Two Classic Children’s Books

A Century of Books has led to me reading more children’s books than usual in 2012.  The debate about whether or not adults ought to read YA fiction (a phrase I hate) is probably best left for another day – but I think most of us understand the call towards unashamed classic children’s fiction, which doesn’t have the slightest pretence to being adults’ literature.

First, very speedily, a suggestion Claire mentioned when I was struggling to fill in 1909Ann Veronica went back on the shelf for another day (next to Rebecca West, amusingly enough) and Beatrix Potter came off instead.  Well, actually, since I don’t have a copy of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, I downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg, and read it on my Kindle for PC.  It’s lovely – of course it is.  Peter Rabbit’s sister Flopsy and her wife Benjamin have quite a few children – ‘They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.’  (Which picture book writer today would use the word ‘improvident’?  Or ‘soporific’?  Love you, Beatrix.)

You probably know the story.  Wicked Mr. Macgregor is back, and does his best to kidnap the Flopsy Bunnies… will he manage it?  Can you guess?  (By the way, this cartoon is an amusing counterpart to Beatrix Potter’s bunny stories.)  It feels a bit like I’m cheating with 1909 – but I suppose Potter is more influential than most of the other authors featured in A Century of Books.  And it was delightful!

*  *  *

A whistle sounds, a flag is waved.  The train pulls itself together, strains, jerks, and starts.”I don’t understand,” says Gerald, alone in his third-class carriage, “how railway trains and magic can go on at the same time.”And yet they do.
This seems like a very apt quotation from E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (1907), because she is best known (at least in our household) as the author of The Railway Children.  Her own writing, then, successfully combined the possible – if unlikely – story of children living near a railway, and this novel where all manner of extraordinary things happen.  But it is, perhaps, the possible events threaded through the novel which made it most effective, in my eyes.

Everything starts off believably.  Siblings Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathleen are bored during their summer holidays, spent with one of those eternal Mademoiselles of children’s fiction from this period.  Only this one is not cantankerous or hysterical, and is quite happy to let them go off to explore.  On their exploits, they discover (as one does) a beautiful castle, with grounds replete with marble statues, etc.  And – look! – a sleeping princess!  She awakes, after Jimmy (somewhat reluctantly) kisses her – and she takes them through to see her jewels.  One of these is a magic ring, she confides, which can make the wearer invisible.  Only they have to close their eyes for a bit whilst it works.  And, yes, it works!

But the princess is rather surprised.  It turns out she is, in fact, Mabel – the housekeeper’s niece – and wasn’t expecting the ring actually to turn her invisible.  And thus their adventures begin…

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs for ever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real.  And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, anything may happen.
And anything does happen.  Invisibility, expanding, swimming statues, ghosts…  I prefer my novels’ fantastic elements to be rather more restrained, with parameters neatly set.  This all felt a bit scattergun, but I suppose Five Children and It is similar and that doesn’t bother me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Five Children and It, and this is my first reading of The Enchanted Castle.  I have a feeling that this would feel a much more coherent book for those who loved it as a child.  As for me, sometimes it seemed like dear E. Nesbit was making it up as she went along.

What saved it completely, though, was her delightful tone.  I wrote, in my post on The Railway Children, that I’d no idea E. Nesbit was so witty – and that continues here.  There are plenty of asides and sly nudges to the reader – a wit that was probably put in for the parent, but could well be appreciated by the child too.  Alongside the amusing style, my favourite aspect were the non-fantastic relationships – between siblings, between the children and Mademoiselle, between Eliza the maid and her young man, and between… no, the last two I shall leave you to find out for yourself.

It was all good fun.  And yet I’m going to throw my copy away.  Because it looks like this now…

Ooops!  TV tie-in paperbacks from the 1970s weren’t built to last, were they?

Two lovely children’s books to round off 2012.  Just one book left for A Century of Books… a biography for 1970.  Any guesses?

31 thoughts on “Two Classic Children’s Books

  • December 28, 2012 at 1:22 am
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    I could read Beatrix Potter's books again and again, though I've really never read storybooks as an adult. I think you hit on it by mentioning that they don't talk down to the reader.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:09 pm
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      I never have had a proper read through of her books, and I must do so. And ten years ago I bought a biography of Potter – one day maybe I'll read that!

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  • December 28, 2012 at 1:22 am
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    …improvident and cheerful. Sounds almost Dickensian, doesn't it. And of course, I love the word soporific.

    Meanwhile, The Enchanted Castle is one I've never read, or even heard of, though I went through a stage of E. Nesbit's books, when my daughter was 11 or so, some 26 years ago.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:10 pm
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      Potter and Dickens is an amusing combination! I like that.
      I think The Enchanted Castle will only be beloved if it was read to, or enjoyed as, a child – but worth a visit!

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  • December 28, 2012 at 2:46 am
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    I only thought of Potter when it was too late so I am glad that you were able to use her for your Century! You can't fight the charm or influence of her stories. No offense to H.G. Wells, but The Tale of the Floppsy Bunnies has far outlived Ann Veronica.

    As for E. Nesbit, I wonder if she saved all her wit for her children's books? I read one of her adult novels last month and it was no where near as good as any of her children's stories.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:10 pm
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      Yes, thank you for saving me from a last-minute rush through H.G. Wells!

      I didn't even know E. Nesbit had written for adults – how surprising that she cut out the wit! Was she all earnest?

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  • December 28, 2012 at 3:41 am
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    I missed Beatrix Potter as a child, and I'm still catching up. I haven't read The Flopsy Bunnies yet – thanks for not spoiling the ending :)

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  • December 28, 2012 at 4:23 am
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    I think you're right about The Enchanted Castle — I loved it as a child, and I never noticed how disjointed it is. It's still one of my favorites, and I think it's one of the eeriest of E. Nesbit's children's books. The Ugly-Wuglies and the enchanted statues are terrifying; they remind me of E. Nesbit's ghost stories.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:12 pm
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      I have to confess that they didn't terrify me, but they definitely would have done if I'd read it first as a child! Everything did. And children don't really notice disjointedness, do they?

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  • December 28, 2012 at 4:55 am
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    Simon, The Enchanted Castle was my favorite book as a child! I was nine when I discovered it, after reading about Nesbit's books in Edward Eager's novels. I read it over and over, and did reread it a few years ago. It took me two years to reread it, because I just read a chapter occasionally.

    Nesbit's books were catalogued under E. Bland at my public library–her married name. It's a wonder I found them.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:12 pm
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      What an unfortunate married name for an author! And how silly that they were catalogued under that – they need to sort out their system…

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  • December 28, 2012 at 5:28 am
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    I have never read any Nesbit but would like to, especially after having read Byatt's The Children's Book.

    I recently listened to The Sword and the Stone by T.H. White, which I first read in my early teens. Granted, this book is a little beyond Beatrix Potter reading levels, but I was also impressed by the complexity of the storytelling and vocabulary. That is how children learn words and ideas…in context. So books which talk down to the children are really doing the reader a disservice.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm
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      Absolutely agreed! Also in terms of emotions – the sort of writer who makes things saccharine and uncomplex is underestimating the stamina children have for more complicated emotions. Having said that, I would tire of issue-led children's books (as I tire of issue-led adults' books)

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  • December 28, 2012 at 8:31 am
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    I love E.Nesbit and so pleased when the concrete dinosaurs in one of them (is it the Enchanted Castle? I don't have all of them now, after an unfortunate cat pee incident) turned out to be the ones in Crystal Palace Park!

    Ruthiella – The Sword and the Stone was a huge influence on my childhood; I read it over and over again. But when Morgan La Fay does that thing with the skin – eeeps!

    And my guess: BARBARA PYM!

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm
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      This is the dinosaurs one, yes!
      Good guess, but no… as you'll know now!

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  • December 28, 2012 at 3:05 pm
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    I don't think I've read 'The Flopsy Bunnies' with my daughter yet, I'll have to dig it out. She got quite fixated on Mrs Tiggywinkle sometime back so I had to hide the book as I just couldn't face reading it again!

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm
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      Haha! Oh dear. I can see how Beatrix Potter would pall after the 19th or 20th reading…

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  • December 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm
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    Lovely blog Simon. It brought back memories of two of my favourite children's authors. Like you I know The Railway Children and Five Children and It the best of the Nesbits, but I always loved all the Beatrix Potter books and must have read them with enthusiasm to Miranda right from the start. I remember my shock though, when at just 2 and a bit, she picked up A Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit and read it out loud in perfect parrot fashion back to me. Gave me faith that in many, if not most cases, reading to a child frequently is all the preparation for them to read themselves that's needed. In fact we're both hoping to go to the Lake District in 2013 primarily to see Hill Top Farm!

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm
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      Thanks Donna – and funny story! Hill Top is really lovely, as is all the Lake District, so have a wonderful trip there :)

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  • December 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm
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    Thank you for the E. Nesbit reminder. A rather unattractive but 7-Books-in-One of hers arrived earlier this year and I've just pulled it out. (It was sitting next to Daddy Long-Legs which I remember you didn't love as I did when I was 10 or so!).

    No, no guesses on 1970.

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:15 pm
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      7-in-1! Gosh. That's one hefty book…
      I should revisit my own childhood loves – basically Enid Blyton – rather than just discovering the ones I missed.

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  • December 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm
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    Really want to read Tge Enchanted Castle – not a E Nesbit novel I've come across.

    I remember reading Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh to distract me from (chemistry) finals at university.

    Kirsty

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  • December 28, 2012 at 9:41 pm
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    To answer your challenge question, how about Satoshi Kitamura?

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:16 pm
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      The name means nothing to me, I'm afraid, Peter! I'll investigate…

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  • December 29, 2012 at 12:06 am
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    I have to admit that I don't believe I've ever read Nesbit or Potter. Shameful! And I have The Enchanted Castle and Five Children and It waiting on my bookshelf. I've been on the lookout for some sort of collected works of Beatrix Potter – not sure if that exists, but wouldn't it be a lovely collection to keep near one's bed, along with the complete tales of Winnie the Pooh? Thanks for these reviews; I feel newly inspired to pull my Nesbit off my to-read shelf.

    On another note, I would love to participate in a discussion about children's lit vs. YA fiction, and whether adults should or perhaps should not read both. I hope you collect and record your thoughts on this topic!

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    • December 31, 2012 at 4:17 pm
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      You could easily rectify Potter with ebooks, very quickly! I imagine a box set of her books still exists. And Winnie needs to be on the bedside table, agreed (actually here in Somerset I have all my Tove Jansson books on my bedside table.)

      I might record my YA thoughts, but I'm pretty anti – so I might not!

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  • December 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm
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    1970 = I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou?

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  • January 6, 2013 at 5:57 pm
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    I really want to read The Railway Children this year — I have a nice recent hardcover edition, don't know why I've put it off. I did read The Story of the Treasure Seekers this year and absolutely loved it! I agree about the sly humor and witty asides. I think I like her realistic fiction a bit better than her fantasy.

    And I was in New York over the holidays and stumbled upon an AMAZING Beatrix Potter exhibit at the Morgan Library — the original letters she wrote with her first animal stories to friends' children. Absolutely stunning artwork, it was worth every penny to get in (and I saw the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol as well, what's not to love?)

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