Joan Aiken was an amazing writer of children’s fiction about the supernatural or alternative history. The long series of fat books which begin with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are set in Britain in a version of late 17th century history where James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover are active enemies of the monarchy. Wolves have invaded the country from Europe via the newly built Channel Tunnel. The child hero or heroine varies from one book to another, but my favourite appears first in book 2, Black Hearts in Battersea. Here I met Dido Twite, a poor ragamuffin girl who helps young apprentice painter, Simon and the wealthy, Sophie. Dido Twite speaks appallingly, dresses scruffily and is defiantly independent. She also proves to be loyal and brave. The children deal with wolves, kidnapping and shipwreck.
Part of Dido’s endearing quality is her personal vocabulary. In distress she exclaims, “Croopus!” Her friendly greeting is, “Wotcher my cully,” and we understand her meaning when she says, “betwaddled,” or “havey-cavey.” It is such a relief when this extraordinary girl reappears in Night Birds in Nantucket and other books in series.
This will be the last of my #AtoZChallenges for two reasons. Firstly, because I am travelling for several days with limited Internet connection but secondly because I am uninspired by the last few letters of the alphabet. Perhaps you can suggest suitable book characters you might have included in your list of favourites.
My A to Z favourite Book Characters
Although I read the three books of Philip Pullmans’ “His Dark Materials” with great enjoyment, there is something about the Sally Lockhart mysteries which appealed to me more, and that is mainly Sally herself.
In the first book The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally is a pretty sixteen year old orphan. Her father has taught her military tactics, to ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol, but he has drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Finding herself alone but determinedly independent in Victorian London she sets out to discover the truth about her father’s death, but this involves the terrifying mystery of a bloodsoaked jewel. Although the story uses the ideas of a Victorian Penny-Dreadful, Sally is a sensible hard-working girl who believes the best of people and treats others kindly. In the following books, Sally matures into a successful business woman. She experiences romance, tragedy and the turbulent politics of the time. She is very much an underrated heroine in an unusual trilogy of young adult books, not for the faint-hearted.
Some other heroines I chose for my A to Z are perhaps more conventional:
Anne of Green Gables
What Katy did
Maia in Journey to the River Sea
In the first chapter of Wind in the Willows, Mole abandons his spring cleaning and wanders down to the riverbank. There, through a small hole in the opposite bank he spots,
“A brown little face, with whiskers. A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice. Small neat ears and thick silky hair.
It was the Water Rat!”
Ratty invites Mole to stay with him, enjoy life on the river and meet his friends, Badger and Toad.
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Something about Ratty reminds me of Cleggie from “Last of the Summer Wine.” He is kind, friendly and well adjusted. He has a strong sense of manners and responsibility, so he wants to make sure everyone around him feels comfortable and included. He becomes Mole’s mentor, showing him how to enjoy exploration and new discoveries. He trusts Badger and does his best to guide Toad towards the straight and narrow, but he is usually unsuccessful!
All my A to Z Challenge posts
Ramona Quimby is an ordinary little girl with normal parents and a well-behaved older sister. Although set in America, this family could easily be a typical British middle-class family where times are sometimes hard. My favourite book is Ramona the Pest when she anxiously starts nursery school alongside her neighbour, Howie. Her kind teacher, Miss Binney, tells her to, “sit there for the present,” so she patiently waits to be given the present. She is fascinated by her classmates corkscrew curls so she pulls them to see them ping which, rather harshly I thought, causes her to be suspended from school. Her vivid imagination makes her a joy to encounter but constantly gets her into trouble. As the series continues we see Ramona longing to grow up quickly, dealing with school bullies and trying to help her family when her father loses his job.
“Come on, Mama!” urged Ramona, “We don’t want to be late for school.”
“Don’t pester, Ramona. I’ll get you there in time.”
“I’m not pestering,” protested Ramona who never meant to pester. She was not a slow-poke grown-up. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happens next.
Perhaps you watched Ramona on the TV programme which was pretty true to the books. I would be proud to have Ramona as a member of my family.
I first came to the story of Pollyanna when I went to the cinema at the age of 11 to see the film. Unfortunately I forgot my glasses, needed for distance viewing, so sitting in the circle it was like listening to an audio-book! As a result I soon found the book by Eleanor Porter, to fill in the parts I had found difficult to follow, and it was well worthwhile.
‘Most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it’
When orphaned 11-year-old Pollyanna comes to live with Aunt Polly, she just feels lucky to have an aunt at all. She lives by the philosophy of her father, that there is always something to be glad about. Gradually she conveys that optimism and happy disposition to her aunt and the local community. But she is not a sickly sweet child, for she gets into mischief and never stops talking. Often she lacks tact or understanding of her elders and she has to suffer harsh words from others who do not appreciate her attitude. And then everything falls apart when a dreadful accident paralyses Pollyanna. Suddenly it is difficult to “play the glad game” or find the joy in every day. Will her positivity ever return?
It is amazing how many of the characters I love from 20th century children’s books were likeable but precocious children, often orphaned, who charmed those they encountered and made a success of their lives.
“The boy lay in the silence of the great battlefield, gazing at his own hand spread on the ground beside him. The hand moved and he realized, with something like surprise, that he was not dead. His name was Owain and further up the hillside lay his father and brother, both killed by Saxon warriors in that last great battle of Aquae Sulis.”
Dawn Wind is set in 6th century Britain, telling the story of Owain, alone in the world apart from his companion, Dog, with whom he strides across the battle-scarred land. The Saxons, Angles and Jutes have conquered most of Britain and Owain is a descendent of Roman and British soldiers. After the battle near Bath, as the sole survivor, Owain walks to the ruins of Viroconium (Wroxeter) where he meets a street urchin named Regina, the only person left in the city. They learn to trust each other and form a bond. When they leave the city and are later separated, Owain becomes a thrall to a Saxon lord in the swamps near the Isle of Wight, where he spends a number of years. The book brings to life the atmosphere of those towns left by the Romans and taken over by the British to create a haunted townscape and in contrast the busy, productive life of the thriving Saxon homesteads.
Owain is a hero it is easy to relate to, and to get emotionally involved with. He gives away years of his life out of honour, even though his own desire is to find Regina again.
Have you read Dawn Wind or only The more famous book by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth?
Thursday Next is the heroine of an alternative twentieth century world. A bold, courageous woman, she has returned from a military career in the Crimean War to take up a post as a Literary Detective. She has the ability to jump in and out of famous books and alarmingly, some of the characters can jump out of their novels, changing the plots. In the first novel of this series Thursday changes the ending of Jane Eyre to the far superior conclusion we are familiar with.
At home in Swindon, Thursday lives with her pet Dodo, Pickwick, wondering what happened to her father, a special operative who may be trapped in another dimension. George Formby is the first president of the English Republic, elected after successful liberation from the Nazis. Thursday’s active life makes relationships hard to maintain but there is romance on the horizon. Her story is full of humour, mishap, heroism and extraordinary situations which particularly appeal to a bookaholic.
As Journey to the River Sea begins, I am reminded of Sara Crewe in The Little Princess who finds herself stranded in an English boarding school after being orphaned. In 1910, Maia finds herself in the same predicament except that she is soon offered an exciting new future in Brazil. Apparently, she has relatives who own a rubber plantation on the Amazon river and her new cousins have written welcoming her to their family. Accompanied by a rather forbidding governess Miss Minton, she travels out to join the Carter family in Manaus and then her troubles begin. The Carters neglect and exploit Maia, merely taking her in for her parents’ legacy. Only Finn, a mysterious boy in a canoe offers her an escape. Setting out along the beautiful, colourful Amazon they seek out the Xanti tribe of Finn’s mother. Maia is able to use her musical talent and helps Finn to plan his future with the help of child actor Clovis. She is reunited with Miss Minton who cares deeply about her welfare and knows that she is now in her spiritual home.
I have to admit that Laura of Little House on the Prairie is for me the girl I came to know in the long-running TV series from 1974 to 1983 but eventually I read Little House in the Big Woods, the first of the partly fictional autobiographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In the Big Woods, Ma and Pa Ingalls lived with Laura, Mary and baby Carrie, surrounded by many wild animals, most of which, Pa hunted for food. Their story of life in the 1870s and 80s is told simply in child-friendly language. Later they board a covered wagon and travel west across America as pioneers to live in the warm prairie. Here they must battle for land and to survive, working hard and sticking together through joys, hardships and sorrow. It is a life experience quite outside any we can know today which Laura tells with childlike candour.
Today’s fictional heroine, Katy Carr, is yet another character from the 19th century, but written in America in 1870 she seems so much more up-to-date. At 12, Katy is the eldest of 6 children, living with their father Dr Carr and his sister Aunt Izzie. She leads her siblings in fun and adventure, always with good intentions but she is thoughtless and impulsive, leading to a life-changing accident. Suddenly her future is severely restricted, and Katy is marooned upstairs as an invalid. She eventually decides to make her room and her company welcoming and irresistible so that her family seek her out.
You can’t help liking Katy and wishing the best for her. In What Katy Did At School, which for me was the best of the trilogy, Katy and Clover go to a boarding school in New England and in What Katy Did Next she travels to Europe. I am tempted to reread these three books by Susan Coolidge, set in a time when life was simpler.