Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton

Bedknob and Broomstick cover

Until I picked this book up in an Aberdeenshire secondhand bookshop recently I had no idea that Bedknob and Broomstick had been written by Mary Norton (of The Borrowers fame). It was first published in 1945 and although I’ve only seen short excerpts of the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I think it’s fair to say that it must be very loosely based on the book. It was obviously written in wartime although it doesn’t really come into the story, the three children Carey, Charles and Paul have been sent to live with an old aunt who lives in Bedfordshire. This must have been a normal experience for many children in those days as fathers were off in the services and their mothers were also doing war work. It fits the perfect children’s book scenario, get rid of those annoying parents.

The house is old and square with a large hall and the children are quite intimidated by it. They’re also rather shy of their aunt and the old housemaid, but the garden is wonderful and even has a river running through it. The children have a whale of a time, they’re well behaved and all their days are alike – until they meet Miss Price. She’s an elderly lady who gets about on her bicycle, she’s very ladylike and teaches piano for a living, but in her spare time she’s a bit of a white witch. She’s really just a beginner at it and when the children find her in pain lying on the ground in local woodland it transpires that she has sprained her ankle as she has fallen off her broomstick!

She obviously needs more practice. Miss Price needs the children to keep quiet about her witchcraft, the locals wouldn’t understand, so she puts a spell on Paul’s bedknob so that when he twists it the bed will wheech them all anywhere in the world – or even into the past.

This book is aimed at children over the age of eight – I think I fit that description!

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall

The Machine-Gunners cover

The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall was first published in 1975 and it won the Carnegie Medal.

We’re back at the Second World War in this book, the setting is the fictional town of Garmouth on Tyneside where the children were enthusiastically seeking out war souvenirs in the shape of spent machine-gun bullets, shrapnel and the tailfins from incendiary bombs. They’re vying with each other all determined to have the best collection. Chas McGill has the second best collection, the best is owned by the local school bully who takes great delight in bashing everyone up but of course he is really a coward.

Chas hits the jackpot when he discovers the wreckage of a downed German aeroplane deep in a local woodland. With the help of some friends he manages to free the machine-gun from it and with the help of a tremendously strong mentally challenged neighbour they all set about building an underground shelter for the gun – which expands and expands until it’s a large air raid shelter. The children become adept at nicking anything they need so it’s a real home from home. In fact as one of them lost both his parents in a recent Tyneside air raid the shelter has become his home, the authorities think he also perished in the raid.

At one point an escaped German prisoner of war stumbles across their hide-out and as they’ve somehow managed to jam the machine gun they realise that he can help them fix it. The prisoner is exhausted and ill and the children look after him, well they can’t turn him over to the authorities, he would tell them about their machine-gun.

This is a great read which at times has elements of ‘Dad’s Army’ about it with the Home Guard featuring and local enemies being much more annoying than the German prisoner who isn’t at all like a Nazi, he seems like a decent chap.

This book is very autobiographical, the author dedicated it to his father and mother who were the father and mother in the book.

He says: The bombing raids on Tyneside during the despairing winter of 1940-41 were appalling and relentless and The Machine-Gunners is a tribute to the endurance, courage and humour of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

The Indian in the Cupboard  cover

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks was first published in 1980 and probably just about everyone who is interested in reading it has already read it or seen the film, but I only picked it up because I noticed that it was written by Lynne Reid Banks. It’s over forty years since I read her L-Shaped Room trilogy and loved it – as did Jack and my mother, two people who would normally have very different tastes in books.

Omri is one of three brothers and when his birthday comes around his brother Gillon gives him an old cupboard for his present, not that he had bought it, he just found it lying around in the alley where the bins were kept. Gillon’s pocket-money had been stopped as a punishment, so that was the best he could do for a present.

Omri is quite disappointed by his presents, his best friend Patrick had only given him one of his old plastic figures – a Native American Indian. The cupboard has a lock on it and Omri’s mother thinks she might have a key which would fit it amongst a lot of old keys she has. Sure enough one does fit and when Omri decides that the best thing he can do with his Indian is store it in the cupboard – the magic begins. I know that the toys coming to life is a bit of a cliche but that’s probably because we’d all love it to happen.

This was a great read and Lynne Reid Banks managed to create a really authentic family with great interaction by the brothers.

Have any of you ever watched the film and if so – should I?

The Silver Bead by Helen Dunmore

The Silver Bead by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2003 and it’s the third in a trilogy, the only one that I’ve read though. It’s aimed at girls who are just about to move up to secondary/high school.

Zillah and Katie have just experienced the last day of primary school and are planning to have the best summer holidays ever. Zillah’s parents have a farm but things are tough and they’re diversifying so Zillah’s mum is serving cream teas to visitors, helped by Zillah and Katie who have been friends for years. But as often happens in life their plans are overtaken by circumstances that they could all do without.

This book is entertaining for females of all ages, I can’t imagine it would interest boys, although they would also benefit from the book’s attitude to people who are a bit different from others, such as those from the travelling community.

Alice and Thomas and Jane by Enid Bagnold

Alice and Thomas and Jane cover

Alice and Thomas and Jane by Enid Bagnold was published in 1930 and it’s illustrated by Enid Bagnold and Laurian Jones.

Enid Bagnold originally told these tales about three adventurous children to her own children to keep them entertained and quiet as they always wanted to do different things from each other and were often noisy and messy.

Alice, Thomas and Jane get up to all the high jinks that I’m sure Bagnold’s own children would have longed to do – such as flying in the tail of a small aeroplane, hidden from the pilot of course, taking a ferry to France as Thomas did and creeping out at night to explore Smugglers’ Cave.

This is a lovely and fun read involving vicarious and therefore safe adventuring, and the illustrations are charming. You can see a few of the images inside the book here.

Enid Bagnold is of course better known as the writer of National Velvet. I’ve not read anything else by her but it seems she had a fascinating life, although Sam Cameron, wife of ex PM David Cameron is apparently her great-granddaughter – well nobody’s perfect. You can read about Enid Bagnold here.

My copy of this book is a 1930 original and it’s bound in what I think is called buckram, it was fairly dirty when I bought it but otherwise in good condition. I’ve been able to scrub off the dirt in other books bound with buckram very successfully and it was the same with this one. They really come up well, almost like new. Sometimes the binding gets a bit sticky, then you should just allow it to dry out before having another go at it with a damp sponge or wet wipe.

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken is the second book in this series and was first published in 1965.

This book features some of the characters from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Simon travels to London with his donkey, he’s determined to become an artist and has a letter of introduction.

This is an alternative history, the setting is London in the 1830s, and King James III is on the throne which means that the Stuart dynasty is still on the throne which of course didn’t happen. But the Hanoverians are plotting against them and planning to grab power. There’s a group of Londoners willing to help and they’re stock-piling guns and ammunition.

But people are disappearing, including Simon’s friend Dr Field. Will Simon be able to track him down?

I enjoyed this one but I’m really looking forward to reading the third book in this series Nightbirds on Nantucket, which is the first one I bought, purely because the blurb sounded absolutely crazy.

The House in Cornwall by Noel Streatfeild

The House in Cornwall cover

The House in Cornwall by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1940 and was probably aimed at children aged 10 or over but I found it to be a good read. The advent of World War 2 undoubtedly galvanised many authors and inspired them to write about wartime. Streatfeild doesn’t mention the war at all, which may not quite have begun when she wrote the book but she was certainly influenced by all the shenanigans going on in Eastern Europe due to Hitler’s ‘lebensraum’ invasions.

The book begins with a railway journey from Paddington Station, four siblings are travelling to Cornwall where they are going to stay with their great-uncle for a six week holiday, they’ve never met their uncle before, but they know that their father doesn’t like the uncle. It’s just a desperate family situation that has led to the visit.

But when the children reach their destination they feel that they are being treated more like prisoners, there are guards in and around the house and during the night the children can hear what sounds like a child crying somewhere nearby. They’re determined to find out what is going on.

There is danger, secrets and revolution in the house in Cornwall. This is a tense read and I would have loved it if I had read it as a child, it’s not at all bad if you’re an awful lot older.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase cover

Every now and again I like to read a children’s book that I missed out on when I was a child and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken fits that bill. It was first published by Puffin in 1962 but my copy is a Vintage reprint.

I suppose that there have been plans to build a tunnel between Britain and France for donkey’s years, but it still seems strange to have the Channel Tunnel mentioned in a book that was published 50 or so years before it existed. The setting though is even earlier than 1962, the year is 1832 and young Bonnie has led a charmed life, the much doted on daughter of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. But there are changes ahead for them all as Lady Green has been ill for some time and her husband is taking her on a voyage hoping to find a cure for her condition.

This means that a governess is required to look after Bonnie and the family estate, and a fourth cousin of Sir Willoughby is chosen for the job – Miss Slighcarp. None of them have ever met her before but are relying on the fact that she’s a relative of sorts and so they assume she’ll be trustworthy. It turns out though that she’s anything but trustworthy and so begins a nightmare for the whole household, including Sylvia who is a young cousin sent to Willoughby Chase, she’s a good companion for Bonnie.

The tunnel has enabled wolves from frozen mainland Europe to reach Britain and it makes life extremely dangerous. But it turns out that Miss Slighcarp is even more of a threat to the young girls than the wolves are.

This is quite a tense read, considering it’s aimed at children aged 9+. There are quite a few books in the series and I’ll work my way through them all eventually. Did you read these books when you were a child – or older?

Joan Aiken is the younger sister of the author Jane Aiken Hodge.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe cover

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively is the first of her many books for children that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. It was first published in 1973.

It’s the story of the Harrison family who have recently moved into an old cottage in Oxfordshire. There’s mum and dad and two children James and Helen and Tim the dog. James and Helen have a typical brother/sister relationship, often at loggerheads but occasionally united.

The house had needed a few repairs to be done to it before they moved in, James’s attic bedroom hadn’t been used for years, in fact the workmen had had to remove nails from the door to get in, it had been well blocked up.

James likes his bedroom but strange things happen in it. Things move and get broken, there are often cold draughts, and old fashioned writing appears in various places and Tim barks at thin air. With his reputation of being a bit naughty it’s not surprising that James’s parents blame him for all the nonsense that’s been going on. He’s in trouble and knows that there’s a poltergeist which has travelled from his room and is broadening its horizons, beginning to cause trouble in the village too.

It seems that the poltergeist is the spirit of a 17th century sorcerer called Thomas Kempe and he wants James to be his apprentice, but Thomas is not happy with the way modern life has evolved since he was last on the loose.

I would have loved this book as a child but like all well written children’s books it’s just as enjoyable a read for adults too. Lively won the Carnegie Medal for this book. I think the only other of her children’s books I have is The House in Norham Gardens. Have any of you read any of her books for youngsters?

The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden

The Dragon of Og cover

I read The Dragon of Og by Rumer Godden ages ago but I’m so behind with some book thoughts that I’m only getting around to it now. It was published in 1981, it’s only the second or third children’s book by Godden that I’ve read and I must admit that it was the book cover that attracted me to it although I’m quite a fan of her books for adults. Pauline Baynes illustrated the book in colour and black and white and the cover. I’ve always liked her designs, she designed C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books in the 1960s.

Anyway, I was particularly delighted when I started to read this one as the setting is the Scottish Borders at a time when the castles were made of wood. The Castle of Tundergarth stands high on a hill overlooking broad meadows and forests through which flows the Water of Milk which isn’t as benign as it sounds as beneath its pools lies a deep cave where a dragon lives.

This isn’t an ordinary dragon though, he’s a lonely soul as his mother left him at the cave as a youngster and he has no friends, and no idea of what it means to be a dragon. The young wife of the new laird befriends him, but the laird isn’t pleased with that as Og the Dragon occasionally eats one of his bullocks and the laird is determined that Og must die. Matilda and the locals villager are up in arms about that. The story is based on an old legend of the Scottish Lowlands.

What amazed me about this book is that Godden writes quite a lot of the dialogue in Scots, using a fair few Scots words and ways of speech. She even uses correctly amn’t I instead of the less grammatical English aren’t I. That is a big bugbear of mine as editors often wrongly anglicise it and even directors have Scottish actots saying it the English way when they definitely shouldn’t be as they are speaking Scots.

I always thought of Rumer Godden as being one of those very English women – in the way that a woman who had grown up in the Indian Raj always was. But after a teeny bit of research I discovered that in her old age she moved to the Scottish Lowlands to be close to her daughter. She certainly soaked up all of the atmosphere of the area, she must have enjoyed living here I think.