RSS Feed

Tag Archives: chapter books

Books we read as children: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Joan Aiken

Set in an alternate version of history in which James II was not deposed in the Glorious Revolution,  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) imagines an England roamed by wolves that have migrated through mainland Europe from Russia through a pre-Eurotunnel undersea excavation. This is not as outlandish as it may seem; a tunnel under the English Channel was first proposed in 1802, and in the 1830s geo- and hydrographical surveys were performed with a view to making the proposal a reality.

The book is the first in a series of 12 novels alternatively called the Wolves Chronicles and James III Series. It was adapted to film in 1989. My copy, a Red Fox edition published in 1992, soft spined and fluffy from having been read too often in a bath not been picked up for at least 15 years, so I’ve only a vague memory of it. No details of the plot remain, only the tone has stayed with me. Joan Aiken is a beloved author for emerging and middle readers and a doyenne of juvenile fiction. It is a scandal that I have ignored her for so long.

The story begins with a treacherous train journey north from London for Sylvia, our orphaned protagonist, who is to join her cousin Bonnie at the family seat, Willoughby Chase, a grand Medieval hall that sits at the centre of a wold occupied by half-starved wolves. They are to be educated by the new governess Miss Slighcarp who will be acting in loco parentis while patriarch Sir Willoughby and his wife Lady Green are away travelling. She is given complete control of the estate.

Miss Slighcarp instantly shows her colours. She dismisses most of the estates large staff and starts wearing Lady Green’s expensive gowns. She orders the girls must clean their own bedrooms – a fate worse than death to the average ten-year-old – and eat only plain food. She locks Bonnie in a cupboard, and, with the help of the mysterious Mr Grimshaw, begins a systematic assault on the Willoughby fortune.

To call a the characters of a novel tightly archetypal would generally be to disparage the text. Aiken’s female characters are just that: primary antagonist Miss Slighcarp (it is she pictured in the cover art above) could be swapped out for potions teacher Miss Hardbroom in Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series. She’s a callous and conniving maiden aunt, gaunt and balding under her wig, who beats servants with a marble hairbrush and demands respect while doing nothing to deserve it. She is the wicked stepmother archetype incarnate; cruel, ruthless, and entirely self-serving. When the girls are shipped off to an orphanage they encounter the equally cruel Mrs Brisket, quite opposite to Miss Slighcarp in appearance but almost identical in character.

Miss Slighcarp hovers over the domineering, yellow-eyed Mrs Brisket in Pat Marriott's 1962 illustrations.

Miss Slighcarp hovers over the domineering, yellow-eyed Mrs Brisket in Pat Marriott’s 1962 illustrations.

By contrast, Pattern embodies another archetype. She’s a fairy godmother,  a caregiver and guiding hand. She coddles the girls, showering them with love and risking her self to take care of her charges. When Syliva and Bonnie make their escape from the orphanage Pattern provides them with warm disguises and food, nurturing them even from afar.

Even Sylvia and Bonnie occupy an archetypal dichotomy: one scrappy and firey tempered, one sedate; one polite and delicate, one boistrous and tomboyish. As a team they work together to represent the uplifting heart of the text. They’re resourseful and boundlessly optimistic, showing courage in the face of significant adversity.

You can get away with resorting to caricature when your prose is as fine as Aiken’s. The  writing is sumptuous and flowing. It is perfectly pitched for the emerging lone reader,  but with a breadth of language – pages 14/15 alone provides chatelaine, oubliette, commodious and portico – to challenge and enrich the young reader’s vocabulary. Contextual clues often define these unexpected words, as when Miss Slighcarp wishes her belongings to be moved:

“You Sir! Do not stand there smirking and dawdling, but see that my valises are carried at once to my apartments, and that my maid is immediately in attendance to help me.”

The average 21st century  tween cannot be expected to have come across the word ‘valise’ before but can probably surmise that it is an item of luggage, and probably a specialised one*.

The overarching themes of the novel are as Dickensian as the racing episodic plot. Hypocrisy, disguised identity, social-climbing and abused children feature heavily and  lend a Victorian mien to the text (though it’s set in the years we’d call Georgian) and go part way to explaining why I recalled the tone of the novel with such lucidity. It’s a riveting read, full of adventure and peril. Though the eponymous wolves provide little to the plot, they contribute to the air of menace that Aiken evokes vividly. The book does not feel dated, either, despite its vintage. Aiken truly knows how to write for  children. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase thoroughly deserves its grand reputation.



*Miss Slighcarp arrives with a dressing case and nine walrus hide portmanteaux as well as the valise. She does not travel light.


Bans and Challenges: Spurious Charges


This post is the first in a series on banned and challenged books marking the ALAs Banned Books Week 2011.

There are countless books that have been banned by someone or other, and countless more that have been challenged. Governments, religious leaders, librarians and school districts, as self-proclaimed arbiters of decency, all seem to think they have the right to deny us, and our children, access to literature.

Generally, the motivation for the banning or challenging of a book is that the content is thought unsuitable for the reader. Arguments are based, usually, on the preservation of the ‘innocence’ of children and young people. By protecting the young from literature that is morally corrupting, goes the argument, our children can remain children. Childhood is sacred: let it persist. It seeks to defy biology, social awareness and psychology.

There is a strong case to be made for parents to be able to censor the books their own children read; the problem comes when groups like PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools) attempt to restrict the reading of other people’s children too. Challenges come from every point along the political spectrum – and always with the best of intentions: our children do not need to know that not all pregnancies culminate with a live birth (or that some end in termination); that racist language exists, and is used; that people have sex (and sometimes for fun, and sometimes with the same gender); that sometimes life is violent or that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. But our children do need to know. It is our duty to teach them and the onus is on us to determine when the time is right.

Book banning is an abhorrent practice, undoubtedly, but in most cases we can see why such action was taken, even if we don’t agree with the ideology behind it. Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three, for example, were banned by some schools for ‘normalizing’ homosexuality;  Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for mentioning kissing boys and menstruation and thus acknowledging the sexuality of a young girl; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for use of racial slurs. We may not agree with the decision to ban a book, but at least most of the time we can follow the logic.

In 1952, President Eisenhower made a commencement speech at Dartmouth College which attacked McCarthyism. Among his comments was this:

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency [my italics]. That should be the only censorship.


What follows is a selection of books that have been banned by governments and other authority groups for reasons decidedly more spurious than those mentioned above. Read the rest of this entry

The KidLit I can’t bear to part with

Van Gogh, The Novel Reader, 1888. Oil on canvas

Unsurprisingly, I have quite a large number of kids’ books. Most of them have found their way to me in the last few years, when my academic interest in the genre was piqued. Some of them, though, have been with me since I was a wee young thing myself.

The first of them, Peepo!, is thirty years old this year. I know this because my local WHSmith, inexplicably, is holding a buy-one-get-one-half-price event to honour the fact. This is not, as one might expect, an offer on all picture books, or even just picture books from the (considerable) Ahlberg catalogue, but on one book. Unless you have two children who are particularly reluctant to share, or are chronically unable to resist a bargain, seems to me entirely inexplicable. I adore Peepo!, but I cannot imagine a situation in which I would be compelled to buy two identical copies. Read the rest of this entry

Exploring the Classics: The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Secret Garden

This is a re-reading of the 1911 text. It is also my first reading of a book using Kindle for PC.

Mary Lennox is a curious creature. She is contrary and strong-willed, prone to violent outbursts of anger, yet unmoved by the death of her parents which open the book. This is no great shock; her parents, a colonialist businessman and a socialite, are distant to the point of abandonment and she is raised by an Ayah whose first consideration is to keep her quiet.

Read the rest of this entry

99 Problems but a witch ain’t one (or, Harry Potter is a guilty pleasure)

First, a disclaimer. I’ve read all the Harry Potter novels, I’ve seen six of the movies (and I’m reserving Half-Blood Prince pt1 until I can watch it back-to-back with Half-Blood Prince pt 2). I’m not a (capital F) Fan, but I enjoyed the series; I didn’t cry when Dobby died, but I did go ‘aaaaww’ a bit.

As a subset of the bildungsroman the school story is well placed to both mirror and lead readers own growth into maturity, and Harry Potter does this well if not faultlessly. The series has got a lot going for it. Briefly:

  • The lampooning of clueless middle-class SOMETHING MUST BE DONE-ism when Hermione Middleton Granger (whose parents are both company directors dentists) sets up Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (SPEW) despite the fact that all but one of the house elves are a) happy with their lot and b) view SPEW as an insult to their race*.
  • Rowling doesn’t keep her protagonists as pre-pubescent, pre-sexual beings througout their time at Hogwarts.
  • People die. From page one of … Philosopher’s Stone to page 607 of …Deathly Hallows people are dying left, right and centre. Because kids are actually pretty able to cope with that.
  • I cannot stress this one enough: it’s better than Twilight by several orders of magnitude.
  • There’s a Dickensian page-turnerly quality which certainly isn’t down to genius prose, but nevertheless works
  • It’s a damn good story

And, most importantly,

  • it’s got kids reading 780-page novels in a culture that demands instant access to everything.

That said, let the traditional lefty Potter-bashing commence!

Read the rest of this entry

Review: Billionaire Boy; David Walliams

David Walliams; Billionaire Boy

Published in paperback June 2011, Harper Collins. List price £6.99

Appropriate for ages 7-11.

From the cover;

‘Meet Joe Spud, the richest 12-year-old in the world. Joe has everything he could ever want: his own Formula One racing car, a thousand pairs of trainers, even an orang-utan for a butler!

Yes, Joe has everything he wants, but there’s just one thing he really needs: a friend…’

David Walliams’ first offering, The Boy in the Dress was a mildly subversive but otherwise unremarkable book. Lucky to have both fame and illustrator Quentin Blake on his side, the book was nevertheless a bestseller. His follow-up, Mr Stink, though released under significantly less fan-fare, was awarded The People’s Book Award in 2010.  So we come to the third novel from the Walliams stable: Billionaire Boy.

Let me get this out of the way before I start. The premise – that money doesn’t buy happiness – is the kind of thing that poor people say when they want to console themselves and rich people say when they’re feeling guilty. And they’re right. Directly, money doesn’t buy happiness. But it really really helps. For every character in lit that finds happiness after losing everything, there are 100 people in actual real life whose lives are made that much better with the provision of a bit of spare cash. The lonely rich kid trope is a common one in television, film and literature, and Billionaire Boy does nothing to challenge the model.

Read the rest of this entry