Archive for the ‘Children/Young Adult’ Category

Betsy and the Great WorldI only discovered Maud Hart Lovelace after I started blogging.  Her Minnesota-set Betsy-Tacy series of children’s books have insipid titles that would have earned my contempt if anyone had tried to press them on me when I was young (Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Heaven to Betsy, and Betsy Was a Junior) but she had so many fans in the book blogging world that I had to try her for myself.  I started with a non-Betsy-Tacy book (Emily of Deep Valley) and thought it was fine.  At the time, I remarked that I didn’t think, based on the brief glimpse of Betsy provided in Emily of Deep Valley, that I could face any of the books focused on her.  But then I found a copy of Betsy and the Great World for sale at the library for 50 cents and decided to take a chance.

After two years of university, Betsy Ray has had enough.  She convinces her parents that, as an aspiring writer, she is not getting a lot of value from her math and science classes.  They agree and instead offer up an education of a different sort: a year abroad, travelling in Europe.  (Note: this was not the offer my parents made to me whenever I complained about my university classes.  Tragically.)  Unsurprisingly, she is ecstatic and, in possession of a flashy wardrobe and lots of enthusiasm, she sets off for Europe.  It is January 1914, she is twenty-one years old, and the world seems full of possibilities.

The book follows Betsy through her shipboard adventures, her travels on the continent (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France), and her arrival in England – just in time for war to be declared.  Through it all, she does her best to make new friends and keep up her writing even as she struggles with homesickness and a longing for Joe, the boyfriend she had parted from before leaving and is now fearful of having lost forever.

The highlights of the book for me were the descriptions of the places Betsy visits.  Betsy herself was wildly uninteresting but I loved hearing about her walks through Munich, her wanderings around Venice, and her instant love affair with London.  The only part of Betsy’s journey I did not enjoy was her brief stay in Oberammergau, where the piety of the citizens, many of them actors in the village’s famous Passion Play, was taken far too seriously by the young American (and her creator).

Though I developed absolutely no interest in or attachment to Betsy over the course of the novel, I was impressed by Lovelace’s descriptions of Betsy’s mood changes and the frequent waves of homesickness that plagued her.  Lovelace has a disarmingly honest was of talking about unpleasant or negative emotions (which were also a feature of Emily of Deep Valley).

But there were things that outweighed the honesty and the enchanting travel details: so much of the story is focused on Betsy’s new friendships (both platonic and romantic) and the episodic and repetitive nature of these relationships felt lazy.  Yes, Betsy seems to be a young woman who makes friends (and conquests) easily but I longed for some more substantial development.  Her need to surround herself with a group of people, to form a clique (or, in her words, a Crowd) in each new place, saddened me.  By the end of the book, Betsy has seen many places and had many wonderful experiences but it is not clear how much she has actually learned, particularly about herself.

There is one feature I cannot decide if I should classify as a positive or a negative: Betsy’s garish wardrobe.  Maud Hart Lovelace describes her heroine’s costumes in loving detail and the vast majority of them are awful – laughably so.  Betsy has a particular fondness for a red-green hat, worn with a pale green dress and a scarlet jacket.  There is also a matronly-sounding maroon silk evening dress.  And she wonders how people know she is an American even before she speaks!  The illustrations don’t help either, making her look either ten years behind the fashions or forty years ahead of them.

Clearly, this was not an instant favourite with me, though there is something intriguing about Lovelace’s writing, though it is very uneven.  I am even a little bit tempted to read the final Betsy-Tacy book, Betsy’s Wedding.  But while I can somewhat stomach grown-up Betsy, the idea of reading about her childhood escapades sends a shiver up my spine.  No.  Just…no.  I cannot face that.

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Holiday by Harry Morley

Holiday by Harry Morley

I’m one week into my holiday and I’ve managed to read three books already that featured vacationing characters.  I feel an immediate sympathy between myself and a book when this sort of coincidence occurs, though there is also a kind of comparison that happens: is their (fictional) holiday more appealing than mine?  Would I rather be off having the kind of adventures they are having?  But I am very happy where I am right now, thank you very much, and happier still to be able to share in these fictional holidays at the same time. 

The Honey QueenI had never heard of The Honey Queen by Cathy Kelly but that’s probably because it just came out this year.  I’d never read anything by Kelly before but, if this is anything to go by, she’s very Maeve Binchy-esque and I mean that in the best possible way.  Set just outside Cork, The Honey Queen focuses on a perhaps slightly too large cast of characters and the struggles facing each of them.  The highlight is the friendly and always sympathetic Lillian.  In her sixties, Lillie was given up for adoption at birth and taken in by an Australian family.  Recently widowed, she is still coming to terms with her husband’s death when her sons discover that she has a younger brother, Seth, in Ireland.  Seth immediately invites her to visit and Lillie, a little to her surprise, finds herself agreeing to come.  Lillie and Seth’s scenes made me tear up far more often than I should probably admit but as it is the purpose of heart-warming women’s fiction to elicit such tears I felt quite satisfied.  Lillie recognizes that Seth is going through a difficult period in his marriage and does her best to take the pressure off of him and his wife, Frankie, and allow them the time to figure things out.  She’s rather Mary Poppins-like, but less severe.  But this is only one of several households featured in the novel and all of them are interesting.  There’s even a twenty-something female character who opens up a knitting and sewing shop – something I know will appeal to some of my readers!  I will definitely be looking out for more Cathy Kelly books when I get home to the library.

Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking BootsBoys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots by Abby McDonald was a surprise.  I found it while combing through the library’s e-book catalogue and, being intrigued by the blurb, downloaded this YA novel about a suburban New Jersey teenager who spends a summer with her godmother in the British Columbian Interior.

Jenna is an industrious seventeen year old who is devoted to environmental issues.  She cheerfully organizes protests and rallies, knows how to charm people into signing her petitions, and loves having equally passionate friends in her school’s Green Teen group.  With her parents heading (separately) out of town for the summer, Jenna finds herself going off to stay with her newly married godmother, Susie, in a small town in BC, where Jenna’s environmentalist beliefs clash with the reality of life in the wilderness.

Generally, my issues with romantic YA fiction overlap quite closely with my arguments against chick-lit: I can’t stand books about girls and women who spend all their time thinking about boys and how they look.  Thankfully, Jenna does very little of this and her only concern with footwear (the most annoying chick-lit cliché) is with having waterproof boots appropriate for outdoor pursuits.  Clearly, a girl after my own heart.  There are boys – they’re right there in the title – but they are Jenna’s friends before anything romantic begins to develop, the guys who take her rafting, fishing, rock climbing, and hiking.  That’s part of the real appeal of this book for me: Jenna does stuff.  A lot of stuff.  She throws herself into projects and I loved her excitement over the tourism website she and her new friends build, highlighting all the local outdoor activities, and the B&B that Susie and her husband are opening.  Jenna has her insecurities and concerns but mostly she is a confident, positive young woman with lots of energy that she’s trying to figure out how to channel.  She reminds me far more of myself as a teen than most fictional heroines do.

Nights of Rain and StarsMost recently, I reread Nights of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchy.  There’s nothing quite like a Maeve Binchy when you’re on holiday and no matter how many times I read her books I am always happy to pick them up again.  (In fact, since finishing this one I’ve started rereading Scarlet Feather, one of my favourite Binchys.)  Nights of Rain and Stars focuses on four travellers who witness a tragedy in the Greek town where they are staying.  Away from their homelands, the four characters – Thomas, David, Elsa, and Fiona – find themselves drawn to the small community as they try and escape the problems they left behind.  Thomas, an academic on sabbatical, is missing his son back in California and dreading the influence the boy’s new stepfather will have on him.  David, a quiet and sensitive young Englishman, is avoiding the parents who expect him to go into the successful family business.  Elsa, a former news presenter, is trying to escape an old lover back in Germany and Fiona, a young Irish nurse, is clinging to the ne’er-do-well boyfriend her family and friends disapprove of.  With guidance from Vonni, an Irishwoman who’s been in Greece long enough to count as a local, they slowly begin to get their lives in order and face up to the conflicts they had thought to escape.

This isn’t Binchy’s best but it is still delightful.  Cathy Kelly might be Binchy-esque but nothing beats a bona fide Binchy.  Last time I read Nights of Rain and Stars, it was the dead of winter (or, you know, possibly April) in Calgary and I remember being holed up inside while a blizzard raged outside.  This time, I read it in the sunshine, hiding under an umbrella from the hot sun.  In either climate, it was a treat.

I have only a few more days left before we begin the drive home so will hopefully get some more suitably vacation-y reading in between now and then!

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I have reviews of three excellent children’s books for you today, each containing those magic elements necessary in all good children’s books: new surroundings, limited adult supervision, and unlimited imagination.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild actually made me understand why people love Streatfeild so much.  I had never read any of her children’s books before, just Saplings, which, though children feature as major characters, is definitely an adult book.  I had been told that Streatfeild wrote children’s voices exceptionally well, but there was little sign of it in that book.  Here, on the other hand, the children come alive.

With their parents in the Far East, the four Gareth children are sent to stay with an eccentric great-aunt in Ireland.  Great-aunt Dymphna has no interest in basic domestic chores or children and so, for the first time in their lives, the children are left to fend for themselves.  The two eldest, Alex and Penny (ages 13 and 12), do their best to keep up the standards they are used to a home while their younger siblings, Robin and Naomi (10 and 9), are much quicker to recognize and embrace the freedom their great-aunt is offering.  The summer is spent exploring and learning, occasionally terrifying themselves as they test the limits of their abilities.  There is nothing fantastical about their experiences, which is part of what I liked so much about this book: the Gareths’ experiences are the same ones any child could have, consisting as they do of decidedly mundane tasks like learning to cook or memorizing a bit of poetry.  No magic spell or secret portal necessary: just determination and a willingness to try new things.

The relationships between the children were especially wonderful.  Though they all, to some extent, strike out on their own, mostly we see them together.  They try to support one another but they also snap and bicker.  With none of the pastimes they are used to available in their new surroundings, they become bored and bad-tempered.  They act selfishly and then are ashamed when they realise they ought to apologize (but really don’t want to).  They feel, in short, like real children.

Tom's Midnight GardenYou want to know who doesn’t feel like a real child?  Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  I know people adore this book and will hate to hear any criticism, however minor, but they will have to forgive me.  He is flat but the book is not.  It is a magical story, about a boy who, while staying with his aunt and uncle, discovers that when the clock strikes thirteen each night in the lobby of their apartment building he is able to slip into the past.  Rather than the dreary, rundown apartment building of modern times (“modern” here being the 1950s, as the book came out in 1958) he finds himself back in the days when the building was a family home, when it was surrounded by a large garden instead of other buildings, and when a young girl, Hatty, lived there.  Most people cannot see Tom when he appears in the past but Hatty can and they become playmates.  Night after night, Tom visits her but with each visit she grows a little older, years passing in what for him is a single day.  Thought the ending was clear from the very beginning of the book, it still made me tear up a little.  I am so glad I finally read this.

The Secret World of OgBut the book I am most glad to have read, the one that entertained me the most, was The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton.  Until recently, I had no idea that Berton, a Canadian historian, had written a children’s book.  Apparently, my father could have told me as much: this was one of his childhood favourites, having been published in 1961 when he was six years old.

When “The Pollywog” (otherwise known as Paul) disappears from the playhouse, his four older siblings set out to find him.  A manhole has been sawed in the playhouse floor and, lifting it, they find a tunnel descending into a mysterious underground world, full of green creatures who can only say “Og”.  Or can they?  As Penny, Pamela, Peter, and Patsy explore this foreign land, their fear and suspicion lessens with the more Ogs they meet.  Not only are the Ogs wearing familiar clothing – dress-up items that had gone missing over time from the playhouse, in fact – but some even appear to speak English, learned from the cowboy comic books that the children love so much and which, like the clothing, had been stored in the playhouse.

I loved everything about this book.   I loved the world of Og itself, with its giant tree-like mushrooms and its citizens who are happy to play make-believe all day, but mostly I loved the five Berton siblings.  Like any children, they love the idea of a world devoted to imaginative play and, even more, adore being authorities on subjects the Ogs are most eager to learn about.  But they also realise that sometimes fantasy needs limits and it can be just as exciting to discover real things as imaginary ones.  This book is so fun and clever and well written that I can understand why Berton considered it his favourite of his works and why it has remained a favourite among readers for fifty years.

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Noah’s Ark – Currier & Ives

I have not one but two books for you today that are essentially biblical fan fiction.  Both Before the Flood by A.A. Milne and Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle are (as their titles might suggest) based on the story of Noah’s ark but that is all they have in common.

Before the Flood by A.A. Milne is a one-act play but not, I think, the kind of play most churches would pick to perform at any of their events, despite the biblical origins of the story.  Milne imagines the domestic affairs in Noah’s home in the months between him receiving his divine instructions to build the ark and the day when the rains begin.  The question hanging over them all – Noah’s wife, his three sons and their respective wives – is whether the floods will actually come and be quite as extreme as Noah has been ‘told’.  It can be quite amusing at times, as the family debates the ark-related logistics that Noah’s divine instructions do not account for: how can they bring all those animals on board and prevent the predators from eating their natural prey?  If the animals aren’t going to eat one another, what are they going to eat?  Does the family need to bring extra animals on board for catering purposes?  On the whole though, it is not the best of Milne’s work and easily my least favourite of his plays.  I only laughed once, when, after Noah tells his family that they will be the only ones to survive the coming flood, one of the sons turns to his wife and says “Aren’t you glad now that you married into this family?” (or words to that effect).   The book ends when the rain starts to fall, leaving the question of whether Noah is a prophet or a madman unanswered.

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, on the other, leaves no doubt as to the veracity of Noah’s claims.  In fact, Noah is but a minor character and he and his ark are ignored for a large portion of the book.  The focus in this children’s book from 1986 is on the interaction between the earthly and divine in this imagined pre-flood world where angels walk among men.  As soon as I started reading, I remembered why I found this book so weirdly fascinating when I was young.  Not good, necessarily, but fascinating.  It is the fourth book in the “Time Quartet”, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle’s most famous book, but it was the only one I ever felt compelled to reread.  The mechanics of L’Engle’s idea of time/space travel never appealed to me but seraphim and nephilim, for some reason, did.

Sandy and Dennys Murry, the teenage twins who find themselves transported back to (they eventually realise) biblical times after disturbing an experiment in their parents’ home lab, are not remotely interesting.  They are flat and really unbelievably stupid at times.  Stuck thousands of years out of their own time period, they are remarkably relaxed, even with their knowledge of what is about to happen.  Having befriended Noah and his family, they are perfectly content to work in the garden, help build the ark when the time comes, and pine after Noah’s youngest daughter, Yalith.  Yalith is far more developed than either of the boys – all the female characters are – but still not very compelling.  Still, she doesn’t need to be.  This is not a book that requires in-depth characterization.  Instead, we get to read a lot about sex, which some might find slightly surprising for such a religious book.  There is a worrying but not entirely consistent tendency to equate sexual promiscuity with evil but the real message is that sex is a good thing for those in a loving relationship (not necessarily marriage) and a lack of emotional involvement cheapens what should be an intimate experience between two people.  That, as well as a general opening of the twins’ minds to outlandish possibilities, seems to be the main lesson they learn over the course of the book.

Honestly, neither book is particularly excellent.  Many Waters can feel stilted in its need to over explain both its scientific and religious elements and Before the Flood, though it asks the questions any skeptic ponders while reading the story of Noah, does not do so with Milne’s usual energy and so the story drags along.  Both author’s approaches are interesting but their execution is lacklustre.

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When I was little – eight or nine years old maybe – I was utterly fascinated by the idea of one-room schoolhouses.  Reading Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor, published in 1902 but more likely set during the 1870s of the author’s youth, reminded me very much of that old fascination.  Its schoolroom scenes have much in common with those from some of my favourite childhood books – L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series – but offer a decidedly and irresistibly male perspective on growing up.

Set in a rural farming community in Ontario, Glengarry School Days follows the adventures of the boys of Glengarry.  The existence of females other than mothers is acknowledged but not encouraged – the dark days of the Glengarry school include the period when two “girl” teachers reign over it – so instead we hear quite a lot about the boys’ games, their rivalries, their friendships and also their lives away from school, including both their chores and their hobbies.  It is an episodic book, each chapter standing alone, offering glimpses into Glengarry and its youth over a period of some years.

Though the book really centers around Hughie Murray, the minister’s son, I was most intrigued by Connor’s portrait of Thomas Finch, who is slightly older than Hughie but still a close friend.  A large and awkwardly-spoken boy at the beginning of the book, Thomas unexpectedly becomes Connor’s way of discussing masculinity.  Yes, Thomas is large and strong but when his mother falls ill with breast cancer, he is the one who does most of the caring for her, not his sister.  He is as “gentle as a woman” in nursing her and everyone in the community admires him for it.  He plays hockey and works the farm – very masculine pursuits – but at no time is that presented as being at odds with his nursing of his mother.  Connor doesn’t belabour the point – I have made more of it here than he does in the entire book – but I still think it is an important one: tenderness is just as natural an aspect of a man’s character as it is of a woman’s.

Ralph Connor was the penname for Charles Gordon, a Presbyterian/United Church minister, which explains why the book has such a strong moral tone – but not an unpleasant one.  I found it far more palatable than, say, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s or Louisa May Alcott’s books.   Hughie, for example, struggles with keeping secrets from his adored mother but rather than let things come to a dramatic crisis point, Connor lets Hughie work through his angst in a much more natural, internal way.  It felt true to the sort of dilemmas children do find themselves in and Hugh came off as a normal child who dearly loved his parents rather than a saintly one who would never sin again.

But the moral and religious strength of Glengarry is not limited to improving its boys; it also gets hold of Jack Craven, the last in a string of teachers the school has during the course of the book.  Craven comes to Glengarry after his wild ways get him thrown out of college – just the sort of reject who all too often was in charge of such rural schools.  He is not a natural teacher and prefers to follow his own preferences rather than any well-rounded lesson plan.  He also does not bother to discipline the children, though they come to love him and so a sort of discipline does develop.  Slowly, under the influence of his admiring pupils, Craven begins to feel the duty to reform.  But it is really Mrs Murray, the minister’s wife and Hughie’s mother, who inspires his transformation.  She is one of those perfect, saintly women who always say exactly the right thing and who, without a word of reproach, with only their consideration and support, can shame one into wanting to be a better man.  Such Madonna-like characters used to be very popular – especially as minister’s wives – and are now terribly unfashionable (for better or for worse).  Regardless of current standards of political correctness, it is under Mrs Murray’s influence that Jack Craven is inspired to evolve from rakish youth to theological student.

I really loved this book.  I loved the descriptions of meals that could rival even the dinners in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books; I loved the excitement of the students over the “treat” of a spelling match; I loved that it addressed – intelligently – some of the challenges about growing up and the urge that even the most polite children feel to rebel.  Mostly I just loved the fun of it, of getting a glimpse into a childhood that felt very real and very relatable but still very different from my own experiences growing up a hundred years later.

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When I was little, I used to write a lot of letters.  There were the usual ones to grandparents and pen pals but the bulk of my correspondence went to my favourite authors.  Almost any time I read and enjoyed a book, I would sit down and write to the author (provided they were living – though at my most fanciful stage there might have been some letters written to L.M. Montgomery that I saved in my diary).  I kept this up for two or three years, probably from the age of nine to eleven, encouraged and provided with stamps by my parents.  But no one – absolutely no one – received (and answered, it should be noted) more letters from me than Gordon Korman after I discovered his Bruno and Boots series that starts with This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!

There is something irresistible to a child about novels set at boarding schools.  There’s the Chalet School, there’s Hogwarts and, for me at least, there was always Macdonald Hall.  Located somewhere near Toronto, this fictitious boy’s school was the home for many years (and seven books) of Bruno Walton and Melvin “Boots” O’Neal.  When the series begins Bruno and Boots, best friends and roommates, are having a wonderful time until their headmaster Mr. Sturgeon (“The Fish”) decides to separate them after one too many of their spectacularly inventive pranks.  Bruno finds himself rooming with the brilliant but very odd Elmer Drimsdale while Boots is unfortunate enough to land with the snobbish hypochondriac, George Wexford-Smyth III.  Whatever it takes, the two boys vow, they will find a way of being reunited.

It is a slim book and the other characters aren’t as fully realised as later in the series but it is very well done.  Bruno and Boots’ plans – first to annoy their roommates into forcing another change, then to try to frame them for outrageous pranks – are simple but their tactics are typically original, from Bruno’s freeing of Elmer’s ant colony (wild creatures should not be caged, he explains) to Boots’ elaborate hoax convincing George that he is suffering from a rare and life-threatening illness that has infected half the school.  Through it all, there is The Fish, the omnipotent headmaster who has a far better sense of humour than he can allow the students to see.

Korman wrote This Can’t Ben Happening at Macdonald Hall! as an English assignment when he was twelve.  When I was ten that filled me with wonder.  Now it just makes me a bit depressed.  Bruno and Boots are loveable – as all harmless and good-natured pranksters are – and unforgettable but it was amazing to me how vivid and sympathetic some of the supporting characters are too, especially Elmer Drimsdale and The Fish.  The portrayal of Mr Sturgeon is surprisingly nuanced for an adolescent writer, capturing the adult sense of responsibility and discipline but also acknowledging the components of his personality he cannot share with the students, like his sense of humour and real affection for the boys.   But mostly I am impressed by the humour and the pacing – I find the jokes just as funny as an adult as I did when I was nine or ten and the story never lags.

I can think of countless other children’s and YA books that don’t come close to being this smart and I cannot think of any other fictional school which I would have been more excited to attend.  If only my gender hadn’t ruled me out for admission!  Though there was always something attractive about Miss Scrimmage’s School for Young Ladies, located directly across the road from Macdonald Hall, with its shotgun-wielding headmistress and innocent-looking schoolgirls whose pranks could best anything the boys ever concocted…

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Adaptations, be they for the stage or screen, of favourite books are tricky things.  In the hands of a bad writer, the results can be horrifying.  But in the hands of a good writer who loves the source material as much as his intended audience, the final product can be magical.  Case in point: Toad of Toad Hall by A.A. Milne, a stage adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved The Wind in the Willows from 1929.

I was pretty confident going into my reading of the play that Milne would not disappoint.  He seldom does and the fact that this is really the only one of his plays still regularly performed seemed promising.  By focusing on the exploits of Toad, somewhat at the expense of the other characters, he doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the book but he still comes out with a product that is delightfully entertaining and which entirely lives up to magnificent of Toad.  Indeed, it seems entirely natural to have Milne’s recognizable dialogue coming out of Toad’s mouth; they are a perfect match.

There was a moment of panic for me very early on in the play when I saw that Milne had changed Rat’s most famous, most quotable remark on the joys of boats to a much more generalised statement about the pleasures of river-side living:

There is nothing – absolute nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about by a river.

How could he do that?  How dare he?  But I was willing to overlook this travesty – if Kenneth Grahame could, then so could I – and the rest of the play was a joy.

The other animals that I love so much in the books are paid scant attention here.  The wonderful relationship between Rat and Mole is barely touched on and Badger – oh, what Milne has done to Badger!  Instead of the gentle but stern paternal figure I love so much in the book, here he is presented as a doddering old man, more interfering than guiding.  As he despairs over Toad’s recklessness (“Alack!  Alack!  O, hapless Toad!  O, ill-fated animal…I knew his father, I knew his grandfather, I knew his uncle, the Archdeacon”) he loses all the authority with which Graham invested him.  He has great comedic value but he is not my Badger.  Instead, he seems rather like Mr. Woodhouse, happiest when allowed to moan about the ills of the world and lament the dangerous behaviour of others.  His attempts to help Toad don’t seem to reflect any legitimate concern or affection for that poor misguided creature, just a feeling that he owes it to Toad’s ancestors.  It works very well but the change in characterization takes a bit of time to get used to.

Toad of Toad Hall, as the title suggests, focuses on the Toad-centred episodes from The Wind in the Willows.  One of the cleverest things Milne does is incorporate Toad’s story into scenes where he hadn’t originally played a part.  In the book, when Mole finds himself lost in the Wild Wood, his fear comes more from the strangeness of his surroundings than from any visible threat.  But here, Milne installs a chorus of ferrets, weasels and stoats – the fearsome residents of the Wild Wood – who emerge from the darkness to sing their hatred of Toad.  Their vicious curses and rhythmic chant of “Down with Toad” give a much more immediate sense of terror and, as far as the narrative is concerned, successfully establish our villains.  It is a brilliant addition and I can only imagine how effective it must be when staged.

The highlight of the play has to be the lengthy courtroom scene, where Toad is brought to justice for his reckless behaviour.  Here Milne gets creative, creating new dialogue and characters, and the result is delightfully entertaining.  It is also the scene that proves just how wonderfully suited Toad is to Milne’s clever and flippant dialogue.  On being accused on insulting a police offer by calling him “fat-face”, Toad is all innocence in a speech only Milne could have written:

TOAD.  I didn’t mean him any more than any one else.  I just murmured the expression to myself.  It’s a way I have.  I’m that sort of person.  I murmur things to myself.  It’s the result of a highly strung temperament and an artistic nature.

But, of course, Toad’s contrition vanishes the moment the sentence comes down and his arrogance – the thing that has most attracted readers to him for all these years – returns:

JUDGE. Any last words or valedictory utterances?

TOAD (boldly). Yes.

JUDGE (kindly). Well, well, what is it?

TOAD. Fat-face!

JUDGE (aghast) Fat-face?  ME?

TOAD (wildly). All of you!  All the whole lot of you!  All fat-faces!  I am Toad, the Terror of the Highway, Toad, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the Lone Trail, before whom all must vie way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.  I am the Toad, the handsome, the popular, the successful Toad.  And what are you?  Just fat-faces.

Oh, Toad.

Part of the fun of reading adaptations is admiring (or, in less successful cases, critiquing) how they are done.  By choosing to centre the story on Toad, Milne sacrificed the more subtle elements of The Wind in the Willows but, given how difficult it would be to do justice to them, it seems a clever choice.  He certainly succeeded in creating an entertaining comedy about the exploits of Toad and I can only imagine how fun it must be to see this show performed.

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There have been many times in my life where I’ve thought that the world would be a better place if there were more Psmith books.  The four books P.G. Wodehouse gave us are not enough.  So imagine my delight when I picked up When Patty Went to College by Jean Webster and discovered that, miraculously, Webster had in her very first novel created in a female Psmith.

Published in 1903 (five years before Psmith made his first appearance), When Patty Went to College follows the irrepressible Patty Wyatt through her final year of college.  Though the school is “a modest and retiring institution craving only to be unmolested in its atmosphere of academic calm”, it is clear from Patty’s first appearance that she is incapable of adding to that calm.  She is a law entirely unto herself: clever, quick-witted, loathe to do any work she thinks she can avoid and unapologetically heedless of institutional rules (and other people’s property – especially the other girls’ reserves of alcohol).  When her roommate worries about changes Patty is proposing to make to their room and asks “Do you think they’d let us do it?” Patty scoffs at her friend’s conventionality: “It would never do to ask them.”  Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, except Patty rarely stoops to begging.  Instead she violates every rule her residence hall has – ripping up the carpet, studding the walls with hooks for curtains, painting the now-exposed floorboards – and when the despotic janitor uncovers the scene, charms him into not only waving the punishment she rightfully earned but also into setting up her illegal stove.  Psmith would applaud her as a true artist.

She is, like Psmith, given to making educational but condescending speeches for the benefit of her friends:

“When, as I say, you are out in the wide, wide world, making five-o’clock tea some afternoon for one of the young men popularly supposed to be there, who have dropped in to make an afternoon call – Do you follow me, young ladies, or do I speak too fast?  If, while you are engaged in conversation, the kettle should become too hot, do not put your finger in your mouth and shriek ‘Ouch!’ and coquettishly say to the young man, ‘You take it off,’ as might a young woman who has not enjoyed your advantages; but, rather, rise to the emergency; say to him calmly, ‘This kettle has become over-heated; may I trouble you to go into the hall and bring an umbrella?’ and when he returns you can hook it off gracefully and expeditiously as you have seen me do…”

But, again like Psmith, Patty does not always receive the attention or respect she feels such pearls of wisdom deserve.  As often as not, her friends tell her she is being insufferable, which is doubtlessly good for her character.

The book chronicles Patty’s (mis)adventures, as her need for excitement, penchant for invention, and aversion to hard work get her into one bind after the other.  In her fourth year, she has had time to study the ways of the college and its professors and knows exactly how to work each instructor to appear to best advantage in class.  For example:

Patty’s method in Romantic Poetry was to be very fresh on the first part of the lesson, catch the instructor’s eye early in the hour, make a brilliant recitation, and pass the remainder of the time in gentle meditation.

Occasionally though she forgets her own dictates.  This is when her genius for improvisation comes in.  She finds herself faking illness to get out of a test as well as physically hiding in class to avoid being called on by a favourite professor when she is unprepared.  She carries these schemes off beautifully – to the disgust of her friends – but inevitably feels compelled to confess her sins to her instructors, who are remarkably forgiving and admiring.  That again felt very Psmith-like: bad behaviour is always mitigated by honest contrition and charming apologies.

Still, she is a well-meaning young woman and when able to give assistance does her best.  She befriends a homesick freshman, encouraging the girl’s classmates to warm up to her as well, and when that girl does poorly on her exams, intervenes with the professors to prevent her from being kicked out.  There is nothing mean-spirited about Patty; she is always willing to put in the effort if she thinks the cause just.  There simply aren’t all that many instances where she feels the effort is worthwhile.

Rather disappointingly, the book ends on a moralising note.  Patty has skipped Sunday morning church service, preferring to spend the beautiful spring morning outside even though she has used up her allotted number of cuts for the term, but who should she run into but the bishop, who hurried away from the church as soon as he finished his sermon.  Patty, typically, confesses all, entirely unrepentant, and the two launch into a discussion of Patty’s character.  Patty, sighing heavily, finally admits that no, she really doesn’t want to be known as the woman who never tries, who resorts to “subterfuges and evasions” at every turn and, at the ripe old age of twenty-one, vows to turn over a new leaf.  It will doubtlessly make her a better person but a significantly less entertaining one.

Webster is rightly famous as the author of Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy; compared to those classics, When Patty Went to College is insignificant as anything except her first novel.  But it is fun.  Some of the episodes drag (mostly the ones that focus on Patty’s interactions with her friends rather than her professors) but there is something bold and winsome about Patty that triumphs even in these lacklustre outings.

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I reread Danny: The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl this afternoon for the first time in I don’t know how many years.  To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I read anything by Dahl and that upsets me a bit because when I was little, before I learned to read for myself, there was no author whose works were more familiar to me.  Before I came to know all the inhabitants of Avonlea intimately, before I had heard tell of the March sisters, even before I learned the directions to Neverland, I had half memorized (entirely memorized, in the case of Esio Trot) the works of Roald Dahl.

I don’t know why my father gravitated towards Dahl’s works.  Perhaps he had read James and the Giant Peach (published in 1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) in his childhood but our favourite books, the ones we went back to over and over and over again (like most children, I adored repetition), were books published when he was an adult and which we got to discover together: The BFG (1982), Esio Trot (1989), and Danny, the Champion of the World (1975).

Danny, for those who didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him either as children or adults, is a young boy who lives in a caravan with his father behind the filling station that his father owns and runs.  His mother died when he was only a few months old and so Danny’s entire life has revolved around his wonderful, amazing father.  He teaches Danny how to fix cars, showers him with love, and tells the best bedtime stories (including the story of the BFG).  Danny makes his feelings about his father quite clear from the beginning: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

When he is nine years old, Danny learns his father’s deep, dark secret: he is a poacher.  Or rather, he was before Danny was born – having been trained by his own father – but, now that Danny is older, is hoping to take it up again.  Especially since the local landowner Mr Hazell, an odious nouveau riche type who guards his pheasants and sneers at the locals, so thoroughly deserves to have his birds poached.  Danny, like any young boy, is intrigued.  When his father decides, on the eve of the big hunt, that Mr Hazell really deserves to be embarrassed in front of all his rich and important guests who hate their host but come for the excellent shooting, it is Danny who comes up with the cunning scheme which, when successfully carried out, makes him the Pheasant Poaching Champion of the World.

Dahl knew what he was doing when writing for children.  There is the stereotypical bad guy – Mr Hazell – but I think part of what makes this book so clever is how Danny slowly learns more about all of the adults in his life, whether it be his father, the village doctor, the local policeman, or even the vicar’s wife!  When you are little, these figures seem so distant and unapproachable and Dahl captures the moment of transition perfectly, when the child awakens to the fact that adults are people too and surprisingly complex ones at that.

But really, this book is entirely about Danny and his father.  Danny’s father is the parent all children wish for at one time or another.  All his attention and all his love belongs to Danny.  He makes a wonderful cosy home for them, shares all he knows about the natural world with his inquisitive son, and, most of all, he is fun to be with.  He lets Danny drive cars around the filling station, lays out midnight feasts when they can’t sleep at night, and just enjoys himself to the fullest.  He is daring and enthusiastic – without being reckless – and never happier than when sharing an adventure with his son.

It is suiting then that my memories of this book are mostly of my father.  The story had faded in my mind – though I did remember Danny’s ingenious poaching plan in stunning detail – but I have never forgotten being tucked into bed and listening to my father read this to me.  And every time he read it, because my father is not the kind of man who can tell a story once if he can tell it a dozen times, he would tell me about his grandfather, who, before coming to Canada, was a gamekeeper on an estate in Berkshire, responsible for keeping poachers like Danny and his father away from the pheasants.  And then he would tell me about his own childhood summers spent staying on his grandfather’s farm and so my bedtime stories turned into tales worthy of Danny’s father and, like Danny, I hung on every word.

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Is there a cosier book in existence than The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame?  Written in 1908, the enviably close friendship between Rat and Mole, the comfortably paternal authority of Badger, and, most of all, the riotous adventures of Toad have been entertaining readers for over a century – though it was not, as A.A. Milne will remind you, as popular initially as it truly deserved to be.  Containing some of the most practical advice ever written down (‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’), there are few reading experiences more comforting than opening the book for the umpteenth time on Mole’s spring cleaning, knowing that within a few lines he will abandon his whitewashing and head out into the wide world, where his soul mate the Water Rat awaits him.

This rereading was prompted by Alberto Manguel’s essay in the Summer 2012 issue of Slightly Foxed.  The friendship between Rat and Mole is the heart of the novel and, since there is no way that I could better Manguel’s description of it, I had to share his words:

Like Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Rat and Mole reflect for each other discovered identities and contrasting views of the world.  Each one asserts for the other the better, livelier part of his character; each encourages the other to be his finer, brighter self.  Mole may be lost without Rat’s guidance but, without Mole’s adventurous spirit, Rat would remain withdrawn and far too removed from the world.  Together they build Arcadia out of their common surroundings…

It is an enviable relationship (as well as another reminder of how much I love Manguel).

In addition to creating such wonderful portraits of friendship (for, in addition to the complimentary relationship between Rat and Mole, there is the dependable support of Badger and the never-ending tolerance and protectiveness the other animals feel towards Toad), Grahame also wrote marvellous descriptions of the animals’ surroundings, particularly excelling at cosy interiors.  No where could be more perfectly suited to a snowy winter’s night than Badger’s home in the Wild Wood:

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught.  A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodation for the sociably disposed.  In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side.  At one end of it, where an armchair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper.  Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.  It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.  The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

The Wind in the Willows is thought of as a children’s book but I can’t believe that children get any more pleasure from it than adults.  Grahame’s writing is simple but deceptively so; some of his metaphors seem a bit beyond the scope of the average eight year old, though perfect for his or her parents:

Nature’s Grand Hotel has its Season, like the others.  As the guests one by one pack, pay, and depart, and the seats at the table-d’hôte shrink pitifully at each succeeding meal; as suites of rooms are closed, carpets taken up, and waiters sent away; those boarders who are staying on, en pension, until the next year’s full reopening, cannot help being somewhat affected by all these flittings and farewells, this eager discussion of plans, routes, and fresh quarters, this daily shrinkage in the stream of comradeship.

And Toad – what to say of him?  He is, quite simply, the most memorable thing in the entire book.  How enraging to have him as a friend but how delightful to have him as a character whose misadventures we can follow without feeling any of the responsibility for him that Rat, Mole, and Badger do.  His passion for motorcars, his jaunty outfits, and, most of all, his ego, make him one of the most unforgettable characters in literature.  Here is a toad completely assured of his place in the world and absolutely certain that the world – human and animal – exists simply to delight and entertain him.  Toad is a hedonist, always full of enthusiasm for some new scheme or another, heedless of any possible negative consequences.  This passionate nature gets him into more than a few scraps but, like his friends, the reader can’t help but love him.  He may be hopelessly impractical, reckless to the point of endangerment, and dreadfully superior but he is Toad.  And he composes quite delightful songs (on the topic of his own magnificent, naturally):

The world has held great Heroes,
As history books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad!

And so on…

The Wind in the Willows is the perfect before bed book, whether you’re reading it to someone else or just to yourself.  The chapters have definite endings; there are no messy cliffhangers leaving you uncomfortably anxious.  A number of the chapters can be read independent of the rest of the novel – particularly the adventures of Toad – which is, I suspect, how many readers choose to reread the book.  A.A. Milne, for instance, adored Toad’s bits so much so that he turned them into the play Toad of Toad Hall (which I currently have checked out from the library and am eager to read).  But, much as I love Toad, I could never do without Badger’s reassuring presence or the inspiring example of Rat and Mole, who together are able to embrace the world around them with a confidence they never could alone.  It is as close to perfect, I think, as a book can be.

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