 

‘When there is wind on the moon, you must be very careful how you behave. If it is an ill wind, and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and you will behave badly for a long time to come.’

As a child I was always reading and so was highly reliant on our local public library. It was situated on the ground floor of a big Edwardian villa, and the children’s section occupied what might once have been the drawing room. The fiction shelves were up one end and that was where I stayed. I don’t remember having any guidance from the librarians. As far as I knew, they were just there to stamp your books and take your library tickets – only two for children, and hey, a generous four for grown-ups. How times have changed!

So I just roamed the shelves and pulled out random books, or checked my favourite authors in the hope they had written something I hadn’t discovered before. This wasn’t so much to see if they had written a new book – the library stock was well-worn and a bit tired – but because that the something new might always have been out on loan to other readers before.

This meant that I often re-read books. Sometimes these were my favourites, left just long enough so that I’d forgotten most of the plot, and could enjoy them anew. Sometimes it was just that the book was familiar (therefore a safe read), and I was drawn again to the cover or the pictures inside.

One of these was The Wind On The Moon by Eric Linklater. I’ve just found it, reissued by Jane Nissen Books, complete with original illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. I was very struck by these pictures as a child, especially, I have to say, the one where Dinah and Dorinda take their clothes off and hide them in a tree. Naked people in a book? Perhaps that’s why I decided to borrow it! But there are lots of other strange pictures, many depicting mysterious night-time scenes, in Bentley’s rather simple yet sophisticated line drawings. Or maybe I chose it because I recognised his style from a humorous book we had at home, How To Be An Alien by George Mikes.

It’s a strange book altogether, long and full of bizarre episodes. Dinah and Dorinda are affected by an ill wind blowing on the moon, which makes their behaviour turn bad, and just at a time when their father is going away and leaving them for a year. It was published in 1944 and is marked by the attitudes of the era and the strangeness of wartime.

It wasn’t a book that I loved, but I did come back to it from time to time because something about it obsessed me. Of course, tales of children behaving badly are very attractive to child readers. There’s shape-shifting and talking animals, too. I wonder if it will seem as strange – or even more so – on re-reading as an adult?

You can read a piece on it by James Meek in the Guardian and a less enthusiastic review here on Bookslut.

By the way, Nicolas Bentley was a cartoonist and novelist as well as an illustrator of books. He was the son of E. Clerihew Bentley – inventor of the clerihew!

 

Little Acts of Kindness: Author Interview with Anne Booth

I first met Anne Booth at a conference run by Nosy Crow Books last year. We had a lot in common, including debut novels for young readers, and a publisher (O.U.P.). Anne’s first book of several out this year is Girl With A White Dog (Catnip Books, published 1st March) so I asked her about it, and about her writing process.

Here’s what the book is about: When Jessie’s gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, it’s the start of a downwards spiral of strange and worrying behaviour. But life at home is only half the problem. At school Jessie’s class is studying the Nazis’ rise to power and she’s learning some uncomfortable truths about the way people can treat those they see as different – and starts noticing worrying parallels around her. With one eye one the past and one on her ailing gran, Jessie starts to see a connection – something long-buried, troubling and somehow connected to another girl and another white dog…’

Girl With A Wg=hite Dog by Anne Both Catnip Books March 2014

J: I didn’t know anything about the Nazi policy targeting the pets belonging to Jewish families. This is a good theme for connecting with modern-day young readers. How early in your work on the book did you find out about this – was it a gift along the way, or the spark that started the whole thing off?

A: Lots of things happened at the same time and I’m not entirely sure what came first. I think it started with a book someone tweeted about and which I bought, Amazing Dogs by Jan Bondeson. I have two dogs of my own and I thought it looked great, so I treated myself to it. In it I read about a college for dogs in Nazi Germany. I thought this might be an interesting idea for a book. To find out more I did some research and came across the wonderful ‘Animals in the Third Reich’ by Boria Sax, and from there I read about the law saying that Jewish people were not allowed to have pets and how that felt for them. I started reading more social history books about Germany and growing up in the 1930s. I remembered my ‘A’ level History and wanted to work out more about what would make people accept Nazism. What I read really affected me. I read lots of social history and accounts of children growing up as members of the Hitler Youth, and I began to realise that if I had been born an Aryan German I might not have wanted to see how bad Nazism was either. I might have just wanted to go camping and singing and see myself as good and be happy to blame others for the problems in my country.

At the same time I was concerned at all the negative comments about immigrants and asylum seekers and disabled and unemployed people in our media. I couldn’t put on the TV or the radio without someone blaming one of those groups for being ‘scroungers’ or for wasting money. I found that very worrying, as the books I was reading were telling me the same things happened in Germany in the 1930s, and prepared the way for Nazism. I couldn’t remember ever having read a book putting that across, and thought I might have an idea for a children’s book.

There was also a lot in the media about Grimms’ Fairy tales and a report that a new fairytale had been found. I’d read about how the Nazis loved using fairytales to show themselves as the ‘goodies’ and others, like the Jews, as the ‘baddies’. I thought I might write a new fairytale about a child growing up in Nazi Germany. My original book started with the first paragraph of the very last chapter of ‘Girl with a White Dog’.

I started to write from the point of view of a little Nazi girl, but it was difficult to convey how attractive Nazism was for many in the Hitler Youth without seeming to condone or even promote it.

At the same time something else was happening in my life: my elderly mother was diagnosed with dementia and had a bad fall, ending up in hospital. There she kept talking about people marching down the corridors and was very distressed. I am glad to say that she stopped thinking this, but her reaction was so strong that I realised that for those days in hospital she was in a horrible nightmare I could not free her from. I read more about dementia, and came across stories of elderly people whose distress was found to be linked not with nightmares but with long-buried memories. I read about a man whose family were shocked to find that he lost his ability to speak English and could only speak Polish, the language of his childhood. When I read about elderly dementia patients in Germany talking about Hitler then I had the last bit of my story.

During all this time I read and re-read as many children’s novels about Nazi Germany and the Second World War as I could, just to make sure nobody else had approached it in the same way.

J: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

A: As a child I wanted to save children and animals – I’m not sure how – but it seemed to be by either being a saintly nun or a saintly nun who was a doctor. You have to know that I was brought up in a very religious family. Then I realised I didn’t want to be a nun, and I wasn’t good enough at science to be a doctor or a vet. I went to university and studied English which was bliss. I got my first job in a bookshop, which was wonderful, and I’ve worked at loads of different jobs – including being a tour guide, an English language teacher, a lecturer, doing arts & crafts in an old people’s home, washing up in a café and being a project assistant for a charity. The one consistent thing is that I have always written – in diaries, letters, prayer journals and notebooks.

The first story I remember writing was an epic bible story I wrote at school when I was 5 about Jesus bringing Jairus’ daughter back to life. I remember not being able to miss out any details, and drawing lots of pictures, and feeling very tired using my pencil but unable to stop! I still have the same feelings now when I write!

I never stopped reading children’s books alongside adult books. Long before I was married and had my own children I was buying and reading and enthusing over Shirley Hughes, for example. I went on to do an MA in Children’s Literature and I still didn’t try to write any. I think it was because I was in awe of them. I loved being a bookseller and recommending them but I did not write any children’s books until quite recently, helped by going on two Arvon Writing for Children courses. Instead I did an MA in Creative Writing in the evenings and wrote short stories and a novel for adults, and I do want to take those out and dust them off. I also really really love illustrations in children’s books and my big desire is to have enough confidence to have a go at illustrating, but I’m a bit shy about that.

J: Now, about your own writing methods – if you get stuck, is there any particular thing you do to get inspired again?

Walking into woods pic for Julia

A: I go for a walk with my dogs, sometimes alone, sometimes with my family. I read some books I love. I watch a film I think might inspire me – I have a cup – many cups – of tea. I sit quietly and pray. I talk to my dogs!

Wriyer Anne Both's dog sleeping

 This must have been a particularly boring idea! 

I write – often in my prayer journal – about how I can’t write, and most times that does the trick as I find that there are still lots of feelings and ideas out there, so I draw diagrams and write lists and sometimes – when no one is there apart from the dogs – I walk around the house talking to myself!

I have very recently 

Anne Booth's yurt jumper

found that in moments of despair sitting with my jumper over my head is surprisingly calming. There is one jumper that is particularly good – it is like having a little portable tent or yurt! I may mass produce it and sell it to writers! 

J: I really like the idea of a portable, wearable yurt. Please put me down for one when you go into production!

Next question – have your own children helped in any way with your writing?

A: I do find talking to and listening to my children very helpful. They make me laugh and are such good storytellers about their days that they give me lots of inspiration. They have been brilliantly patient at listening to me reading out scenes set in school and telling me if they are realistic or not.

J: We are so used to sassy, smart-mouthed main characters in teen fiction. Jessie, your narrator, is relatively unsophisticated in both behaviour and vocabulary. Can you tell me about your decisions behind creating her as she is?

A: I think there is a lot of me in Jessie. I wasn’t a very sophisticated teenager and I worried a lot. I did want to write about a teenager like that because I feel the way teenagers are portrayed in the media or in some fiction only shows one way of being a teenager – and there are as many different types of teenager as there are adults. I don’t drive, and if I catch the bus with school children you can hear and see so many different types of students – some sophisticated, some funny, some more innocent than others. I think it is only fair that we write about the less sassy ones too!

J: Jessie is a real ‘worrier’ – so was I as a child (still am!) How do you balance happy and sad stuff in a book for young readers?

A: I do believe in Goodness. I do worry about the bad things that happen in the world, and my own responsibility for them as a shared citizen of the planet, but I do have a religious faith in a God of Love, and I do actually believe (though I have to remind myself that I do) what I say in my own book – that we should not despair, and that little acts of kindness can transform things. So I hope I have left children with that message, and that they will feel empowered and hopeful rather than overwhelmed by the story. I hope that putting a puppy in helped!

J: What age group is this book aimed at? I can see it revolves around Year 9s (13-14 year olds) but it feels easy enough for younger children to read.

 A: I think it is for older Primary school upwards. I would like it to be read by children when they are studying Nazi Germany, and I know my children looked at Anne Frank’s Diary, for example, when they were still at Primary school, and again in Year 9.

J: Were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

A: Yes!

J : I won’t ask about ‘favourite books’, as I’m hopeless at deciding on favourites myself,  but were there any particular books that had a deep effect on you as child?

A: Anne of Green Gables. Paddington Bear. Just William. Jennings. Black Beauty. Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. The Little Wooden Horse. Carbonel. A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (wonderful!) Lots of Enid Blyton – particularly Mr Galliano’s Circus as I really wanted to be Jimmy Brown and tame lots of animals. What Katy Did. The Secret Garden. Books by Noel Streatfield. All the Narnia Books. The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley… I’m going to have to stop now but that is just a tiny tiny list and I know I will be so sad to have missed anything off. They made me cry and they made me laugh. Some of them – like Paddington – made me cry with laughter.

J: I have certain authors who I can rely on to inspire me in terms of style and content and the way they organise the story they are telling. Are there any writers who work for you in this way?

A: I know that Girl with a White Dog is nothing like this – but I have to say P.G. Wodehouse. I just love his comic timing. I would love to write some straight comedy.

J: What are you reading at the moment?

A: I’m waiting impatiently for a delivery of a secondhand copy of The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield, one of my favourite childhood books. I am just about to start a book called Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson. I am reading non-fiction books for inspiration for some ideas I have – Playing at Home – The House in Contemporary Art by Gill Perry, Bonzo’s War – Animals under fire 1939-1945 and Imaginary Animals by Boria Sax. I am also dipping into lots of books about Lindisfarne or ‘Holy Island’ as I am very drawn to writing about it but am not sure what form the story will take yet.

J: You’ve got other books coming out this year. Can you tell us about them?

A: Lucy’s Secret Reindeer is for 5-8 year olds and is a magical Christmas story about a little girl who looks after a poorly reindeer for Santa. It’s being published by O.U.P. and has a beautiful cover and will have lots of lovely black and white illustrations inside by Sophy Williams. This will be out in October but is available for pre-order already!

I have two picture books coming out with Nosy Crow which will be gorgeous (I have seen the sketches for the first book’s illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw) but I am not sure when the first one will be out.

J: Tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing?

A: Tea!

J: And, finally, your Writerly Snack of Choice?

A: Chocolate. But I really must cut down…

Thanks to Anne for taking the time to reveal the secrets of her writing process, and for such great pictures.

Narnia – where it’s always winter but never Christmas

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe C. S.  Lewis

Ok, so it’s the last day of 2013 but Twelfth Night isn’t here yet so I can still get in my other Christmassy book. It was the first of the Narnia Chronicles I came across as a child, therefore the right place to start my re-reading. The young man behind the counter in the Age Concern shop where I bought it recited their proper sequence to me in a solemn voice – clearly a fan. But blow the recommended reading order suggested by C. S. Lewis! The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe was the first he wrote. It was published in 1950, and The Magician’s Nephew (the creation story of Narnia) didn’t appear until almost last.

This book was read out loud by my class teacher in junior school, in the precious 15 minutes at the end of every school day when we could just sit and listen to a story.* I must have sought it out afterwards to relish by myself. The copy I read then had this joyful cover art by Pauline Baynes, whereas my current one – still with the evocative Baynes illustrations inside – has a very different feel on its cover (by Julek Heller).

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis cover art by Pauline Baynes Puffin books

I was surprised to find that what I remember as an epic is quite short, just 200 small pages with plenty of pictures. It’s fast-paced and the tension keeps up. After a quick and absolutely classic set-up – parents ditched (actually they don’t even get a mention, the children are just sent away from London ‘because of the air-raids’), despatched to rambling country house, adult supervision largely removed – Chapters 2 and 3 contain the stand-out scenes which cement this story in my mind: Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus and Edmund’s with the White Witch. The good/evil dichotomy is convincingly established. And we’re introduced to the icons of LWW: the snow, the lamppost, the Turkish Delight. I’m convinced that at least half my love of Turkish Delight springs from this scene. It’s shown as the ultimate desirable food, and yes, it did used to come at Christmas in a round box, tied with ribbon, and there was never enough. I don’t think chocolate or toffee would have worked nearly so well.

Another surprise is that Mr Tumnus, so fondly remembered as a major player, has a very small part in the action. After Chapter 2, he doesn’t appear again until he’s discovered, turned to stone, in the Witch’s palace, and then doesn’t do much at all.

In fact, quite a few aspects of the book were thinner than I remember. This is a beloved classic of children’s literature, but it’s not perfect. I don’t think I ever felt Lewis created very interesting characters, but as an adult reader this was really noticeable. Edmund is the only one with any complexity, if you can call it that, and only because he’s not straightforwardly nice. Early on we learn that he is ‘spiteful’ and prone to telling lies. Poor kid, he’s already gone over to the dark side before the Witch begins her work!

But somehow Lewis makes his actors memorable – animals more often than humans – without giving them much substance. Although it’s Lucy’s story – she is the good, active force that starts it off – she and Susan are soon pushed into very conventional girl roles: caring, loving, healing (Lucy’s bottle), calling for assistance (Susan’s hunting horn), and definitely not fighting. ‘Battles are ugly when women fight,’ says Father Christmas, handing Peter his sword and shield. As if they’re not ugly when men do. Lewis was a young soldier in the First World War; surely he must have known this?

He dwells only briefly on the fighting, unlike the film version where the final battle goes on at length with all the usual CGI thwacks and grunts and even more ‘protect the girls’ business than in the book. I had to turn back a page to check the Witch’s fate, as Lewis almost skips over this momentous event. The grisliest scenes concern the Witch and her mob taunting Aslan at the Stone Table and are really harrowing.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis Puffin papaerback cover by Julek Heller

Julek Heller’s cover illustration

Peter is assigned the traditional role of the oldest brother: sensible, responsible, and required to be brave. At least he’s allowed to admit he doesn’t feel brave. It’s all very conventional, as if Lewis doesn’t want to give the four children much thought, or simply wants them to represent clear good/bad roles. There is a very strange passage – all stiff upper lip and ‘don’t mention the war’ – when Aslan has a talk with the repentant Edmund which we’re not allowed to overhear but ‘which Edmund never forgot’. If it’s that blinking memorable, why can’t we benefit from it too? I demanded petulantly. Then Edmund shakes hands with his siblings and Aslan instructs them, ‘There is no need to talk to him about what is past.’ And they don’t. I expect as a child I saw this as a fair-enough response to an awkward situation, but at this distance it just feels really constrained and emotionally illiterate. But we are in the 21st century now!

The children’s speech is strikingly banal, too, and of its time, apart from the olde-worlde-speak they develop at the end because that’s how princes and princesses must talk! (If this is a joke, it goes on a bit.) I did wonder if I’m just used to much quirkier, smart-mouthed characters in modern children’s fiction, but then Oswald Bastable, William Brown, Dido Twite, and even for younger readers Pooh Bear, have a joyous command of language and their speech tells us a lot about the inner workings of their minds. There is some gentle humour in LWW but it tends to come from the non-human characters.

So what remained of the book I loved as a child, and read at least twice? The wonderful fairytale feel of a land where it’s ‘always winter but never Christmas’. The thrill of the thaw when it comes, along with the tinkling bells on Father Christmas’s sleigh. Deep magic and deeper magic are pretty persuasive. Aslan remains impressive, and, although it struck me as an odd mix of borrowings – and the internal logic not quite sound – I found the mash-up of characters from European folktale, Greek myth, Victorian Christmas, and jolly British wildlife endearing. But most satisfying was still the idea that by hiding in a wardrobe you might accidentally find yourself in another world: that really grabs the imagination. After all, it could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?

* Maybe ‘reading for pleasure’ wouldn’t be such an alien concept if the school curriculum allowed this unheard-of luxury to all primary school children, every day. It was a much-needed wind-down time, let teachers share their favourite books without any demonstrable learning required, and turned us on to new stories. Or let us just daydream, which is no bad thing.

Teenagers in the Blitz: ‘Fireweed’

Fireweed by Jill Paton-Walsh cover image paperback Hot Key Books

Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh

I picked this up in a bookshop because of its lovely graphic cover – in just three colours – and bought it because of the introduction by Lucy Mangan. I used to follow her column about classic children’s books in The Guardian but I’d never come across Fireweed. I’d heard of Jill Paton Walsh’s fiction for grown-ups but the fact that she was a winner of prestigious children’s book prizes had passed me by. Lucy Mangan loved this book when it was a class read at school – despite this scenario being enough to ruin most set books for her – and that was enough for me.

After the first page I was careful not to read the rest of the introduction until after I’d finished the book. I suspected it might give away more about the ending than I wanted to know, and that was true.

Bill and Julie are teenagers adrift in London during the Blitz. 15-year-old Bill has escaped his isolated evacuee placement in Wales and come back to London, virtually penniless and now – due to a bomb – homeless. His family life is rather bleak, and he seems a little detached from his emotions. Julie’s background is more mysterious – partly because it is Bill who narrates their tale and she keeps as much back from him as he does from her (but not from the reader). For example, neither Bill nor Julie are their real names. But she’s got more ready cash and the two team up, trying to evade both the bombs and anyone official – or just officious – who might question them and end their brief spell of utter freedom. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1940 while London and its inhabitants reel under constant bombardment, they play at surviving in the cracks of a dangerous city.

The author was only three in the year of which she writes, and thanks ‘everyone I know who is old enough to remember 1940’. Fireweed was first published in 1969. My parents were young teens during those war years, and when I was a child ‘The War’ was a frequent topic of conversation amongst  all the adults I knew, as a relatively recent and still very vivid set of experiences for them. I’ve read fictionalised accounts of civilians at home or abroad, from authors who lived through it (e.g. Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Elizabeth-Jane Howard) to more recent representations of the era by younger writers (Sarah Waters, Jill Dawson). Paton Walsh’s depiction of London in the Blitz is outstanding, perhaps because she was able to draw on very real contemporary memories. Fireweed is full of practical details, sometimes gruesome, without getting bogged down. I’ve never read such an evocative description of the tube stations that served as shelters for crowds of Londoners every night, while still working as a form of transport. Or of newly-bombed streets, and the fragile bits of buildings still standing. The Blitz was smelly! Filthy! The food was pretty rubbish, especially when you couldn’t use your ration card. The organisation of keeping a city going, and mopping up the debris, human and otherwise, is amazing, but still looks, from this distance, amateurish and based on good luck and goodwill and a very British propensity for ‘mucking in’.

And maybe the picture of the Blitz is so vivid because Bill and Julie aren’t quite adults yet, and have that mix of fearlessness and naïveté of those just emerging from childhood. They roam London, looking at everything, not only seeing but feeling and smelling and tasting, too. Yes, they get tired and anxious and frightened, cold and hungry, but they also show nerves of steel, ingenuity, and a weary determination to keep up the fantasy for a little longer.

Lucy Mangan reread the book many times, always getting more from it. She says that Jill Paton Walsh dismissed it later in her career, but it still feels a worthwhile read to me. Two young teens, not always compatible, fending for themselves in a frightening world, but a world full of strange opportunities: sounds a perfect modern YA read.