I like to explore old children’s books every so often and recently read a couple with a wonderful common link: not so perfect, even a bit naughty, girls. Characters with a bit of something feisty about them have always been far more interesting, hence the reason the perfectly good Jane isn’t our leading lady in Pride and Prejudice. Written for a different time’s children, these books (especially Terrible, Horrible Edie) may have quite a niche appeal, but are the sort of children’s books we used to love. Adults in a reminiscent mood may like to check out too (as I did).
Terrible, Horrible Edie by E.C. Spykman
Terrible, Horrible Edie- an excellent title which has probably helped its resurgence and had a hand in it being reprinted by The New York Review’s Children’s Collection. As we’re over half way through the year, I think it’s verging on okay to suggest it as a good Christmas present idea being as it’s a very pretty hardback and obscure enough to hopefully not be a duplicated gift. I already mentioned though that this would probably not appeal to all kids. It’s definitely not one to encourage a reluctant reader as there are no pictures and the chapters are quite long. It’s packed with adventure and humour, but it’s subtly presented, even deadpan at times. Originally published in 1960, it does feel rather older than that and Edie is more akin to the Swallows and Amazons than to Charlie Bucket and the chocolate factory massive.
Edie herself is neither terrible nor horrible, but resilient, independent and hungry for adventuring. The story covers her long American summer holiday with her brothers and sisters. They are staying at their aunt’s holiday home on the coast, privileged enough to have a guardian and staff whilst their father and step mother are abroad. If We Were Liars had been written for children and had all the darkness and badness taken out of it, this is what it would look like. Adventures are mostly nature-based, with Edie getting into scrapes out on her boat and helping farmers herd their livestock.
There are camp fires, reprimanded thieves and flooded houses; thick fog, cars bursting into flames and hurricanes. Adults pale in comparison to Edie’s wit and though she is patient with them, she finds it’s best to do her own thing and not concern them too much. It’s beautifully written and made me laugh out loud many times, with its dry humour and clever characterisation. A book worth taking time over.
Skating Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Another in Streatfeild’s ‘shoes’ series, but rather less known than Ballet Shoes. Like Terrible, Horrible Edie, this is set in a different time and feels older to me than its 1951 original publish date. This time, our friend is Harriet. Harriet has been poorly for a long time and though she is now recovered, she is very weak and unable to return to school. As a way to build up her strength, her doctor suggests skating. Just about the greatest prescription ever given possibly? Children learning about history in schools nowadays are inadvertently given the message that they are better off : safer and better provided for with more fun things to do. And yet here we are with Skating Shoes, presenting a time where children were kept off school to ice skate and it was considered excellent practise. Okay, so schools weren’t heated like they are now and childhood illness was worse etc, etc, but I’m sure I’d have been fairly jealous of Harriet’s turn of good fortune when I was ten years old.
Harriet isn’t actually naughty at all; in fact she’s rather more a Jane than a Lydia or a Lizzie. The interest in this book comes from Lalla Moore (I know! Outstanding name- hard not to picture teletubbies.) who skates at the same rink as Harriet. Harriet is as poor as Lalla is rich. Harriet cannot skate at all and Lalla was born to skating but when the two of them meet, they become firm friends. Lalla gives Harriet life and excitement, whilst receiving in return a longed for involvement in normal, loving family life.
Lalla has a magnificently Victorianesque back story: her father was a famous figure skater who died in a freak skating accident, where he and Lalla’s mother were drowned in an icy lake, pulled under and weighed down by the skates they so loved. Lalla’s infuriating aunt has since brought her up and lives to turn Lalla into the world’s best skater. In order to encourage her, she has been kind enough to retrieve the manky skates Lalla’s father was wearing when he drowned and has put them in a lovely display box in the child’s bedroom so she can look upon them as soon as she wakes each day. Sweet gesture.
Her aunt has denied her a normal life in two ways: firstly by allowing her no friends nor childhood experiences and forcing her to train all the time, and secondly by telling the child how fantastic she is all the time whilst pushing her into the limelight. Under the care of a less skilled author, Lalla could be an absolute nightmare, but Streatfeild makes her engaging and likeable enough for us to stick with her when she inevitably becomes conceited. Like EC Spykman, Streatfeild also uses a supporting cast of relatives and adults masterfully to enhance her story. She really is brilliant, with the local newsagent feeling just as vital an inclusion to understanding Harriet’s world as the skates themselves.
Our high points here aren’t hurricanes or burning cars, but training, competitions and understanding friendships. Slightly less romantic than Ballet Shoes, this feels like a slice of the past and we stay with Lalla and Harriet for an important part of their lives. It feels to me like it’s us who step away at the end of the book and that when we’ve gone, our friends continued to live their lives and enjoy their adventures.
GGGG Old fashioned but not past their sell by dates. Lovely reads for book loving kids and fans of classic fiction.