Posts Tagged ‘Read-Aloud’

the wonderful adventures of nils selma lagerlof 001The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf ~ 1906. This edition: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1950. Illustrated by H. Baumhauer. Hardcover. 294 pages.

My rating: 10/10

My biggest regret upon turning the last page of this book is that I did not discover it when my children were in the midst of the read-aloud years. They would have loved it, voraciously appreciative little listeners that they were.

It has everything – a magical transformation (as punishment for a misdeed), a quest for redemption, animals wild and tame, a deeply dastardly villain, continual and varied adventures, restrained amounts of sentimentality, and absolutely painless lectures on natural history, geography and Swedish folk legends.

Hey, homeschooling parents – take a look! The cross-curricular connections are many and quite brilliant. And I think it would be hugely enjoyable for the reader-alouder as well.

Fourteen-year-old farm boy Nils is beloved by his hard-working parents but also a huge disappointment to them. He neglects his chores, he lies, he torments the animals, and he dodges going to church. What will become of him, they sigh to each other in sorrow? Will he ever see the error of his ways?

Apparently not, but fate takes a hand when Nils offends the farmstead elf, who then transforms Nils into tiny elf-size himself. As Nils runs hither and yon about the farmyard in absolute distress, he realizes that he can now understand the language of the animals. They in turn are pleased to see that their tormentor has had his comeuppance, and let him know a few home truths about their views on his past behaviour.

Nils is at first shocked and resentful, but then as the true consequences of his fourteen years of misbehaviour become clear, he experiences something of an epiphany. “I am sorry!” he cries. “Please forgive me!” But the animals ignore his pleas.

As Nils mourns his sad fate, a flock of wild geese fly over, and the farm’s big white gander, stirred to wanderlust by their call, rouses himself up and prepares to take flight. Nils, with his newly aroused conscience, immediately grasps what a tragedy the loss of the gander would be for his parents, and leaps onto the gander’s back in an attempt to hold him back. The gander – very predictably, as we already know what is going to happen – manages to take flight with Nils on his back, and we are off on the wonderful adventures promised in the title.

This book is a marvelous series of dramatic vignettes, tied together by Nils’ desire to redeem himself so he may break the elf’s curse and be returned to human size, and by his acquisition of a mortal enemy who follows him over sea and land, Smirre Fox.

Even without an audience of enthralled young listeners, I found this book immensely appealing as a private read-to-my-adult-self story. Selma Lagerlöf avoid excessive sentimentality, and while she makes it obvious that Nils is being taught a lesson and that he is working towards repentance to his parents, to the animal world, and ultimately to God (for Nils’ previous neglect of religious observances), she never preaches. The morals are discussed, and then let go – the reader is given the respect by the author that he or she will “get it” without being pounded over the head by repetition. And Nils is believably far from perfect, even after his epiphany, and lapses from grace frequently, usually with bitter consequences to himself and to others, though occasionally an outside party will intervene just as things seem to be going most desperately awry.

Smirre Fox is a gloriously frightening villain, almost supernatural in his powers as he follows the flight of the wild geese, and the sense of danger that we feel for Nils and his companions is intensely real throughout.

This books transcends its origins – it is a very Swedish book, and I feared would be a bit unrelatable to the non-Scandinavian reader – and its age – it is well over one hundred years old – to be fresh and engaging. While there are the expected styles and attitudes of its era of writing, it is a very worthwhile read for anyone at all interested in the “fairy tale transformation” type of genre. This is decidedly a classic.

Oh, and the ending is not what one would expect, leaving us still in mid-air, as it were, though with some good clues as to the final resolution to Nils’ greater quest for redemption.

I loved this one, and will be saving it for my (at this point extremely hypothetical) grandchildren.

One last note. I would hesitate to give this to a youngish child to read to himself/herself. Though the interest level I anticipate would be from 5 or 6 years of age through the primary years, the text would be hard going for such a young reader, what with the general old-fashioned phrasings and grammar and the many Swedish place and character names and terms. There is a handy glossary of pronunciation in the back of the Dent edition, and it would be well to refer to that before starting on your read-aloud.

wonderful adventures of Nils selma lagerlof illustr h baumhauer 001

The illustrations in my 1950 Dent edition are by H. Baumhauer, and add a pleasant touch to the story. I would think that the variety of illustrators is vast, as this book has had countless editions over the past century, so it would be well worth the effort to investigate if possible before purchasing a copy to share with your child(ren)-in-question to make sure you find a nicely-illustrated one.

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just so stories rudyard kipling folio ed 001Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling ~ 1902. This edition: The Folio Society, 1991. Illustrated by Rudyard Kipling. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Having been familiar with the most popular of these stories since childhood – The Elephant’s Child standing out in my memory, for it was read aloud to me a great number of times; I can clearly hear in my head the words “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” deliciously rolled out in all their alliterative glory in my mother’s quietly precise voice – I of course acquired a volume to read to my own wee children.

And not just any old edition, but this deluxe Folio Society version, complete with the author’s original illustrations, chatty descriptions of the drawings, and abysmally cringe-inducing poems. And obviously unexpurgated, too, which I discovered as I read them aloud, requiring some think-fast editing to deal with little things such as this passage, from How the Leopard Got his Spots. Rolling along nicely, we all are, until we reach the last line in this passage, and oh, golly! – now how to slide through that one?! The clever reader-alouder  becomes adept at looking a little way ahead and editing on the fly after one or two experiences like this.

…Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.

‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’

Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.

‘Hi! Hi!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘That’s a trick worth learning. Take a lesson by it, Leopard. You show up in this dark place like a bar of soap in a coal-scuttle.’

‘Ho! Ho!’ said the Leopard. ‘Would it surprise you very much to know that you show up in this dark place like a mustard-plaster on a sack of coals?’

‘Well, calling names won’t catch dinner,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘The long and the little of it is that we don’t match our backgrounds. I’m going to take Baviaan’s advice. He told me I ought to change; and as I’ve nothing to change except my skin I’m going to change that.’

‘What to?’ said the Leopard, tremendously excited.

‘To a nice working blackish-brownish colour, with a little purple in it, and touches of slaty-blue. It will be the very thing for hiding in hollows and behind trees.’

So he changed his skin then and there, and the Leopard was more excited than ever; he had never seen a man change his skin before.

‘But what about me?’ he said, when the Ethiopian had worked his last little finger into his fine new black skin.

‘You take Baviaan’s advice too. He told you to go into spots.’

‘So I did,’ said the Leopard. ‘I went into other spots as fast as I could. I went into this spot with you, and a lot of good it has done me.’

‘Oh,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘Baviaan didn’t mean spots in South Africa. He meant spots on your skin.’

‘What’s the use of that?’ said the Leopard.

‘Think of Giraffe,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘Or if you prefer stripes, think of Zebra. The find their spots and stripes give them perfect satisfaction.’

‘Umm,’ said the Leopard. ‘I wouldn’t look like Zebra—not for ever so.’

‘Well, make up your mind,’ said the Ethiopian, ‘because I’d hate to go hunting without you, but I must if you insist on looking like a sun-flower against a tarred fence.’

‘I’ll take spots, then,’ said the Leopard; ‘but don’t make ’em too vulgar-big. I wouldn’t look like Giraffe—not for ever so.’

‘I’ll make ’em with the tips of my fingers,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘There’s plenty of black left on my skin still. Stand over!’

Then the Ethiopian put his five fingers close together (there was plenty of black left on his new skin still) and pressed them all over the Leopard, and wherever the five fingers touched they left five little black marks, all close together. You can see them on any Leopard’s skin you like, Best Beloved. Sometimes the fingers slipped and the marks got a little blurred; but if you look closely at any Leopard now you will see that there are always five spots—off five fat black finger-tips.

‘Now you are a beauty!’ said the Ethiopian. ‘You can lie out on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles. You can lie out on the naked rocks and look like a piece of pudding-stone. You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves; and you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular. Think of that and purr!’

‘But if I’m all this,’ said the Leopard, ‘why didn’t you go spotty too?’

‘Oh, plain black’s best for a nigger,’ said the Ethiopian…

So racist bits aside – and there are a few here and there in many of the stories, in a very era-expected sort of way – these have become so much a part of our popular culture with their instantly recognizable tag lines that they are well worth passing along to children and grandchildren.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his "Best Beloved" first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

Rudyard Kipling and his eldest daughter (his “Best Beloved” first child) Josephine, at the time of the writing of the first of the Just So stories.

The Just So stories were originally written for Kipling’s young daughter Josephine, who died of pneumonia at the tragically tender age of seven in 1899; several years later the stories, which had been published singly from 1897 onward, were assembled into this collection. They are written as scripted read-aloud narratives; one can hear an avuncular fatherly voice rolling them out; the repetition and slangy contractions are distinctive and memorable, though sometimes a bit hard to read out loud with a straight face and sober tone.

A few of the stories are over-long and rather hard going; this is a collection which requires some serious editing if being shared with a young audience, but it rewards the older reader’s full attention once the little ones have left the room, for its period atmosphere and the vision it gives of the time when the stories were written. Lift a sardonic eyebrow over the worst of the politically incorrect bits, but spare a thought too for the all-too-common sorrow of the bereaved parent; Kipling’s “O Best Beloved” small daughter is a ghostly presence throughout.

  • How the Whale got his Throat ~ Never swallow whole a ship-wrecked Mariner, for he may be a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.
  • How the Camel Got his Hump ~ An awful warning to the perpetually scornful, especially those who reside where magic-making Djinn reside. Your “Humph!” may turn into a Horrible Hump, claims our narrator.
  • How the Rhinoceros got his Skin ~ The tale of the cake-loving Parsee, who favours hat which reflects the rays of the sun in more-than-oriental-splendour, and his perfect revenge on the thieving rhinoceros. (One of our favourites.)
  • How the Leopard got his Spots ~ See the excerpt above. A rather glorious tale, but requiring of the parental edit here and there. And I must warn you that if you have the Kipling illustrated version, he comments regarding the illustration that “The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo.” (!)
  • The Elephant’s Child ~ My childhood favourite, what with the elephant’s child getting his revenge on all of his spanking multi-species relatives. A slightly annoying repetition of ” ‘satiable curtiosity” (yes, the misspelling is deliberate) challenges the reader throughout, but as a treat one gets to roll out “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo” just as many times.
  • The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo ~ Yellow-Dog Dingo is fated to chase Kangaroo, and Kangaroo had to run and run and run. Neither could stop, they simply “had to!” The moral: Those who wish to be really and truly popular and wonderfully run after may rue their desire.
  • The Beginning of the Armadilloes ~ This was one that was something of a miss. An Amazonian turtle and hedgehog confound a predacious Jaguar by morphing into armadilloes.
  • How the First Letter was Written ~ A Primitive father and daughter – very early Britons indeed – originate hieroglyphic writing, with hilariously confusing consequences.
  • How the Alphabet was Made ~ An extension of the previous story, with detailed descriptions of how the letters of the alphabet were made. Sad to say, perhaps, too long and descriptive. We all lost interest in this one, and as a read-aloud it was a dismal failure, clever illustrations to no avail.
  • The Crab that Played with the Sea ~ A crabby King Crab plays hob with sea levels to the great detriment of all seashore and ocean creatures. The Great Magician disciplines the Crab, and turns responsibility for the rise and fall over to the Moon. A rather good “origin tale”.
  • The Cat that Walked by Himself ~ Our absolute favourite. This was one I read out loud over and over and over. “I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me…” Only to give in to the warmth of the fire and the bowl of milk from the Wife of his Enemy at the end, while still reserving his aloofness, at the cost of  eternal feuding with Man and Dog.
  • The Butterfly that Stamped ~ Written with an eye to the adult audience, Kipling spins a rather preachy homily about how to keep your wife under proper control, with the help of a handy Djinn.
  • The Tabu Tale ~ The father-daughter of First Letter and Alphabet returns with a moralistic lecture on the benefits of growing up, and related responsibilities.
One of the author's much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

One of the author’s much-annotated illustrations for How the Whale got his Throat.

The illustrations in the Folio Edition of Just So Stories are a delightful addition, but the author’s poetry, of which the following is one of the less objectionable examples, not so much. Just couldn’t get through these with a straight face, and they engendered a certain amount of critical sneering, kiddies and grown-ups of this family alike.

The Camel’s hump is an ugly lump
Which well you may see at the Zoo;
But uglier yet is the hump we get
From having too little to do.

Kiddies and grown-ups too-oo-oo,
If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo,
We get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

We climb out of bed with a frouzly head
And a snarly-yarly voice.
We shiver and scowl and we grunt and we growl
At our bath and our boots and our toys;

And there ought to be a corner for me
(And I know there is one for you)
When we get the hump—
Cameelious hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

The cure for this ill is not to sit still,
Or frowst with a book by the fire;
But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,
And dig till you gently perspire;

And then you will find that the sun and the wind,
And the Djinn of the Garden too,
Have lifted the hump—
The horrible hump—
The hump that is black and blue!

I get it as well as you-oo-oo—
If I haven’t enough to do-oo-oo—
We all get hump—
Cameelious hump—
Kiddies and grown-ups too!

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understood betsy dorothy canfield 001

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1916. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Illustrated by Catherine Barnes. Hardcover. 213 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a charming juvenile novel written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher after she had become deeply interested in Maria Montessori’s innovative theories of child rearing and education while on a visit to Italy. The Montessori Method stressed self determination and self regulation in all aspects of a child’s life, and operated under the assumption that if given access to a suitable space with appropriate materials, tools, toys and books, a child would develop a high degree of self motivation and a natural sense of order.

Since Dorothy Canfield was already very involved in women’s rights and educational reform, the Montessori philosophy meshed well with her other interests, and Understood Betsy, which can be read simply as an amusing story, can also be interpreted as an enthusiastic promotion of allowing a child to self-educate and self-regulate, while under a benevolent hands-off adult mentorship.

Little Elizabeth Ann is orphaned at the tender age of six months, and is eagerly adopted by an aunt and great-aunt, Frances and Harriet. Younger Aunt Frances in particular becomes completely wrapped up in mothering the child, lavishing all of her vast reserves of unused adoration on Elizabeth Ann’s tiny person.

 As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers’ Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.

She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann’s doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl’s thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong. and well.

Aunt Frances is well meaning, but her technique is more than questionable.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out for a walk up one block and down another every single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had made her), the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. … mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! … Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so” (by that time Elizabeth Ann was always pretty well scared), “and perhaps we’d better just turn this corner and walk in the other direction.” If by any chance the dog went in that direction too, Aunt Frances became a prodigy of valiant protection, putting the shivering little girl behind her, threatening the animal with her umbrella, and saying in a trembling voice, “Go away, sir! Go away!”

Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. “Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling,” she would murmur, “so’s to get it off your mind!”

She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children’s inner lives by analyzing their dreams…

Well, as you  can see from this lengthy excerpt, Aunt Frances is well on her way to creating something of a monster, if timid, terrified, hapless Elizabeth Ann could be labelled with such a horrific term. But things are about to change.

Aunt Harriet takes ill; Aunt Frances must accompany her to a warm climate; there will be no time to spare for or a place to keep Elizabeth Ann. So off in haste she is sent to another branch of the family, efficiently turned away – so much fuss, having to suddenly take on an extra child! – and helter-skelter put on a train to remote Vermont, to be cared for by the country family connections at Putney Farm.

Now Elizabeth Ann is well aware that Aunts Harriet and Frances have always held the Putney relations in deep scorn – such common folk, with no understanding for children – and to think that they had originally wanted to adopt her!

But they (Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances) thought that they chiefly desired to save dear Edward’s child from the other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad to take the little girl into their family. But “anything but the Putneys!” said Aunt Harriet, a great many times. They were related only by marriage to her, and she had her own opinion of them as a stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. “I boarded near them one summer when you were a baby, Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were treating some children visiting there! … Oh, no, I don’t mean they abused them or beat them … but such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitiveness of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart … No, I shall never forget it! They had chores to do … as though they had been hired men!”

Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl’s ears were as sharp as little girls’ ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what “chores” were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet’s voice that they were something very, very dreadful.

Elizabeth Ann is about to find out what chores are all about.

Needless to say her transformation from wimpy Elizabeth Ann to sturdy, competent Betsy begins at once. She’s not even at the farmhouse yet before Uncle Henry takes her in hand, by giving her the reins of the team and letting her worry out the techniques of guiding the steady farm horses along the quiet road. I need not go into details, only to say that immediately upon arrival at the farm the child learns to dress herself, comb her own hair, cook, milk a cow, and become wonderfully useful to have about, rather than a “charge”. And there are kittens and maple sugaring time and tug-of-wars at her tiny one-room school, best friends and a trip to the fair all of the usual rural delights to go along with the endless round of chores which make up farm life. And then Aunt Frances shows up to collect her former charge…

A sweetly old-fashioned sort of tale, with the lessons very evident but very easy to swallow. Dorothy Canfield treats her readers as if they too are sensible souls, and complicit in the process of salvaging Betsy from her disastrous first nine years of life, while never outright condemning the well-meaning Frances.

There is a lot of quiet humour in this short tale, and it is not at all a chore for an adult to read. In fact, it is a very nice read-aloud, suitable for the younger set, I would think ages up to 9 or 10 or so. (Older children might find it a mite too mild, and the tone just a bit too old-fashioned.) Betsy is a likeable heroine and as we follow her story we rejoice in her happy transformation.

Readers of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s much more complex and serious adult novels may enjoy this quick side trip into childhood; a visit as crisply refreshing as its nostalgic Vermont country setting.

And here it is at Gutenberg, though it is very easy to find in book form, too, being almost continuously in print for the hundred or so years since its first publication.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

The Putney clan - Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann - with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

The Putney clan – Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann – with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

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akaval james houston cover 1 001Akavak: An Eskimo Journey by James Houston ~ 1968. This edition: Longmans Canada Limited, 1968. Hardcover. 80 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Akavak is a slight but punchy short novel from Canadian artist and writer James Houston. Akavak was Houston’s fourth published fictional work, preceded by the award-winning Tikta’liktak in 1965, as well as The Eagle Mask (1966) and The White Archer (1967). Aimed at a youth readership, Houston’s short juvenile novels garnered high praise for their depictions of pre-European contact  Eskimo (as the Inuit were called at that time) and Indian (First Nations) life. Houston went on to write and illustrate a number of other juvenile adventure novels, most set in contemporary times, as well as several ambitious and well-received adult novels, all set in the North, and frequently featuring strong Inuit and First Nations characters.

In Akavak, a fourteen-year-old Inuit boy (Akavak) is asked to accompany his grandfather on a perilous journey along the coastline in order to fulfill the elderly man’s final wish, to see his beloved brother one more time before it is too late. Warned by his father that though Grandfather is still a master traveller and skilled hunter he occasionally shows flawed judgement due to his great age, Akavak must assess his grandfather’s moods and instructions as the journey proceeds, and find tactful ways to prevent the old man from putting himself and Akavak in danger.

At first the journey goes well, but soon a series of increasingly serious disasters threatens the expedition, and Akavak’s and Grandfather’s very survival; Akavak must finally take the lead and make some difficult decisions. The two ultimately attain their destination, but the ending of the story is bittersweet.

akavak james houston illust 2 001Well depicted details of traditional Inuit skills, as well as a compelling storyline make this novel a good read-alone or read-aloud for primary and intermediate grades, and it will work well as part of a Canadian/Arctic/Inuit Life social studies/humanities unit. The novel is set pre-European-contact (or perhaps in an isolated location); while there is a slightly educational tone to a few of the author’s explanations of customs or habits, the story is very respectful of Inuit culture without over-emphasizing its “exotic” nature to readers not of the North.

James Houston was a talented artist; while not meaning to downplay the vigorous story, I have to say that for me the illustrations are perhaps the best part of this short novel. Simplistic charcoal drawings, they brilliantly capture mood and movement, and are detailed enough to provide a clear picture of the places and people of Houston’s dramatic tale.

akavak james houston illust 1 001The story itself provides not much in the way of surprises; the adventuring pair overcome their frequent setbacks with predictable success. There is a very real sense of the peril that they find themselves in; Houston, though allowing the titular hero to attain his goal in the end, never guarantees a happy ending to any of the incidents he depicts, adding a dash of plausibility to a highly dramatized adventure story.

I would think that ages 8 to 12 or so would enjoy this story as a read-alone; add a few years onto each end of that range if using as a read-aloud. There are no chapter breaks, but I would suggest that it be broken into perhaps three or four sections if reading aloud, though an ambitious and well-seasoned narrator with an attentive audience could probably pull it off in less.

Akavak has been continually reprinted in numerous editions throughout the years, and so should be fairly easy to find in most Canadian library systems, or through the second-hand book trade.

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owls in the family farley mowat 001Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat ~ 1961. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 14th printing. Illustrated by Robert Frankenberg. Hardcover. 107 pages.

My rating: 5/10 as an adult re-read; easily an 8/10 for a juvenile Can-Lit read-alone or read-aloud.

My kids swear I read this to them out loud way back in the murky depths of time; I can’t say that I remember doing so, but we read a lot of books together, so there’s a strong possibility that they are correct. They also say that they loved it, so…? (That has to stand for some sort of a recommendation!)

School teachers love this one, too. Just go ahead and Google “Owls in the Family novel studies”, and then stand back. Generations of Canadian school children have “done” and are still “doing” this slightly fanciful tale, ostensibly about young Farley’s true experiences as a Saskatchewan schoolboy.

Are you catching a slightly cynical tone to my words? I am sad to say that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Farley Mowat. I truly enjoy some of his fictions, and happily read and re-read his famous Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave all through grade school, though luckily I dodged ever having to do a novel study on either of these; I read them purely for pleasure. But as the years went on, and I became more and more aware of the Canadian literary scene in a much broader sense, I often came across Mowat (in print) laying down the law and making grand pronouncements upon this, that and the other, which in itself is not all that offensive, but for his strident dismissals of other opinions than his own. Grand Old Man of Canadian letters as he may have become, but he is not universally loved in his home country. See this article in Up Here magazine, Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?, for an interesting discussion of the Mowat paradox.

All of this aside, in looking at his juvenile fiction, Owls in the Family may well be his most beloved and widely read work, perhaps because of its suitability as a read-alone for novice readers, and its affectionate portrayal of an idealized mid-20th Century boyhood on the Canadian prairies.

The gist of the book is that at some point in his youth, the narrator, one Billy (widely accepted to be a stand-in for Farley himself, though why the renaming, none can tell), along with his friends Bruce and Murray, decide that they would like to capture and raise a young Great Horned Owl as a pet. They wander out into the cottonwood groves, find an owls’ nest, and, after a farcical encounter with the mother owl while accompanying one of their teachers on an attempt to photograph the nest and the owlets, conveniently acquire one of the fledglings when a storm knocks the nest down a day or two later.

The boys take their find to Billy’s house, where the young owl, named Wol after Christopher Robin’s companion in the Pooh books, joins an existing menagerie of various creatures such as gophers and white rats. Wol settles in to become one of the family, and is soon joined by a companion, the smaller and much more meek Weeps, rescued by Billy from certain death by torture by two other boys.

Several chapters of various adventures are described – canoeing on the slough, a pet parade gone hilariously awry, various encounters with unsuspecting individuals whom the owls universally upset and oust – until the story’s sudden ending with Billy and his family moving away, leaving the owls under Bruce’s care.

Perhaps I’ve become too cynical in my middle-aged years, but I’m afraid a lot of the humour didn’t raise much more than a reluctant smile this time around. Robbing birds’ nests, shooting crows, finding the neighbour’s cat dead in Wol’s claws – these are examples of the anecdotes we are asked to smile at. A less critical readership will no doubt take it all in stride.

From Farley Mowat's 'Owls in the Family' frontispiece; illustration by Robert Frankenberg.

From Farley Mowat’s ‘Owls in the Family’ frontispiece; illustration by Robert Frankenberg.

The illustrations by Robert Frankenberg are gloriously typical of the best juvenile books of the era, and it is well worth seeking out a copy with the original artwork if sharing this with a young reader, or, for that matter, reading it for yourself. Eleven short chapters and just over one hundred pages make this a fast and easy read-aloud; one could easily knock back three or four chapters at a sitting. Suitable for all ages, as long as one is prepared to discuss some of the more questionable events (no longer perhaps seen as harmless amusement) referred to in the previous paragraph.

I would hesitate to inflict this upon children in the nature of a “novel study”, but it does make an interesting casual read, capturing as it does a very Canadian place in a now long-ago time. Recommended, with the stated personal reservations.

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the story of holly and ivy rumer goddenThe Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden ~ 1958. This edition: Macmillan, 2005. Illustrated by Christian Birmingham. Softcover. ISBN: 0-330-43974-x. 58 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Pretty well perfect.


This is a story about wishing. It is also about a doll and a little girl. It begins with the doll.

Her name, of course, was Holly.

It could not have been anything else, for she was dressed for Christmas in a red dress, and red shoes, though her petticoat and socks were green.

She was ten inches high and carefully jointed; she had real gold hair, brown glass eyes, and teeth like tiny china pearls.

The newest toy in Mr. Blossom’s shop in the village of Appleton, Holly is unpacked the day before Christmas Eve, and she is apprehensive as to what will happen next. The other toys are in a state of high excitement. “We must be sold today!” they whisper to each other, before the shop opens. “Wish, wish, wish!”

“What happens if I’m not sold?” wonders Holly.

“You will be put back into stock,” hisses Abracadabra, the sinister stuffed owl who broods over the store. “It is shut up and dark, and no one will see you or disturb you. You get covered with dust, and I will be there.”

Holly quivers in despair. “I wish, wish, wish for a little girl for Christmas!”

But Christmas Eve is here, and the shop is being closed up, and Holly is still on the shelf…


Far away in the city was a big house called St Agnes’s, where thirty boys and girls had to live together, but now, for three days, they were saying ‘Goodbye’ to St Agnes’s. ‘A kind lady – or gentleman – has asked you for Christmas,’ Miss Shepherd, who looked after them all, had told them, and one by one the children were called for or taken to the train. Soon there would be no one left in the big house but Miss Shepherd and Ivy.

Ivy was a little girl, six years old with straight hair cut in a fringe, blue-grey eyes, and a turned-up nose. She had a green coat the colour of her name, and red gloves, but no lady or gentleman had asked for her for Christmas. ‘I don’t care,’ said Ivy.

Sometimes in Ivy there  was an empty feeling, and the emptiness ached; it ached so much that she had to say something quickly in case she cried, and, ‘I don’t care at all,’ said Ivy.

‘You will care,’ said the last boy, Barnabas, who was waiting for a taxi. ‘Cook has gone, the maids have gone, and Miss Shepherd is going to her sister. You will care,’ said Barnabas.

‘I won’t,’ said Ivy, and she said more quickly, ‘I’m going to my grandmother.’

‘You haven’t got a grandmother,’said Barnabas. ‘We don’t have them.’ That was true. The boys and girls at St Agnes’s had no fathers and mothers, let alone grandparents.

‘But I have,’ said Ivy. ‘At Appleton.’

I do not know how that name came into Ivy’s head. Perhaps she had heard it somewhere. She said it again. ‘In Appleton.’

But Ivy is going to the Infants’ Home in the country, as Miss Shepherd must go to her sister, who has influenza. Ivy is loaded onto the train, with “a packet of sandwiches, an apple, a ticket, two shillings, and a parcel that was her Christmas present”, and on to Ivy’s coat was pinned a label with the address of the Infants’ Home.

As soon as Miss Shepherd leaves her, Ivy tears off the label and throws it out the window. ‘I’m going to my grandmother,’ she declares. ‘In Appleton.’ That is in just a few stops, a helpful lady tells her, and sure enough, as the train stops at Appleton station Ivy gets off, leaving her suitcase and her St Agnes-supplied gift – a pencil-case – on the seat, and, unnoticed by the busy ticket inspector, starts out on her quest.

Not far away, in the toyshop, Holly is wishing and wishing and crying out silently, ‘Stop. Stop. Oh, someone, stop.’ But in vain.

Only one person stopped, but it was not a boy or a girl. It was Mrs Jones, the policeman’s wife from down the street. She was passing the toyshop on her way home when Holly’s red dress caught her eye. ‘Pretty!’ said Mrs Jones and stopped.

You and I would have felt Holly’s wish at once, but Mrs Jones had no children and it was so long since she had known a doll that she did not understand; only a feeling stirred in her that she had not had for a long time, a feeling of Christmas, and when she got home she told Mr. Jones, ‘This year we shall have a tree.’

‘Don’t be daft,’ said Mr Jones, but when Mrs Jones had put her shopping away, a chicken and a small plum-pudding for her and Mr Jones’s Christmas dinner, a piece of fish for the cat, and a dozen fine handkerchiefs which were Mr Jones’s present, she went back to the market and bought some holly, mistletoe, and a Christmas tree.

The tree is decorated, but

‘Who is to look at it?’ asked Mr Jones.

Mrs Jones thought for a moment and said, ‘Christmas needs children, Albert.’ Albert was Mr Jones’s name. ‘I wonder,’ said Mrs Jones. ‘Couldn’t we find a little girl?’

‘What’s the matter with you today, my dear?’ said Mr Jones. ‘How could we find a little girl? You’re daft.’ And it was a little sadly that Mrs Jones put holly along the chimney shelf, hung mistletoe in the hall, tied a bunch of holly on the doorknocker, and went back to her housework.


Need I go on? Of course not! You know what eventually happens, don’t you? But the path to wish-fulfillment is never so straight and easy …

This is a deliciously sweet story, perfect for a reasonably accomplished independent reader of 6 or 7 or maybe a bit older (my own daughter read it happily to herself for the first time at 10) and a marvelous Read-Aloud for all ages – it’s fairly text dense, so allow at least three good long sessions.

Ivy is a grand little heroine, misguidedly stubborn and with something of a temper, which makes her eventual fate even more emotionally satisfying. And because this is a fantasy – a Christmas fantasy – we do not worry about her wandering alone through a strange village; we know that she will come to no lasting harm, though an adventure or two may befall her.

Highly recommended, for the children in your life, and for a gentle treat for yourself, too!


Holly-and-IvyIf you can, try to find the original, long out of print hardcovers illustrated first by Adrienne Adams, and then in another edition by Barbara Cooney. The currently in-print Christian Birmingham version is quite lovely, too, especially if gifting this book, where crisp and new is an issue, though it is without the vintage appeal of the older versions.Holly and Ivy

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The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery ~ 1911. This edition: 1st World Library, 2007. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-4218-4202-8. 312 pages.

My rating: 9/10. What a delicious period piece. Loved it! Why have I not read this one before?

Beautifully evocative of golden childhood summers in a faraway time. Sweet, but never cloying; the very human children keep it real.


An absolutely charming set piece about a group of cousins and friends spending a mostly idyllic summer together on Prince Edward Island.

The narrator is a grown man, Beverley King, looking back on his childhood, when he and his brother Felix travelled from their home in Toronto to spend the summer on the old family farm while their widowed father travelled to Rio de Janeiro on business. They are to stay with their Aunt Janet and Uncle Alec, and cousins Felicity, Cecily and Dan. Nearby is another motherless cousin, Sara Stanley, living with her Uncle Roger and Aunt Olivia, with a father in Paris. Uncle Roger’s hired boy, Peter Craig, and a neighbourhood friend, Sara Ray, round out the group of children.

Nothing much happens in this book, but the days are nonetheless filled to the brim with interesting incidents. The cousins and friends do their chores, play, squabble and run wild as often as they are able. They are generally good children, but not unreasonably so, and their numerous falls from grace drive the narrative, along with the endless succession of tales told by cousin Sara Stanley, the self-named Story Girl, who has an endless collection of anecdotes from a myriad of sources – local and family fables, legends, fairy tales and Greek myths – something for every occasion. Gifted with a natural dramatic ability, Sara Stanley could “make the multiplication table sound fascinating”, as she does on one memorable occasion.

Observant, restless Bev; chubby, sensitive Felix; self-confident, proud Dan;  beautiful, bossy, domestically talented Felicity; sober, stubborn, peace-loving Cecily; plain, imaginative Sara Stanley; over-protected, tear-prone Sara Ray; self-sufficient, passionate Peter – these are the eight personalities which make up the core group, though other family members and friends – and a few animals – take their part as well. Ranging in age from eleven up into the early teens, glimpses of the young men and women the children will become are very much in evidence, though childhood emotions and interests still hold sway.

Tragic (and joyful) family love affairs, a mysterious locked blue chest filled with a disappointed bride’s prize possessions, magic seeds, poison berries, various “hauntings”, a neighbourhood “witch woman”, reports of the end of the world, a competition regarding dreams, adolescent crushes, a brush or two with death – all of these (and more) serve to add spice to this halcyon summer, looked back on with fond memory by the adult narrator. A few clues as to what the future holds are given – hired boy Peter is deeply in love with beautiful, scornful Felicity; the Story Girl will perform before royalty in Europe – but by and large the narrator stays focussed on that brief time between heedless childhood and care-filled adult life.


This book, along with The Golden Road, The Chronicles of Avonlea and The Further Chronicles of Avonlea, was the basis for a highly successful CBC-Disney television series co-production, Road to Avonlea, which was widely broadcast from 1990 to 1996. I completely missed this one, having by then entered my “no television” years, but reports by L.M. Montgomery aficionados claim that the show departed drastically from the books, both in characters and plot. Canadian actress (and now screenwriter and film director) Sarah Polley played the Story Girl in the series.

The Story Girl is followed by The Golden Road, another Montgomery book which has been on my shelf for some time, but which I have also not yet read – I will be remedying that this winter. If it is as charming and amusing as The Story Girl, I am in for another nostalgic literary treat.

Read-Aloud: The Story Girl would likely work well as a Read-Aloud for ages about 8 and up – there will be some rather long-winded parts here and there as episodes as set up, so you may need to self edit depending on your listeners. A few of the stories are a wee bit gruesome – in one reference a lost child is found the following spring as only a “SKELETON –  with grass growing through it”; ghosts are often referred to; there is a neighbourhood eccentric thought by the children to be a witch – if you are at all concerned over such themes it would be best to read ahead a bit to see if the material is acceptable to your listener’s sensibilities. Many references to and some plots centered on religion. All very era-appropriate. Nothing too extreme, in my opinion, but you may want to preview, especially before starting this with younger children.

Read-Alone: For reading alone, this one is most likely best for older children, say 11 or 12, to adult.

The largest challenge the reader will find themselves faced with, though, is envisioning, or, in the case of a Read Aloud, replicating the Story Girl’s magical talent for tale telling. Good luck! (And enjoy.)

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Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery ~ 1937. This edition: Bantam Books (Seal), 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-2314-0. 217 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Jane Victoria Stuart is one of the more likeable young heroines in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s repertoire. Great gaps in believability here and there, but overall an engaging tale for romantic souls from youth (say 12-ish) to adult.


Jane Victoria Stuart is eleven years old, and for eight of those years, the years she can remember, she has lived in a huge mansion in Toronto with her extremely wealthy, emotionally frigid grandmother and her delicately beautiful, weak-willed mother. As far as she knows her father is dead. He is never mentioned, except in snidely allusive references by her grandmother to “Victoria’s” tainted ancestry as demonstrated by her “low” tastes – a desire to cook and fraternize with the housekeeper in the warmly cozy kitchen, and a friendship with the young maid-of-all-work in the boarding house next door.

Grandmother makes no secret of her distaste for Jane Victoria – every creature comfort is provided but emotional needs go unfulfilled. Jane, as she secretly calls herself in defiance of her grandmother’s preferred Victoria, shares a deep love with her mother, but open demonstrativeness is impossible – even a glance or a motherly caress is deeply resented by bitter and jealous grandmother, who clings to her own daughter with fierce possessiveness.

The days go by uneventfully, and the future stretches forth relentlessly, until a chance taunt by a schoolmate reveals a secret which has been hidden from Jane by her grandmother and mother. Her father is not dead, but very much alive, and her mother is neither widowed or divorced but rather in a limbo of estrangement, unable to move either forward or back in the restricted social life engineered by the household matriarch.

Jane confronts her mother with the news and asks if it is true, and in one of her rare human moments Grandmother apologizes to Jane for keeping the secret for so long. But now that you know, consider him as dead, she orders Jane, and Jane solemnly and willingly agrees – this man who has abandoned her and made her mother so miserable is best forgotten.

Imagine Jane’s dismay when a letter comes soon after from Prince Edward Island, requesting Jane’s presence at her father’s summer residence over the summer holidays. With great trepidation Jane sets off into the unknown and greatly dreaded wider world.

Needless to say, everything works out, and happy endings abound. But before we get to them there are a number of little dramas which must be worked through, some more unbelievably than others.

A really nice heroine, practical and earnest and well-deserving of the good things which eventually come her way. Give this one to your pre-teen daughters, but don’t forget to read it yourself; mildly melodramatic and ultimately very satisfying.

Might make a good read-aloud, for ages maybe 8 and up. Marital troubles and divorce are central plot themes, as is emotional abuse by Jane’s grandmother, but these are necessary to the building of tension in the storyline. Rather reminiscent of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess in mood, I thought, including the improbable (but most satisfactory) way everything clicks into place in the end. No loose threads – all neat and tidy! Jane would approve.

Disney made a movie of this one a few years back, which I’ve not seen, but apparently it departs wildly from the original story and is not recommended by aficionados of the book.

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Here’s another Martin Armstrong poem I remembered when searching out the “Honey” poem. Marked in another one of our rather embarrasssingly large collection of vintage poetry anthologies is this gently humorous narrative poem. Some years ago we “collected” a number of Martin Armstrong poems and read them aloud to each other;  Miss Thompson was a favourite.

The time we spent together taking turns reading aloud is one of my favourite memories and one of the greatest joys of our homeschooling time. As everyone is now very much going their separate ways, read-aloud times are a thing of the past; I will need to wait for grandchildren now, I suppose… Hopefully some years in the future, but I find myself pleasantly anticipating a new audience of small rapt listeners, begging for “one more chapter!” Until then, I’m still adding to the story and poetry collections. But I think I may track down a family member or two and see if they would like to indulge in a nostalgic read-aloud session, just to humour their sentimental mom…


Miss Thompson at Home

In her lone cottage on the downs,
With winds and blizzards and great crowns
Of shining cloud, with wheeling plover
And short grass sweet with the small white clover,
Miss Thompson lived, correct and meek,
A lonely spinster, and every week
On market-day she used to go
Into the little town below,
Tucked in the great downs’ hollow bowl
Like pebbles gathered in a shoal.

She goes a-Marketing

So, having washed her plates and cup
And banked the kitchen-fire up,
Miss Thompson slipped upstairs and dressed,
Put on her black (her second best),
The bonnet trimmed with rusty plush,
Peeped in the glass with simpering blush,
From camphor-smelling cupboard took
Her thicker jacket off the hook
Because the day might turn to cold.
Then, ready, slipped downstairs and rolled
The hearthrug back; then searched about,
Found her basket, ventured out,
Snecked the door and paused to lock it
And plunge the key in some deep pocket.
Then as she tripped demurely down
The steep descent, the little town
Spread wider till its sprawling street
Enclosed her and her footfalls beat
On hard stone pavement, and she felt
Those throbbing ecstasies that melt
Through heart and mind, as, happy, free,
Her small, prim personality
Merged into the seething strife
Of auction-marts and city life.

She visits the Boot-maker.

Serenely down the busy stream
Miss Thompson floated in a dream.
Now, hovering bee-like, she would stop
Entranced before some tempting shop,
Getting in people’s way and prying
At things she never thought of buying:
Now wafted on without an aim,
Until in course of time she came
To Watson’s bootshop. Long she pries
At boots and shoes of every size —
Brown football-boots with bar and stud
For boys that scuffle in the mud,
And dancing-pumps with pointed toes
Glossy as jet, and dull black bows;
Slim ladies’ shoes with two-inch heel
And sprinkled beads of gold and steel —
‘How anyone can wear such things!’
On either side the doorway springs
(As in a tropic jungle loom
Masses of strange thick-petalled bloom
And fruits mis-shapen) fold on fold
A growth of sand-shoes rubber-soled,
Clambering the door-posts, branching, spawning
Their barbarous bunches like an awning
Over the windows and the doors.
But, framed among the other stores,
Something has caught Miss Thompson’s eye
(O worldliness! O vanity!),
A pair of slippers — scarlet plush.
Miss Thompson feels a conscious blush
Suffuse her face, as though her thought
Had ventured further than it ought.
But O that colour’s rapturous singing
And the answer in her lone heart ringing!
She turns (O Guardian Angels, stop her
From doing anything improper!)
She turns; and see, she stoops and bungles
In through the sand-shoes’ hanging jungles,
Away from light and common sense,
Into the shop dim-lit and dense
With smells of polish and tanned hide.

Mrs. Watson

Soon from a dark recess inside
Fat Mrs. Watson comes slip-slop
To mind the business of the shop.
She walks flat-footed with a roll —
A serviceable, homely soul,
With kindly, ugly face like dough,
Hair dull and colourless as tow.
A huge Scotch pebble fills the space
Between her bosom and her face.
One sees her making beds all day.
Miss Thompson lets her say her say:
‘So chilly for the time of year.
It’s ages since we saw you here.’
Then, heart a-flutter, speech precise,
Describes the shoes and asks the price.
‘Them, Miss? Ah, them is six-and-nine.’
Miss Thompson shudders down the spine
(Dream of impossible romance).
She eyes them with a wistful glance,
Torn between good and evil. Yes,
Wrestles with a Temptation;

For half-a-minute and no less
Miss Thompson strives with seven devils,
Then, soaring over earthly levels

And is Saved

Turns from the shoes with lingering touch —
‘Ah, six-and-nine is far too much.
Sorry to trouble you. Good day!’

She visits the Fish-monger

A little further down the way
Stands Miles’s fish-shop, whence is shed
So strong a smell of fishes dead
That people of a subtler sense
Hold their breath and hurry thence.
Miss Thompson hovers there and gazes:
Her housewife’s knowing eye appraises
Salt and fresh, severely cons
Kippers bright as tarnished bronze:
Great cods disposed upon the sill,
Chilly and wet, with gaping gill,
Flat head, glazed eye, and mute, uncouth,
Shapeless, wan, old-woman’s mouth.
Next a row of soles and plaice
With querulous and twisted face,
And red-eyed bloaters, golden-grey;
Smoked haddocks ranked in neat array;
A group of smelts that take the light
Like slips of rainbow, pearly bright;
Silver trout with rosy spots,
And coral shrimps with keen black dots
For eyes, and hard and jointed sheath
And crisp tails curving underneath.
But there upon the sanded floor,
More wonderful in all that store
Than anything on slab or shelf,
Stood Miles, the fishmonger, himself.

Mr. Miles

Four-square he stood and filled the place.
His huge hands and his jolly face
Were red. He had a mouth to quaff
Pint after pint: a sounding laugh,
But wheezy at the end, and oft
His eyes bulged outwards and he coughed.
Aproned he stood from chin to toe.
The apron’s vertical long flow
Warped grandly outwards to display
His hale, round belly hung midway,
Whose apex was securely bound
With apron-strings wrapped round and round.
Outside, Miss Thompson, small and staid,
Felt, as she always felt, afraid
Of this huge man who laughed so loud
And drew the notice of the crowd.
Awhile she paused in timid thought,
Then promptly hurried in and bought
‘Two kippers, please. Yes, lovely weather.’
‘Two kippers? Sixpence altogether:’
And in her basket laid the pair
Wrapped face to face in newspaper.

Relapses into Temptation

Then on she went, as one half blind,
For things were stirring in her mind;
Then turned about with fixed intent
And, heading for the bootshop, went
And Falls.
Straight in and bought the scarlet slippers
And popped them in beside the kippers.

She visits the Chemist

So much for that. From there she tacked,
Still flushed by this decisive act,
Westward, and came without a stop
To Mr. Wren the chemist’s shop,
And stood awhile outside to see
The tall, big-bellied bottles three —
Red, blue, and emerald, richly bright
Each with its burning core of light.
The bell chimed as she pushed the door.
Spotless the oilcloth on the floor,
Limpid as water each glass case,
Each thing precisely in its place.
Rows of small drawers, black-lettered each
With curious words of foreign speech,
Ranked high above the other ware.
The old strange fragrance filled the air,
A fragrance like the garden pink,
But tinged with vague medicinal stink
Of camphor, soap, new sponges, blent
With chloroform and violet scent.

Mr. Wren.

And Wren the chemist, tall and spare,
Stood gaunt behind his counter there.
Quiet and very wise he seemed,
With skull-like face, bald head that gleamed;
Through spectacles his eyes looked kind.
He wore a pencil tucked behind
His ear. And never he mistakes
The wildest signs the doctor makes
Prescribing drugs. Brown paper, string,
He will not use for any thing,
But all in neat white parcels packs
And sticks them up with sealing-wax.
Miss Thompson bowed and blushed, and then
Undoubting bought of Mr. Wren,
Being free from modern scepticism,
A bottle for her rheumatism;
Also some peppermints to take
In case of wind; an oval cake
Of scented soap; a penny square
Of pungent naphthaline to scare
The moth. And after Wren had wrapped
And sealed the lot, Miss Thompson clapped
Them in beside the fish and shoes;
‘Good day,’ she says, and off she goes.
Is Led away to the Pleasure of the Town,
Beelike Miss Thompson, whither next?
Outside, you pause awhile, perplext,
Your bearings lost. Then all comes back
Such as Groceries and Millinery,
And round she wheels, hot on the track
Of Giles the grocer, and from there
To Emilie the milliner,
There to be tempted by the sight
Of hats and blouses fiercely bright.
(O guard Miss Thompson, Powers that Be,
From Crudeness and Vulgarity.)

And other Allurements

Still on from shop to shop she goes
With sharp bird’s-eye, enquiring nose,
Prying and peering, entering some,
Oblivious of the thought of home.
The town brimmed up with deep-blue haze,
But still she stayed to flit and gaze,
Her eyes ablur with rapturous sights,
Her small soul full of small delights,
Empty her purse, her basket filled.

But at length is Convinced of Indiscretion
The traffic in the town was stilled.
The clock struck six. Men thronged the inns.
Dear, dear, she should be home long since.

And Returns Home

Then as she climbed the misty downs
The lamps were lighted in the town’s
Small streets. She saw them star by star
Multiplying from afar;
Till, mapped beneath her, she could trace
Each street, and the wide square market-place
Sunk deeper and deeper as she went
Higher up the steep ascent.
And all that soul-uplifting stir
Step by step fell back from her,
The glory gone, the blossoming
Shrivelled, and she, a small, frail thing,
Carrying her laden basket. Till
Darkness and silence of the hill
Received her in their restful care
And stars came dropping through the air.

But loudly, sweetly sang the slippers
In the basket with the kippers;
And loud and sweet the answering thrills
From her lone heart on the hills.

Martin Armstrong, 1921

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The Rescuers by Margery Sharp ~ 1959. Illustrations by Garth Williams. This edition: New York Review of Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-59017-460-9. 149 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10 for the story, 10/10 for the illustrations.

This is the first story in what eventually became a series of nine about the mice of the Prisoners’ Aid Society, and in particular the aristocratic white mouse Miss Bianca, and her admirer and co-adventurer, Bernard.

Everyone knows that the mice are the prisoner’s friends – sharing his dry bread crumbs even when they are not hungry, allowing themselves to be taught all manner of foolish tricks, such as no self-respecting mouse would otherwise contemplate, in order to cheer his lonely hours; what is less well-known is how spendidly they are organized. Not a prison in any land but has its own national branch of that wonderful, world-wide system…

In the un-specified (and purely imaginative) country these particular mice live in,

…(a country) barely civilized, a country of great gloomy mountains, enormous deserts, rivers like strangled seas…

… there exists the greatest, the gloomiest, prison imaginable: The Black Castle.

It reared up, the Black Castle, from a cliff above the angriest river of all. Its dungeons were cut in the cliff itself – windowless. Even the bravest mouse, assigned to the Black Castle, trembled before its great, cruel, iron-fanged gate.

And inside the Black Castle, in one of the windowless dungeons, is a prisoner that the Prisoners’ Aid Society has taken a special interest in.

“It’s rather an unusual case,” said Madam Chairwoman blandly. “The prisoner is a poet. You will all, I know, cast your minds back to the many poets who have written favorably of our race – Her feet beneath her petticoats, like little mice stole in and out – Suckling, the Englishman – what a charming compliment! Thus do not poets deserve especially well of us?”

“If he’s a poet, why’s he in jail?” demanded a suspicious voice.

Madam Chairwoman shrugged velvet shoulders.

“Perhaps he writes free verse,” she suggested cunningly.

A stir of approval answered her. Mice are all for people being free, so they too can be freed from their eternal task of cheering prisoners – so they can stay snug at home, nibbling the family cheese, instead of sleeping out in damp straw on a diet of stale bread.

“I see you follow me,” said Madam Chairwoman. “It is a special case. Therefore we will rescue him. I should tell you that the prisoner is a Norwegian. – Don’t ask me how he got here, really no one can answer for a poet! But obviously the first thing to do is to get in touch with a compatriot, and summon him here, so that he may communicate with the prisoner in their common tongue.”

Now, getting to Norway is a bit of a challenge, but the mice have a solution. They decide to call on the famous Miss Bianca, the storied white mouse who is the pamperd pet of the Ambassador’s son. Miss Bianca lives in a Porcelain Pagoda; she feeds on cream cheese from a silver dish; she is elegant and extremely beautiful and far, far removed from common mouse-dom. She also travels by Diplomatic Bag whenever the Ambassador and his family move – abd they have just been transferred to Norway. Perfect!

A pantry mouse in the Embassy, one young Bernard, is assigned the task of contacting Miss Bianca and enlisting her aid in the cause. She is to find “the bravest mouse in Norway”, and send him back to the Prisoners’ Aid Society so he may be briefed on the rescue mission.

Bernard successfully convinces Miss Bianca to assist, and then the real action starts. By a combination of careful planning, coincidence and sheer luck, the Norwegian sea-mouse Nils, Bernard and Miss Bianca venture forth to bring solace and freedom to the Norwegian poet.

The illustrations by Garth Williams are absolutely perfect. Here is one of my favourites, of the journey to the Black Castle. Look carefully at the expressions on the horses’ faces, the fetters on the skeleton. Brrr! Danger lurks!

And here is Mamelouk, the Head Jailer’s wicked black half-Persian cat, whose favourite pasttime is spitting at the prisoners through the bars, and of course catching and tormenting any mouse who ventures into his dark domain.

Miss Bianca proves herself more than a match for Mamelouk, utilizing her special bravado and charm. Needless to say, the mission is successfully accomplished, though not without setbacks.

A light, rather silly (in the best possible way), rather enjoyable story.

Miss Bianca is a very “feminine” character, in the most awfully stereotyped way possible, but there are enough little asides by the author that we can see that this is not a reccomendation for behaviour to be copied but rather a portrait of a personality who uses the resources at hand (her charm, her beauty, her effect on others) to get things done.

Bernard is typical yeoman stock, earnest striving and quiet bravery in the face of adversity. He is attracted to Miss Bianca as dull and dusty moth to blazing flame, but quietly accepts that their places in the world are too far apart to ever allow him the audacity to woo her. Or possibly not…

Nils galumphs through the story in his sea boots, “Up the Norwegians!” his Viking cry. A reluctant (or, more appropriately, unwitting) hero, who has had his adventure thrust upon him, Nils typifies dauntless.

Read-Alone: I’m thinking 8 and up. Margery Sharp has written a children’s tale with completely “adult” language and references; a competent young reader will find this challenging but rewarding. Be prepared to clarify occasionally, if your reader is of an inquiring mind. (Hint: Better bone up on Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.)

Read-Aloud: I think this would be a very good read-aloud. Ages 6 and up. Reasonably fast-paced. The first few chapters set the scene and may be a bit slow going, and the dialogue will require careful reading; you’ll need to pay attention while performing this one – no easy ride for the reader! – but I think it could be a lot of fun.

Definitely worth a look. If this is a hit, there are eight more stories in the series. I have previously reviewed the second title here:    Miss Bianca

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