Wednesday, 30 July 2008


Noel Streatfeild's unique ability to understand and empathise with the feelings of children works well in this novel which examines the impact of war on a family. Originally published in 1957, Saplings is at times, almost unbearably sad, but demonstrates what a good writer Streatfeild was. Four siblings, Laurel, Tony, Kit and Tuesday are put under immense pressure by the outbreak of World War 2. Laurel, the eldest daughter is wrenched from the school she loves and forced to attend a school she instantly loathes. Her mother is unwilling to spend valuable ration coupons on a new brown school uniform for Laurel - although she manages to buy plenty of new dresses for herself - and makes her wear her old green uniform. Sensitive and vulnerable, in her conspicuous green uniform Laurel is bullied and nicknamed The Frog while her oblivious mother descends into alcoholism. Saplings is a perceptive examination of the real cost of war.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Party Shoes

Noel Streatfeild is perhaps best known for Ballet Shoes, the children's classic which doesn't actually feature much ballet! The popularity of Ballet Shoes has perhaps overshadowed the other books that Streatfeild wrote for children which, like the very best children's writing, can also be enjoyed by adults. Party Shoes was originally published in 1946 as Party Frock. The story begins with Selina, whose parents are held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan, receiving a parcel from her American godmother which contains a spectacular dress. Opportunities to wear the dress are limited as Selina's aunt dryly points out:

Selina, my pet, your godmother has the most inflated ideas about what is worn in English villages at the end of a long war.
Selina and her cousins plan an open air pageant simply to provide an opportunity for her to wear the dress. Staging a village pageant during WW2 with rationing in full force requires creativity and resourcefulness. Costumes are made from blackout curtains and dyed butter muslin with the help of the WI, scripts are handwritten and the local ballet school are persuaded to help out.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

This Real Night

It was warm as high summer, and bars of sunshine lay honey-coloured across the floor, the air above them shimmering with motes; and bees droned about a purple branch of viburnum in a vase on the mantlepiece.
Rebecca West's haunting novel This Real Night is actually the second volume of a trilogy but can be read and enjoyed without reading The Fountain Overflows which comes before. Set in Edwardian England, sisters Mary, Rose, Cordelia and their cousin Rosamund try to make sense of a world on the brink of war. Although the novel has an impending sense of doom, West has humour and a terrific eye for detail whether she is describing the fashions of the day or the flowers in her garden.

Monday, 21 July 2008

More hot summer reading

Rumer Godden's classic novel The Greengage Summer is surely overdue for a huge popular revival. Frustrated by the spoilt behaviour of her children, Mrs Grey takes them to see the battlefields of France and learn a lesson in humility. When she falls ill abroad the five children spend the summer largely unsupervised in a rural French hotel, Les Oillets, which has an ancient orchard with seven alleys of greengage trees. Narrated by twelve-year old Cecil (short for Cicely) this is a perfect summer read for adults and teenagers.

Less well known but equally enjoyable is The Peacock Spring. Half-sisters Hal and Una Gwithiam are wrenched from the English boarding school they love and transplanted to India to live with their selfish diplomat selfish father. Una is prickly and bitter and takes an instant dislike to her new governess. Another coming of age story with a surprising end - but I'm not giving it away!

On a recent visit to the historic town of Rye on the south coast, I was surprised to discover that Rumer Godden had lived in the town and I picked up a volume of her autobiography in one of the local bookshops. Godden wrote for children, too. My girls have enjoyed The Dolls' House.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Hot summer reading

After reading Juliet Nicolson's absorbing account of Edwardian England in The Perfect Summer I was intrigued to learn from the introduction that she was inspired by L P Hartley's classic summer novel The Go-Between. I thought it might be difficult to find a copy, but this 1968 edition with its pretty cover was available in my local Oxfam shop. This is a wonderful coming of age story set in Norfolk at the turn of the century during an exceptionally hot English summer. Perhaps best to save this one for a weekend when you don't have a lot on as you will be hooked after reading its famous opening line:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.