K. M. Peyton: A little hard on her characters?

August 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

K M Peyton is a prolific writer. She has written over 70 novels. I read six of them last week, published in the 1960s and 1970s. K M Peyton writes well. It is a balm to read one of her books, as against many a modern children’s author. Are there equivalents of Philippa Pearce, Margaret Mahy, and Jan Mark today?

Every children’s book today appears to concern itself with fantasy worlds, witchcraft and wizardy, or dystopias. The ordinary world has ceased to interest us.

K M Peyton’s books are, by and large, in the ordinary world. We tend to associate her with ponies and sailboats and aviation. She writes of these with authority. All the same, when K M Peyton writes of the supernatural (A Pattern of Roses), we believe in her ghost world. In addition,  K M Peyton has a feel for “period” language. We will not find modern slang embedded in the speech of a groom in 1911. In a recent BBC radio drama set in 1890s London, in one episode, or maybe two, we heard “I have a lot riding on this” (late 20th century?) and “grow my (the) business” (21st century?). When we hear such modern phrases in a period drama, we lose faith in the author. Why is the author setting a drama in an era that she is unacquainted with?

We don’t lose faith in KM Peyton. I haven’t spotted any sloppiness in the period detail or language. Not, mind, that I am poised to pounce on such mistakes: rather I feel disappointment, and a little resentment that writers who don’t take much trouble are published.

KM Peyton’s prolific output, however, may be responsible for one defect: a distance from her characters. In “Team” I met Ruth Hollis, a pony-loving girl whose pony Fly-by-Night was too small and she needed a replacement. Within a few weeks, she acquires a once familiar, but now broken down Toadhill  Flax (Toad). The pony used to belong to her friend Peter McNair. Peter’s father, a dealer, sold Toad on. Now Peter wants Toad back, but Ruth wants him too. Is she capable of managing a strong pony like Toad? Will she be able to repay her brother the price of Toad? Will she find a new home for Fly? In any event, you can take it that Ruth has a lot on her plate. At some time during the story, a girl who had been a keen rider is reported to have sold her pony (or ponies) because she has now become interested in boys. She is not our sort of girl at all. We are only interested in Ruth who must make great sacrifices to buy and keep Toad. Ruth triumphs at the end of the story. We are satisfied.

But what a shock awaits us in The Beethoven Medal. We know Pennington from Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer. He is a gifted pianist. But to the Hollis family, he is just a surly baker’s boy. However, Ruth, takes a fancy to him and pursues him. Toad has been injured and is recuperating elsewhere. Toad pays one visit.  As far as I can recall, Toad is dismissed from the pages of the book. It is all Pennington. We feel cheated. Ruth was the girl we were interested in; we shared her struggles over Toad but now Ruth has no time for Toad. We feel very let down. We can’t quite believe in the Ruth Hollis of Team. We can only wonder why K M Peyton didn’t make up another character to be Pennington’s girlfriend. Was it her “prolificy” that hardened her to her characters and enabled her to pluck them from their horsy world and throw them into a teenage-romance one?

John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children tells of a similar disappointment.

“The action of K. M. Peyton’s ‘Flambards’ books takes place just before and just after the First World War. Originally there were three novels – Flambards (1967), Edge of the Cloud (1969), and Flambards in Summer (1969) – which for twelve years stood complete as a trilogy.  In the first book, Christina who will be rich when she comes of age, is sent to live with her Uncle Russell and his two sons in a decrepit country house, financially undermined by Uncle’s passion for horses and hunting. The handsome elder son, Mark, would like to marry her and keep what he calls ‘all this’ going; but Christina prefers Will who rejects the family obsession and longs to fly aeroplanes. The second book centres on Will’s perilous life as an aviator; at the start of the third he is dead, and Christina returns to the old run-down house to bear his posthumous child, work the home farm, and marry the ex-groom Dick who loves her. As well as a romantic story there is obviously a social theme- the death of an old way of life and its rebirth in a new form – and the connection between them and the period is organic. It was First World War that broke up the old framework: the trilogy could not be transferred to any other time and retain its force.

In 1981, after the huge success of the television adaptation, Mrs Peyton added a fourth book, Flambards Divided. Inevitably, this changed the meaning of the other three: instead of completing the story they were leading up to a new conclusion. And the new conclusion was very different.

At the end of the third book, Christina had successfully carried Flambards into a new era; the omens, in her own phrase, were good.  In Flambards Divided, these omen turn out to have been misleading. Christina’s marriage to Dick does not work. Dick is reliable and hardworking, but narrow, class-conscious and different to Christina in temperament and interests. Handsome Mark, home from the War, not knowing anything but fighting and hunting, wins her affections after all.  The squire, it could be said, is back in the saddle – even if it is now the driving seat of a motor car. If the author had written the fourth book straight after the other three, my guess is that she would have done it differently and poor Dick would have fared better. In twelve year illusions can be lost. The new ending may be truer to life, but I find it somewhat saddening. “

In my view, the new ending may be truer to life but is not truer to the characters as they have been depicted. That to me seems to be Mrs Peyton’s weakness: she does not love her characters as her readers might and therefore can manipulate their lives in ways that jar with the original story and our expectations.

That being said, K M Peyton has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. She has now no equal.

 

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Historical Lanuage

May 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

 

I watched the first episode of the drama “Anne with an e”, based on Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Some of the drama was excellently done: in particular those parts that stuck to Anne of Green Gables.  In the book unpleasant experiences of Anne’s were alluded to. In the drama unpleasant experiences were visually realised in a rather too graphic way.

I assumed the scene with the hired hand, a boy, was an invention of the production team. The scene added nothing to the unfolding of the tale. It had Anne squaring up to the farm boy, each suggesting the other had a “problem”. I very much doubt that “What’s your problem?” was a phrase, bandied about Prince Edward Island in 1908.

But time and time again, we find producers of these period dramas, many of which are based on books containing excellent dialogue, using “modern parlance” which jars. Why don’t scriptwriters take more care with the “historical “language?

 

Proposed edits to The Railway Children by E Nesbit

August 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

If we wrote a book half as good as The Railway Children, would that half-as-good book be better than the book we are writing at the moment? A troubling question. But perhaps we are too hard on ourselves when we compare our own unfinished, unpublished manuscript to a book we would currently place in the top ten of children’s books.

I like Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis very much. There is no scene I enjoy more than Peter’s being caught red-handed by Perks in the middle of his coal mining, and Peter’s subsequent outrage over being ‘humoured’ by his sisters. Mother is wonderful! There are so few nice mothers, let alone wonderful mothers, in children’s fiction that we welcome Mother.

But even The Railway Children is flawed. If you have not read the book, it is enough to know that when Father disappears, without explanation, from the children’s lives, the family leave London for the country. In the country Roberta, Peter and Phyllis have many adventures, chiefly around the railway. Now that Father is mysteriously away, Mother must dedicate herself to writing stories to make money. Although Mother is not with the children for much of the time, she is there in the background, a very strong presence.

Edith Nesbit found it easier to write ‘episodes’ rather than a story with a strong chain of cause and effect. Episodes can, of course, illuminate underlying themes but the danger is that some episodes add very little to the main story, and even worse detract from it. It is hard for a writer to distinguish between an incident that develops a story and one that is merely more of the same. It has to be remembered that a writer is very close to her work, too close to see it well. But the editor can fully apprehend the work and it is his job to point out its weaknesses. Either Edith Nesbit’s editor did not do his job or Edith Nesbit was one of those writers who sold so many books that she did not have to bother with her editor’s advice.

The children, as almost all of us know, warn a train—with red flags concocted from petticoats—that danger lies ahead, a landslide. By their timely intervention, many lives are saved (Chapter 6). This fits very well. The children are always playing around the railway and it is right that they should be on the spot for this disaster.

Yet in Chapter 8, Edith Nesbit indicates she has not given the canal or the canal people a fair innings. We are told that up until that time, the children had no good experience of the canal. This one starts out badly: a bargeman, on his way to the pub, tells them off. He is followed closely by his wife who endeavours to soften the impression her husband has made. But the impression on the reader is not softened when we learn that they are both off to the pub, leaving a baby on the barge, in the care of a dog.

A fire starts on the barge but Bobbie and Peter rescue the baby, and all ends well. But we never hear of the bargeman and his wife again. Nor do we wish to; we are out of sympathy with people who leave a baby unattended. So this episode does not add to the story but diminishes it. We have had the thrill of the averting of a train disaster. Do we really need another rescue? A baby in a fire! What next, we say to ourselves, an old woman drowning?

Less is more, we might say again in Chapter 11 when Phyllis and Peter, while searching for help to remove the injured boy from the tunnel, come upon a sleeping signalman. They wake him up before any damage is caused. And he is afraid he will lose his job; the scene ends unpleasantly with his trying to bribe the children to keep quiet. We are not without sympathy for the signalman whose ill child has deprived him of sleep but this incident intrudes on the rescue of the boy with the broken leg. Can’t one life saved be enough for that day?  Why bother with this incident at all? It is not pleasantly resolved like the children’s two misunderstandings with the rather irascible Mr Perks.

The episode with the bargeman undermines the earlier prevention of the train crash and the episode with the signalman undermines the rescue of the boy. In short, four feats of daring in one book is two too many.

All that was required were two excisions (plus any references). Such easy editing. Most writers must wish the flaws in their work were so easy to remove. Most flaws, although damaging to the story, are often part of the fabric of the story so their removal causes the story to collapse. And the writer must not only cut out but substantially rewrite parts of the story. The superfluous episodes don’t spoil The Railway Children. Of course not! But for a few minutes its lustre dims.

Bridge to Terabithia (1977)

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

To what extent do our expectations colour our views? I had never read anything by Katherine Paterson until I read The Great Gilly Hopkins last February. Very good, I thought and then started the Bridge to Terabithia with high expectations: the book was a great disappointment to me.

And my disappointment made me judge Bridge to Terabithia too harshly, I realised this when I flicked through it recently. But it is still, a flawed story, and one that leaves too much unexplained. If we cannot understand the characters, we cannot sympathise with them, and so enter fully into the story, as we do in The Great Gilly Hopkins.

We know something about the origin of Bridge to Terabithia. When a friend of Katherine Paterson’s son was fatally struck by lightning, Katherine Paterson was moved to write a story about a friendship between two children which ends when one of them dies.

In Bridge to Terabithia, Leslie Burke and her parents have recently moved from the city to a rural community. The Burkes are well-off educated people who do not fit in. For the rural community, two of the Burkes’ striking oddities are not believing in God, and not owning a television.

The Aarons, their closest neighbours, are not well off, nor are they well-educated, the older sisters are particularly ignorant, and Mr and Mrs Aaron are too busy surviving financially to interest themselves in politics or the environment as Mr and Mrs Burke do. Jess Aaron (Jesse), one boy in the middle of four sisters, is the child closest in age to Leslie. Jess does not need another girl in his life and would have preferred if his new neighbour were a boy.

Mr Aaron too would have preferred a boy for his son. Jess is too unusual for his father; he cannot understand a boy who seeks peace in drawing and who is rather sensitive and solitary.

All the same, after a shaky start, Jess and Leslie soon become firm friends. The story begins well, but the characters do not engage our interest as much as those in The Great Gilly Hopkins. By and large the sharply individualised character is absent from Bridge to Terabithia. Mrs Aaron is no Mrs Trotter; Mr Aaron is no Mr Randolph; Miss Edmunds is no Miss Harris; and Jess is faint in comparison to Gilly. In short, with the exception of Leslie, the characters in Bridge to Terabithia are not very memorable.

In the beginning of the book, Leslie appears strong and independent, an excellent friend for Jess; she is capable of drawing him out. The ‘domestic’ happenings are very good: the children’s evolving friendship, their falling out and making it up with Janice Avery, and their relationship with their own families. These events, I think, contain enough material to fuel the story.

So, for me, the fantasy world of Terabithia disrupts the story. What need had Leslie, independent and resourceful as she was, to create Terbithia (located in a wood near where the children played). Is there something we have failed to understand about Leslie? We have not been told that she regretted leaving the city. There is little reference to her earlier life. We are, I believe, to understand that Leslie was happy to try the rural experiment. Leslie does not strike us as a child prone to take refuge in a fantasy world. She was very interested in the real world. She got on well with her parents and expressed no discontent with her rural life.

Or is the real shortcoming the fact that Terabithia is too sketchy? Leslie is its Queen and Jess its King. Jess, however, struggles with his role as King of Terabithia. And we, readers, struggle too to imagine Terabithia’s fascinations. We can’t help but feel that Katherine Paterson has left much to the reader’s imagination, and readers are not inclined to fill in gaps left by writers.

Although the children go to Terabithia during a spell of heavy rain, the compulsion appears to be Leslie’s. Jess is frightened by the rising river and would prefer to stay away. But he is also frightened of losing face in front of Leslie by appearing cowardly. However, when Jess is at his most reluctant, he is spared from making any decision: Miss Edmunds, out of the blue, takes him to an art gallery. She is a favourite of both children, so we do wonder why Miss Edmunds does not invite Leslie along or explain to Jess why she excludes Leslie

On that very day, Leslie goes or attempts to go to Terabithia and is killed when a rope she swings on snaps. Wouldn’t Leslie have been more likely to stay at home and amuse herself until the weather improved? She had many interests. Her urgent need for Terabithia comes as rather a surprise to us.

At the end of the story, May Belle, a younger sister of Jess’s, is crowned the new Queen of Terabithia. We don’t find this very natural. It is hard to envisage, without the imagination of Leslie, that there could have been any future for Terabithia. In any event, wouldn’t the children have wanted to forget about Terabithia as it was implicated in Leslie’s death?

Symbolism, no doubt, is part of Bridge to Terabithia, but I do not feel capable of interpreting it.

There are many fine things in Bridge to Terabithia but the story lacks a believable chain of cause and effect: particularly at the end when contrivance and coincidence play too large a part. Perhaps Katherine Paterson is compressing too much into those final pages or has failed to fully develop certain strands of the plot.

Terabithia, for some of us, is a spanner in the works of the far more interesting events in the children’s ‘real’ world. Leslie’s death, caused by the snapping of a rotten rope, could easily have been incorporated into a Terabithialess story, and been, I think, a better story. But I have a feeling that if Katherine Paterson had excised Terabithia from the book, she would have lost her Newberry Medal in 1978.

 

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

From the very first we are Gilly’s companions in her story and we can understand enough of her attitudes and motives to make sense of her behaviour, which is not always of the best kind.

Gilly  has lived in foster homes most of her life, and is moving into a new foster home which she will share with the widowed Mrs Trotter and another foster child, William. Gilly is not a loveable orphan like Anne in Anne of Green Gables, but from the outset, many of us (without our affection for Anne diminishing one little bit) will be interested in and sympathetic towards Gilly.

A photograph of her mother, Courtney Hopkins, is Gilly’s prized possession. Her young beautiful mother has indicated on the photograph that she will always love Gilly. And Gilly puts great faith in this message. Gilly is tired of being uprooted and is determined not to form any attachments at Mrs Trotter’s. At first, she has no temptation to do so: Mrs Trotter is fat, and her home is far from clean, and William is too needy. Nor does Mr Randolph, their neighbour, a blind black man with a fondness for poetry appeal to Gilly. But, no doubt, Gilly’s prejudice against black people accounts for her initial dislike of Mr Randolph.

Gilly’s aim is to run off and join her mother, and she is prepared to steal and lie to realise it. Gilly sends a letter to her mother containing false accusations against Mrs Trotter.

While waiting for her mother to rush to the rescue, Gilly grows to like her foster mother and she also befriends William and teaches him to stand up for himself. Gilly’s feelings change for the better towards the people who surround her. Mrs Trotter, however, has had, if I remember rightly, an unwavering faith in Gilly from the beginning. She, Mrs Trotter, is one of the finest achievements in this book. Although she is religious, she is not the rather typical religious person of fiction, a bad person. Mr Randolph too is another very fine creation as is Barbara Harris, Gilly’s teacher, a black woman. (We would have liked to have seen a little more of Miss Harris.) Both people, in their very different ways, do a great deal to alter Gilly’s attitude to black people.

Gilly’s letter does not produce a mother but it does produce a grandmother who had no knowledge of Gilly. The grandmother claims Gilly. This outcome does not suit Gilly at all. Now she would prefer to stay with her foster mother, but it is too late. Her grandmother has a right to her, and Gilly cannot reverse the course of events that she herself set in train. She must leave her foster mother and live with her grandmother. She must make another adjustment to another person and another home: it is far from what she wished for herself.

Gilly does get to see her mother. She is no longer the young beautiful woman of the photograph, but a rather plump woman, resembling her own mother (Gilly’s grandmother). And Gilly learns that she has put her faith in a lie: her mother does not want to be bothered with her. All the same, Gilly apprehends that her grandmother will prove an ally, and we are confident that Gilly will adjust to her new home. A happy-sad, but realistic, ending to a thoroughly believable story.

Katherine Paterson demonstrates that fate is character and character is fate. The plot of the book is determined by the characters and their actions, and the ending is the natural conclusion of those actions. A number of the characters are memorable because they are very distinctive. More than anything they are capable of surprising us.  We may start off fearing the worst when Gilly first goes to live with Mrs Trotter but our expectations are contraried and like Gilly, though perhaps a good bit earlier, we are forced to change our attitude to Mrs Trotter.

There are good books and there are very good books. The Great Gilly Hopkins is a very good book. What is the difference between a good book and a very good book? Rather difficult to say. What is the difference between fresh bread and day-old-bread? Essentially not much but one does not make a glutton of one’s self over day-old-bread.

 

Handles by Jan Mark: A Carnegie Medal Winner

October 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

Occasionally someone suggests a subject for a novel to me. They, clearly, do not realise the effort entailed in working up a two-line plot into a 70,000-word novel.

All the same, writers need plots and some writers, like the prolific P G Wodehouse, feared running out of them. But not every plot is for every writer; and for many children’s writers the plot of Handles would have been no good.

The protagonist Erica is not ‘feisty’ as so many modern ‘novel’ children are. She is not an interestingly unpopular orphan (Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden), nor is she a literary-inclined orphan (Emily in Emily of the New Moon) nor an orphan whose fortunes are about to change (Dallas and Florida in the 2002 Carnegie Medal winner Ruby Holler). Erica, in fact, is not an orphan at all: she lives with her parents and brother in a gardenless flat.

But like many other authors, Jan Mark disposes of the parents. Erica leaves them to spend some weeks with relatives who live in the country. Erica has no wish to stay with her aunt and uncle. But as her mother has gone to some trouble to arrange the ‘holiday’, Erica feels obliged to go. She does not even have a suitcase, as far as I can recall, but carries her clothes in plastic bags. There is no suggestion of deprivation in the plastic bags. Erica simply belongs to that era when children had to make-do-and-put-up-with-it.

It is not easy to write a novel for children, but Jan Mark appears to have made her task all the harder by making Erica “ordinary”—not rich, not poor (but poorish), not pretty, not ugly, not popular, not unpopular)—and her adventure of going to stay with uncongenial relatives for a few weeks, “dull”.  Most children, who read this book, will discover that their own lives are more eventful than Erica’s.

Erica is eleven-years-old, she is sensitive to the fact that she has recently (about a year?) begun wearing glasses. She does not like the way her aunt remarks on her glasses. And we, readers, sympathise with her, here and in a number of other places in the story.

Erica’s aunt and uncle are not empathetic people. And neither we, nor Erica, must expect very much from them. They have no notion of providing any entertainment for Erica. And would probably be astonished if anyone suggested they did. Erica helps in her aunt’s market garden while Robert, the son, lazes about or makes a nuisance of himself. Given the indulgence shown Robert, a visitor might have assumed that Robert was the guest.

Where does Erica fit in? Does she belong in Elsie’s garage where she first goes to retrieve her uncle’s jump leads? Elsie (male schoolteacher turned mechanic) runs the garage with Bunny’s help. No one seems to be called by their Christian names. They have ‘handles’ and Erica wants a ‘handle’ an ‘identifier’ too. (Before Erica leaves, she is given an impressive ‘handle’.)

Erica is maturing. Erica thinks that children who need the council to paint hopscotch squares for them (on council estates) do not deserve to live. But Erica is uncertain too: what, for example, is her status at the garage? Is Erica a real help—she wants to be a mechanic—or is she simply a nuisance like the small child nicknamed the ‘Gremlin’?

The garage, initially, is a great retreat for Erica who is much more at home with the banter of Elsie and Bunny than with her relatives’ heavy sense of humour: they need a joke to have a sort of frame around it. A joke must clearly be a joke before they can commit themselves to laughter. But it becomes apparent, for all the jokes, that Elsie and Bunny are not as carefree as Erica supposed. Elsie’s encounter with his wife gives us a glimpse of a marriage that must be far from easy. These matrimonial difficulties diminish Elsie in Erica’s eyes. Elise and Bunny are, after all, just ordinary people with problems of their own.

Erica is fortunate that the lure of the garage declines about the time the marrows, on which she scratched several messages, grow large enough for the words to be readable. “Robert is a fat twit”* are not words to raise a smile among her relatives. Erica is not displeased to return home.

A girl is growing up, the awkwardness of adolescence is impending, and she apprehends that there may be no Edens. Not a plot, I think, most writers would make a grab for.

The story, having few incidents, has little inherent drama. We are concerned with the relation of people to each other, and these relations are portrayed in ‘everyday’ exchanges. If the book were not infused with humour, it might very well be dull. Humour is, I think, a more than adequate substitute for drama. Most of us would find it easier to dream up something dramatic rather than something humorous.

Only a talented writer could pull off a story like Handles. And the Carnegie Medal Panel recognised its excellence. How would the subtle and sophisticated Handles compete with the more sensational children’s literature of today?

Handles is not on the open shelves of Crouch End’s Hornsey Library but resides in the basement where the reserve stock is kept. Almost none of Jan Mark’s longer works are available on the open shelves. It seems such a pity that the excellent Handles has had to give way to inferior books.

The book jacket on the hardback Handles, presumably dating from 1983, is not attractive. Although many modern book covers are not attractive, they have the advantage of looking up-to-date.

Many books, which are reissued with a cover showing a recent televised dramatisation, appear to stand a better chance of being borrowed than a copy of the same book with an old-fashioned cover. We understand that children won’t want to be seen abroad with some dingy-looking book in their possession. So, although the reprinting of books, solely for the sake of new covers, may seem rather wasteful, most people would agree that the loss of a good book for the want of an attractive cover is a greater waste still.

The books of good writers should have a prominent place on library shelves, even if reissued versions are necessary. Economics is hardly a factor: for publishers are prepared to spend money producing and marketing books that should never have found their way into print at all.

Jan Mark  (1943-2006)

Twice Carnegie Medal winner: Thunder and Lightnings (1976) and Handles (1983)

* I am relying on memory for this quote

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