Monday, April 27, 2015

Lucy M. Boston and the Importance of Place: The Green Knowe series

A Stranger at Green Knowe

A word knowe, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is used chiefly as a Scottish variant of knoll, which is a small hill of mound.

Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe series, written between the years 1954 and 1976, features the continuing character of the manor house at Green Knowe. In the series, the house dates back to the Norman period of British history, being built and occupied by the same family, the Oldknows, originally D'Aulneaux, continuously to the present day. Green Knowe is based on Boston's real home, the manor house at Hemingford Grey. Boston purchased the house in 1939 and spent years in its restoration.

The Original Green Knowe, the manor house at Hemingford Grey.

Green Knowe is a magical place, with the ghosts of past occupants mingling with present day family members, a supernatural topiary of fantastic creatures, and a hefty dose of history.  The first book in the series, The Children of Green Knowe, establishes the history of the house and its occupants, setting the stage for future volumes. The series opens when young Toseland is sent to spend the Christmas holidays with his great-grandmother, Linnet Oldknow, at Green Knowe. While there, Toseland (it's a family name), nicknamed Tolly, meets the ghosts of three Oldknow children who lived there over 400 years ago, during the reign of Charles II.  The series is unusual in that the only character present in every book is the manor house at Green Knowe, although all of the recurring characters are generally mentioned in passing.

As with most series, it's best to read the books in order, but it's not absolutely necessary.  The first book I read as a child was A Stranger at Green Knowe, which is still my favorite, but all of the books are wonderful.  Right after reading Stranger, I checked the rest of the series out from our tiny library and read them one after another, parked on the ground underneath the weeping willow in our backyard.  It was August, summer vacation, the year before the state decided to build a major highway practically next door to our house, and my memories are of heat, humidity and a daytime silence broken only by the buzzing of insects and the humming of old power lines.

Lucy M. Boston (1892 - 1990) was born in Southport, Lancashire, England, one of six children in a well-to-do family and strictly evangelical household.  Her father died when she was six.  At age eleven, the family moved to the country, where the natural beauty of her surroundings created for Boston a sense of personal bliss, and she spent hours every day rambling about the countryside.She worked in a French hospital during World War I, married an English officer from the Flying Corps, and had one son, Peter Boston.  She later divorced, moved to Italy and Austria where she studied painting, and in 1939 returned to England and purchased the manor house at Hemingford Grey, living there until her death in 1990.

Boston did not begin writing until she was in her sixties, and part of her motivation was to finance further renovations for her home. In addition to the Green Knowe series, she also wrote stand-alone children books such as The Sea Egg (1967), the adult novel Yew Hall (1954), and the YA novel Persephone (1969).

Lucy M. Boston at Wikipedia

Book #10:  A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961) L.M. Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston.  158 pages.

Ten year old Ping first made an appearance a year earlier in The River at Green Knowe, one of three refugee children from the Society for the Promotion of Summer Holidays from Displaced Children.  Ping is an orphan, a Chinese refugee from Burma, and has survived horrific experiences in his home country and five plus years in various refugee camps.

Ping spent the previous summer at Green Knowe with fellow displace children Oskar and Ida.  Both of his companions have been placed in new homes, but not Ping.  Ida has taken it upon herself to write and ask Mrs. Oldknow, whom none of the children have ever met, if Ping can spend the summer with her at Green Knowe.  Mrs. Oldknow is happy to oblige, feeling blue over the fact that her great-grandson Tolly will not be able to visit her that year.  Ping is delighted to go, but wishes Ida and Oskar would be there , too.

But we don't know this until Part Two of the book.  In Part One, the book opens in Africa, where men are hunting for gorillas to take back to England.  The story is told from the viewpoint of the gorillas, and we see how they live, their family structure, their response to the danger of the men, and their final capture and imprisonment.  Their experience is written with clarity and empathy.  It is heartbreaking.

Hanno, one of the surviving young gorillas, is shipped to the Monkey House at a zoo in London, where he lives for the next thirteen years.  Ping sees Hanno on a school trip, and is fascinated by the great gorilla and his relationship with his keeper. Ping is an intelligent, observant, self-composed boy.

Later that summer, while the regular keeper is on vacation, Hanno escapes from the zoo and makes his way to the forests of Green Knowe, one of few places he could survive in England.  Ping, during one of his daily rambles, discovers Hanno's presence, and decides to help him, bringing him food - Hanno has an enormous appetite - and forming a relationship.  He does not tell Mrs. Oldknow.

Eventually, the authorities discover Hanno's whereabouts, and take action.  The ending is sad, but not unexpected.  One positive outcome is that Mrs. Oldknow invites Ping to come and live with her, a request that Ping is more that happy to fulfill.

Despite the sad ending, this is a wonderful book, primarily because of the excellent nature writing of Boston in Part One, and the developing relationship between Ping and Hanno, two beings both misplaced by mankind's singular cruelty and stupidity.

A Stranger at Green Knowe won the Carnegie Medal in 1961.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Pirates, Prospectors, Princes and Puppets

The Abracadabra Kid: Sid Fleischman

Sid Fleischman's first career was as a professional magician, working the last of the vaudeville circuits on the West Coast at the age of fifteen with his best friend Buddy Ryan and Ryan's big sister, Mary.  After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fleischman worked as a reporter, an author of adult thrillers set in the Far East, and a screenwriter.  In the early 1960s, he turned his writing efforts to children's books, producing a new type of magic for generations of young readers.

Sid Fleischman (1920-2010) wrote almost fifty books for children and young adults, including biographies of Houdini and Mark Twain and a non-fiction book on magic.  His fiction included books for younger readers such as The Ghost on Saturday Night (1974), set in the American West, and his series of tall tales featuring the farmer Josh McBroom and his eleven children whose names always ran together into one whenever they were called:  

                     Willjillhesterchesterpeterpollytimtommarylarryand littleclarinda!

Try saying that three times fast.  Kids can. And they'll love the illustrations by Quentin Blake, who did such a wonderful job for Roald Dahl.

Sid Fleischman wrote a number of novels in different historical periods, the most well-known being the 18th century English tale The Whipping Boy (1986), winner of the 1987 Newbery Medal.  Other stories were set in locales in Asia, Europe and Mexico.  For time travel, there's The Thirteenth Floor: A Ghost Story (1995), and for older readers, the Holocaust themed fantasy The Entertainer and the Dybbuk (2008).  Sid Fleischman pretty much did it all.

Sid Fleischman's autobiography on the writing life is The Abracadabra Kid.  

Official Sid Fleischman Website

While some of his later works such as The Whipping Boy are still considered standards in most libraries, a lot of his earlier work is less well-known.  I've already mentioned the McBroom series of tall tales.  Another excellent adventure, set in the period of the California Gold Rush, is the topic of today's post.

Book #9:  By the Great Horn Spoon! (1963) Sid Fleischman, illustrated by Eric Von Schmidt.
                 193 pages.

The story opens on the specific date of January 27th, 1849.  Gold had been discovered in California the previous year, and anyone and everyone was heading for the West Coast to make their fortune, including twelve-year-old Jack and his family's butler, Praiseworthy.

Jack and his two sisters are being raised by their young Aunt Arabella in the family home in Boston.  Once prosperous, the family has fallen on hard times, and without a sudden reversal of fortune Aunt Arabella would within a year be reduced to selling the family home.  Jack and Praiseworthy hatch a plan to join the Gold Rush, make a fortune and save the day.  Leaving a note for the unsuspecting Aunt Arabella, the two leave and make their way to the docks. Unfortunately, their fare money was stolen as they stood on line to purchase passage tickets,  forcing them to stowaway on the good ship Lady Wilma instead.

Unknown to Jack, Praiseworthy has no intention of spending the five month trip hidden as a stowaway in a potato barrel.  On the second day of the voyage, he and Jack make their way to the ship's captain, explain their situation, and begin to work their passage off by shoveling coal into the ship's furnace.

It's a five month long trip to California by way of South America's Cape Horn, and one fraught with dangers. Through the ingenuity of Praiseworthy, the man who stole their passage money is revealed, and the pair spend the bulk of the voyage as regular passengers.  The pair come to know their fellow travelers, all also struck with Gold fever, and also assist the captain in his efforts to beat another ship to California.

Once arrived in San Francisco, the two make their way to the mining camps and eventually, after much adventure involving road agents, grizzly bears and a lost treasure map, discover gold.  Returning to San Francisco, disaster strikes, but Praiseworthy once again saves the day, and the tale ends very happily for all concerned.

Fleischman keeps the story moving at such an entertaining pace that the reader doesn't even realize the wealth of historical detail they're absorbing.  Details of ship travel in 1849, details of the expansion of San Francisco under the Gold Rush, the nature of the mining camps, boon town justice, the convergence of populations from multiple spots on the globe to the hills of California and the technical nature of gold mining itself as flow seamlessly in the story.  And, as in every book Fleischman authored, the characters are not characters, but people.  Praiseworthy and Jack are recognizable, their relationship real, and their desire to help the family is an expression of their own characters, not just a plot devise.  And don't forget the humor, there's lots of it in every chapter.  A terrific read for everyone, and a great read aloud.

By the Great Horn Spoon! at Amazon

Eric Von Schmidt (1931-2007) illustrated a number of Sid Fleischman books.  He was the son of Harold Von Schmidt, a painter of Western scenes who also illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post.  Eric Von Schmidt was also a musician, who was very involved in the emerging folk music renaissance of the 1950s on the East Coast.  He recorded a number of albums and also created album cover art for artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  He and Jim Rooney were co-authors of Baby-Let Me Follow You Down (1994) a cultural history of the folk music community of the 1950s and 1960s.  In his later years, Von Schmidt focused primarily on his painting, including a series of eight large "Giants of Blues" paintings and a large canvas featuring Lewis & Clark's Corp of Discovery.

Eric Von Schmidt at Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Let's Do Two - Folktales and Whoppers 

Ruth Manning-Sanders & Alvin Schwartz (The Scary Stories Guy)

Folktales are the survivors of all stories.  Passed down orally from generation to generation, these stories of regular folk - no royalty need apply - existed in multiple variations among different peoples and cultures long before the written word became commonplace.  As literacy became more widespread, more and more of these folktales were collected and committed to paper.  As time went on, a methodology was established for the collection of folktales/folklore that outlined the manner in which the stories were to be collected, recorded, analyzed and presented.  Paramount in this process was the identification of source material.  Who told you this? Where? When?  And where did they get the information?  Mother?  Grandfather?  The old woman who lives at the end of the street?

You get the idea.

Many modern collections of folktales and folklore offer extensive source materials.  Alvin Schwartz is an excellent example of an author who does just that.  On the other end is Ruth Manning-Sanders, who, outside of referencing a country of origin for her tales in the Forwards of her collections, cites no source material at all.  Does this lack of source material affect the readability of her stories?  Not at all.  A good story is a good story, and all Manning-Sanders is concerned with is telling a good story.  But from an academic viewpoint, and a personal one, the more sources, the better.

The American Folklore Society maintains a Folklore Wiki for anyone interested in learning more.

Book #7:  Whoppers: Tall Tales and Other Lies (1975) Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Glen Rounds.
                 127 pages.

Alvin Schwartz (1927 - 1992) is best known for his Scary Stories series, a wildly popular  set of anthologies that consistently land on the most challenged books list of the ALA.  Schwartz published over 50 books in his lifetime,  including a number of books on folklore for children that were all illustrated by Glen Rounds.  Schwartz was meticulous in citing his sources.  In the 127 page Whoppers,  his notes, sources and bibliography take up 24 of those pages.

Alvin Schwartz at Wikipedia

Glen Rounds (1906 - 2002) was born in a sod house in North Dakota and before becoming an author/illustrator worked at number of jobs including cowboy and carnival medicine man.  The books he authored reflected his upbringing, the Whitey series of picture books on cowboys, and his later books on horses and ponies.  Rounds suffered from severe arthritis later in life, and as a result learned to draw with his left arm and continue illustrating.

Glen Rounds at Jacketflap

Whoppers is a collection of American Folklore that focuses on the tall tale.  The short (sometimes very short, like one sentence) stories are divided into chapters, some of which are Ordinary People, Ordinary Things, The Weather, and the sure to be a hit with kids Putrefactions and Other Wonders.  Schwartz tells of the day that the heat was so bad, the farmer had to feed his hens cracked ice to keep them from laying hardboiled eggs, to the man who swam halfway across the ocean, decided he couldn't make it, and swan back to the old doctor pulling teeth in Demijohnville.  Fun all around, with terrific illustrations by Rounds.

Whoppers: Tall Tales and Other Lies at Amazon

Book #8:  A Book of Witches (1966) by Ruth Manning-Sanders, Illustrated by Robin Jacques.
                 127 pages.

Ruth Manning-Sanders (1886 - 1988) was born in Wales, the daughter of a Unitarian minister, and grew up in Cheshire, England.  A prolific author and poet, she wrote over 90 books, among them a series of books of folklore for children, a total of 23 volumes all beginning with A Book of …, that ranged from changelings to wizards to dwarfs.  Manning-Sanders was not an academic, there are no lists of sources of bibliographies, but she was a wonderful storyteller who believed in happy endings and the triumph of good over evil.

Ruth Manning-Sanders at Wikipedia

Robin Jacques (1920 - 1995) had no formal art training, but went on to illustrate over 100 books in his lifetime, 25 of which were written by Ruth Manning-Sanders.  He was born in London, England and served as art editor for The Strand magazine.

Robin Jacques at Wikipedia

A Book of Witches was the fourth in Manning-Sanders series on children's folklore.  Beautifully illustrated in black and white by Robin Jacques, it includes twelve tales of witches from around the world, four of which are from Germany.  The tales are well-told and enjoyable.  The endings are never in doubt, for as Manning-Sanders writes in the Forward:

               "…however terrible the witches may seem…they are always defeated….it is the
                 absolute and very comforting rule of the fairy tale that the good and brave shall
                 be rewarded, and that bad people shall come to a bad end."

If only that were true.

A Book of Witches at Amazon

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Before and Beyond Camelot:  The Historical Fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff  

Tristan and Iseult

After this week, we'll be moving on from the British Isles, but before that happens I wanted to make mention of one of the best writers of historical fiction I've ever read, Rosemary Sutcliff.  

Historical fiction is hard to write; historical fiction for children even more so.  All too often, the story is sacrificed to an overload of historical facts presented in such a manner as to make even the most dramatic events of the past appear as exciting as last month's grocery list.  That's never a problem with Sutcliff.

The story of Tristan and Iseult is an ancient one, with about as many variations and versions as there are storytellers.  The earliest direct mentions of the characters are found in Celtic literature; later on, in the twelfth century French Court's version, it became a tale of courtly love, comparable to the tale of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, but with the addition of a love potion.  The University of Rochester maintains an excellent website The Camelot Project that offers a wealth of information on the Arthurian tales and others.

Book #6:  Tristan and Iseult (1974) by Rosemary Sutcliff, 150 pages.

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) was a British author of books for both children and adults.  She is one of the great storytellers of Arthurian legends, and many of her novels are set in the historical periods of Roman Britain (The Eagle of Ninth series) and Dark Britain. Sutcliff won numerous awards for her novels, including the 1959 Carnegie Medal for The Lantern Bearer, the 2010 Phoenix Award for The Shining Company, and was one of three runners-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1974.

Sutcliff was the daughter of a Royal Navy officer and moved frequently throughout her childhood.  She  suffered from Stills' Disease, a form of juvenile arthritis that resulted in chronic pain and numerous physical disabilities, throughout her life.  She did not learn to read until the age of nine, but was read to constantly by her mother, who also regaled her daughter with stories from Celtic legends, fairy tales and the works of Rudyard Kipling.  She began writing in 1946, starting with retellings of her mother's stories, and had her first book published in 1950, The Chronicles of Robin Hood.

Rosemary Sutcliff's Life and Works

Sutcliff's version of Tristan and Iseult is based on earlier versions, and deliberately excludes any mention of a love potion.  She has her reasons for doing so, which she explains in the Forward of the book.

Tristan leaves his home in Lothian, where he is the son of the king, and journeys out with his faithful companion, Gorvenal, to seek adventure.  Eventually, they arrive at the Kingdom of Cornwall, ruled by King Marc, whose sister was Tristan's mother.  Tristan does not reveal himself to the king as his nephew until after he kills the Morholt, the Irish champion, in a challenge.  Ireland and Cornwall are enemies of longstanding.  King Marc is a widower with no children.  He is convinced by others that he should remarry, but states that he will only marry the woman whose strand of red hair he possesses.  Tristan goes off to find this woman, and is injured in the process.  The woman who heals him is none other than Iseult, Princess of Ireland, and the strand of red hair is hers.  There is dragon slaying and treacherous dealings abound.  Tristan and Iseult fall in love, but she marries King Marc, who also loves her.  And so it goes from there.

This is a book for middle school and up.  Tristan and Iseult are sexually involved, there are threats of torture and burning alive at the stake, and complex emotional situations.  Sutcliff portrays these characters with all of their human frailties and strengths, dealing with complicated situations and relationships in a way recognizable to today's readers.

Question #6:   Anyone?  Still looking for an answer to Week #1's lost story.