Guest post: JR on Malcolm Saville
If you want to start a conversation, just ask for people’s views on children’s TV or literature! You may not have been expecting a post this week, but I’ve been grateful to be inundated by several readers (two so far) eager to share their own favourite books from childhood.
Next week Stephen Hall on Arthur Ransome, but today is the turn of Judith Renton. Judith is a long-time friend – retired teaching assistant with particular concern for children with special needs and making prayer exciting; Star Trek and fantasy fan; and much-appreciated early reader of the “Tales from Ragaris.”
Thank you, Penelope, for asking me to write a guest post for your illustrious website.
As a child, I was an avid reader and devoured books at a rate of knots. Wonderfully, my primary school in Walton, Peterborough was next door to the local library. Once I had worked my way through all the tomes suitable for primary aged kids, I had to get special permission from my teacher and my parents to allow me to read such treats as “The Lord of the Rings.” I mean, when you have read “The Hobbit”, you need to read the rest!
It wasn’t just Tolkien I read though. Having progressed from Enid Blyton’s school stories, the Famous Five and Secret Seven books, I revelled in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books and the wonderful Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. I also read those of a lesser-known writer – Sussex-born Malcolm Saville.
Saville was born in 1901, and in 1939 his wife and young family evacuated to Shropshire, and he wrote his first children’s book, “Mystery at Witchend”, which was based in the countryside where they were living, and sent as chapters to his children. The stories in the Lone Pine series involved 10 to 16 year olds (they aged little over the 35 years of writing!) who had wonderful adventures, solved mysteries, and of course stuck by each other through thick and thin. In all, Saville wrote around 90 books, the Lone Pine series being the most popular, but I also enjoyed both the Buckingham and Jillies series. Others were for young adults; spy stories that were a forerunner of the popular Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz, and gentle ones set on a modern (1950s) housing estate for younger children.
Most of Saville’s books involve ordinary kids and teens doing exciting, caring, scary, and brave things. When characters are teenagers, there is no hanky-panky in the hay barn! Saville was a committed Christian and his protagonists behave accordingly. The values of selflessness and trust in others are evident without any cringy references to faith or salvation. Of course, any unpleasant adults the central characters meet are rounded up and hauled off to jail at the end, and any mean-spirited children tend to find that the friendship they experience changes them. For many years, children’s literature has frequently been written to ‘improve’ the child – to encourage empathy or discourage anti-social behaviour. This may well have been the reason for these stories; the lead character in many of the Lone Pine series frequently shows how they understand another person’s anger or fear, and gives a simple explanation to the others in the group. There seems to be more awareness shown of problems kids have in these books than you would find in Blyton’s books.
I think the freedom these young people had was one of the attractions for me. “Seven White Gates” starts with our heroine, Peter (whose real name was Petronella, but she didn’t like it much) leaving boarding school for the Easter break. At fifteen, she could head off on her bike alone along country lanes on a two-hour ride to her Uncle’s farm (having not been there since a young child) including sharing a meal with an unknown family she bumped into. Talk about health and safety and safeguarding! The kids in all the books happily wandered over the countryside, up hill, down dale (even at night) investigating strange goings on. Parents cared… but trusted them to be resilient, look after each other, and keep safe.
I also enjoyed the fact that the lead character in the Lone Pine books was a girl, a bit of a tomboy like me, and someone who was an equal partner in all the adventures. Yes, she did tend to do most of the cooking when they camped, but the boys washed up, and she shared decision making with the other main character, David, a lad of similar age. Saville’s preface frequently gave readers notes on the location of the story, places that were real and places that were imaginary. I still love to visit Shropshire because of the Lone Pine books. Others were set in Norfolk, Sussex and Herefordshire.
When I read, words melt away and I view the book as if it is a film. I ‘see’ the scene, my imagination filling it all in, and I am immersed into it. From the symbols inked on the page, worlds unfold in your mind. It’s great to accompany the heroes as they think and act. It was a surprise to me when I came across people who don’t or can’t do that, I assumed everyone did. As someone involved in helping children learn to read, the process of how reading moves from matching sounds to letter shapes to fluent, enjoyable reading is interesting…there just seems to be a variety of ideas on the mechanics of it.
I am not ashamed to say I enjoy reading children’s story books as a 60-year-old adult. Many are cleverly written, and express thoughts and feelings that help children to think about their own lives. Take a look at Michael Rosen’s “Sad Book”. Have tissues handy. Michael Morpurgo also writes about serious subjects in an accessible, but not condescending way. Books written many years ago are a snapshot into life in those days, their views, language, clothing etc and although we may dislike some of these glimpses, it helps us understand our history a little more, and challenge us on our attitudes now. As the wonderful Michael Rosen said:
“…… consider how the book I’m reading now was read last year, ten years ago, five hundred years ago by others. And this might tell me something about the story, the telling, or the times in which the book has played a part in people’s lives.” (Michael Rosen’s blog on literature.)