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
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.
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.
I am not sure whether this book is as well known these days but it has to be included in my A to Z of favourite book characters.
The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far had he walked? Nobody knows. Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.
Taller than a house, the Iron man stood at the top of the cliff, on the brink, in the darkness.
In my early days of teaching in the 1970s, most primary schools classes read The Iron Man together. The length of a novella and with the essence of a folk tale moved into the 20th century, its unpredictable plot and simple messages appealed to boys and girls alike. As a poet, Ted Hughes was sparing in his words and how much he told his readers. The man made of metal is clearly described but we do not know where he has come from. Because he is eating tractors and farm equipment, the locals dig a large pit and a boy called Hogarth lures the Iron Man into it. But next Spring the Iron Man springs back out, so Hogarth leads him to a heap of scrap metal. They become friends and the Iron Man is accepted by the local community. Subsequently the Iron Man meets a “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” and together they help to restore harmony and peace amongst mankind.
“Haven’t you heard of the music of the spheres?” asked the dragon. “It’s the music that space makes to itself. All the spirits inside all the stars are singing. I’m a star spirit. I sing too. The music of the spheres is what makes space so peaceful.”