Taking Mr Ravenswood by William Trevor

Anders Zorn (Swedish painter) 1860-1920 Impressions of London, 1890

Taking Mr Ravenswood” is a short story by Irish-English author William Trevor, included in Last Stories (2018) and previously unpublished. The author had already died by the time this story was released to the rest of us. This is an excellent example of the ambiguity lyrical short stories are known for. To get a sense of what happens in the story, it is necessary to read the symbolism. In line with the ambiguous, post-Chekhovian lyrical short story tradition, William Trevor offers aesthetic but not dramatic closure. But mostly, I think, he is leaving us to construct a large part of the plot.

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Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne

Have you ever wanted to go back and redo old work? A Walk In The Park is one of Anthony Browne’s earliest picture books — his second published after Through The Magic Mirror. Twenty years later (in 1998), Browne decided to redo this book in postmodern style. Now it is called Voices In The Park. In the earlier title, postmodern elements are nascently evident. Look closely and you’ll find minor elements that don’t quite fit the scene. The earlier version has a single voice. The updated book contains four separate voices in first person and is far more surreal.

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden cover Graham Rust

The Secret Garden is a novel by British-American Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally published in serialised form in America between 1910-11, the end of the Edwardian era in England. We now consider this a story for children, probably because the main characters are children. Surprising to me: this story was originally aimed at an adult readership.

When I think a little harder though, it makes sense that The Secret Garden was aimed at adult readers. If there’s a moral in this story, it’s aimed at parents. At times it sounds like a parenting manual:

Two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way – or always to have it.

The Secret Garden

If we’re going to call it children’s literature,The Secret Garden is an example from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which from 1850 until the first World War. In some ways it’s typical of its time, in other ways ahead of its time.

The Secret Garden utilises a madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a boy, not a madwoman. The haunted house and grounds are also straight out of a Gothic horror. The Secret Garden is a very clear example of the Gothic in literature. It is also clearly Christian.

I’m reading an abridged version, which is still plenty long. Though some child readers absolutely stan this novel, I don’t persoanally consider it children’s literature. In fact, I didn’t plan on ever digging deep into this novel because it gave me the absolute creeps when I was a kid myself. I was gifted a few copies and they’re still on the shelf. I started reading a few times and never finished. Then, in the year of our Lord 2020, when my own kid was in Year 6 and refused to study White Fang along with everyone else due to the animal cruelty contained within, they were handed a copy of The Secret Garden instead (because child cruelty is more palatable than animal cruelty…) Hodgson Burnett’s classic has clearly found resonance if you can still find copies hanging around in Australian schools.

Notably, my own kid also despised The Secret Garden and, like me, couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Without whole class guidance from the teacher (who had actually prepped for a unit on White Fang), it was impossible to understand.

As an adult, I have since read a completely different kind of book with a similar name: Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, which puts a whole different spin on things.

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Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Burglar Bill cover

Burglar Bill is a picture book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, first published in 1977. There are a number of picture books about burglars who break into houses at night, one of a child’s greatest fears going to sleep. Burglars can be found all across children’s literature. (Enid Blyton loved burglars.)

Be sure to examine the pictures in this one as there are plenty of visual gags. I love that Burglar Bill hangs a mugshot of himself on the wall.

I believe Burglar Bill has been hugely influential on the comical burglar stories that came after, notably:

Children’s comedy cartoons often include an intruder episode as well:

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Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.

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Avocado Baby by John Burningham (1982)

Avocado Baby (1982) is a picture book written and illustrated by John Burningham. This was my first introduction to John Burningham. Our teacher read it in class. I was about six.

I don’t think I’d ever eaten an avocado at age six, so it functioned as a magical fruit, and didn’t strike me as odd that Burningham refers to them as ‘avocado pears’. I just checked: avocado is not related to the pear. Avocados were sometimes called avocado pears (in England) because of their pear-like shape.

Fruit is prone to changing its name between generations. Where I grew up, in New Zealand, my grandmother always called kiwifruit ‘Chinese gooseberries’. That’s what kiwifruit were called until the fruit marketing board got a hold of them and rebranded the ‘Chinese gooseberry’ for mass export, conveniently linking the furry brown skins with New Zealand’s most famous endangered bird. (Kiwifruit are not related to gooseberries.)

Then, when I left New Zealand, I realised only New Zealanders call kiwifruit ‘kiwifruit’ — the rest of the world shortens to ‘kiwi’, which is unsettling for a New Zealander self-identifying as ‘kiwi’. I am not a fruit!

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Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham 1977

Come Away From The Water, Shirley is a 1977 picture book written and illustrated by British storyteller, John Burningham. A number of adult readers talk about the “two different stories” going on in this book.

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Danny The Champion Of The World by Roald Dahl

Archibald Thorburn, naturalist illustrator - Pheasants

As an English speaking child of the 80s I grew up on a heavy diet of Roald Dahl. Danny The Champion Of The World (1975) stands out in my adult memory my favourite Dahl story, perhaps only bested by the frisson of horror left by The Witches (in which I actually examined my J2 teacher, thinking she might be a witch. Fortunately she didn’t wear gloves, which absolved her.)

I have now, finally, revisited Danny The Champion Of The World as an adult, despite this being one of my favourite childhood reads. Why ‘finally’? I’m loathe to further promote Dahl’s work on the Internet, partly because an entire cottage industry has popped up around the man and the mythology, with teacher resources available, schools full of class sets of his books. My own child’s primary teachers are still teaching Roald Dahl, despite there being many, many better options for a class study.

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Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes

Moving Molly may sound like a drug dealer’s handbook but is also a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes (1981). Shirley Hughes is one of the big name picture book storytellers from my childhood. Another favourite is Dogger. I’ve also analysed Up and Up on this blog.

I know that Shirley Hughes’s illustrations are not for everybody. She has a highly recognisable style, but I haven’t seen much similar in modern picture books, possibly because digital illustration has changed the way illustrators work, and also probably because fashions have changed. When I describe Hughes’s style as ‘grimy’, I do mean it in the best possible way. Her colours are darker than you might expect for a picture book, the hues are almost a bit muddy, and the cross hatching adds life and texture, avoiding the illusion of utopia. The children and adults are not ‘pretty’. The illustration style matches her stories perfectly, because Hughes never gives the message that life is easy and perfect; her stories are set in the real world of children, full of appropriately child-sized struggle.

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The Haunted Dolls’ House by M.R. James

“The Haunted Dolls’ House” (1923) is a short ghost story by Montague Rhodes James. Being out of copyright, you can read it at Project Gutenberg.

The reader does not attempt the varied English accents clearly conveyed by the syntax chosen by James but is otherwise good to read along to.
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