Why do grown-ups read children’s books? It’s a thought that crosses my mind in the wake of huge publishing successes in crossover markets like Harry Potter and the Twilight books. Together they have encouraged and sustained the phenomenon that is the YA novel, not something that existed in my young adulthood, when the shelves of the library held a few copies of Catcher in the Rye and Judy Blume’s novels about puberty. And it’s not really a genre I read now. Of course when my son was little I read lots and lots of children’s books to him, and enjoyed them very much in a faintly vicarious way. A few years ago, I read Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and thought it was a stunning novel, one of the most powerful reads I had come across at the time, so I have only warm, fuzzy feelings about YA, which is where I think a lot of the exciting, experimental writing was going for a while. But it’s just not a genre that I would normally pick up.
Then last week, wanting something comforting and easy to read, I remembered I’d been given a copy of Autumn Term by Antonia Forest, which is a favourite comfort read of a good friend of mine. I also recalled that I had a copy of Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool, which I’d swapped with my son when he was given it for Christmas (it being a tad young and girly for him). Thinking they would make a good comparison, I read them both.
Autumn Term is a classic boarding school story about Nick and Lawrie Marlowe, 12-year-old girl twins who are following their illustrious older sisters (all four of them) to Kingscote school. This is the first taste of conventional education for the twins who have been plagued with childhood illnesses like measles and mumps to such a degree that they’ve not been able to attend school (which seems extraordinary, but then the book was published in 1948). They have a lot of catching up to do, given that all their sisters have distinguished themselves at lessons or sport or Guides. They are fed up of being the useless ones and determined to make their mark, only of course, the harder they try to be outstanding, the more disastrous the consequences. The Dragonfly Pool has an altogether different feel. Tally has received a scholarship to the unconventional Delderton Hall, a progressive school where lessons are eccentric and discipline is minimal. At first, Tally is heartbroken to leave her happy family, but the Second World War is looming and her father is determined she should be safe in Devon. However, after watching a newsreel at the cinema about the small European principality of Bergania, Tally develops a craving to visit the country, one she has the opportunity to satisfy by convincing her schoolmates to put together a folkdance for the upcoming international festival there. Bergania turns out to be a deeply troubled kingdom, menaced by the approach of Hitler, and Tally and her friends are soon swept up in an adventure as they try to smuggle the crown prince to safety.
So, the boarding school offers a separate world, free from parents and their endless injunctions in which children can test their mettle, not to mention the rule-bound systems that dominate society. Autumn Term is very much in this mould, as the twins break the rules both deliberately and inadvertently, issues of trust and betrayal are proved to be paramount in friendships, and awkward, hostile or intimidating people have to be negotiated. The Dragonfly Pool has something different in mind, as boarding school becomes a liberating environment in which Tally can exercise her considerable powers of leadership and enterprise, as well as fulfil her personal destiny. The rules of school, simple as they are, are counterpointed to the collapsing society around them, and children are shown to have the faith in one another that the adults are in danger of losing altogether. A historically real world is peopled in this novel by a pantomime cast, with evil villains and uppity princesses and heroic heroines.
I must confess that I enjoyed Autumn Term as an easy and engaging read, but found The Dragonfly Pool to be, well, annoying. I realise this is the wrong way round. I ought to have found Autumn Term conservative and non-PC, and The Dragonfly Pool exciting and moving. But Autumn Term felt real in a way that the Eva Ibbotson (and I apologise to the enormous legion of Ibbotson fans across the internet) was not. Nick and Lawrie were ordinary children, hopeful, flawed, naive, proud. They suffered severe disappointments over silly clubs and difficult lessons, they got to see their family in a different light and when the plot relented and gave them a degree of success in the end of term play, it felt triumphant in its small-scale way. In The Dragonfly Pool, the marvellous Tally got up my nose with her fearless and heroic ways, the family of Prince Karil were cardboard caricatures and the adventures the children had were thoroughly implausible. It all felt a bit… Disney-fied.
I do not mean to be unkind to Eva Ibbotson, who is a recognised children’s author. It’s not that her book is bad, not at all; it is just that Autumn Term is much more to my taste. And the reason is down to the difference in moral universes that the stories present. Autumn Term is about longing to be wonderful and clever and distinguished and dealing with the recognition that life rarely accords us such glittering prizes. The Dragonfly Pool is about the reader identifying with the heroine, Tally, and enjoying the fantasy of being marvellous and clever and distinguished. Both novels, then, are dealing with that profound and inextinguishable human desire to be someone special, to do admirable things, and to have excitement in our lives. Eva Ibbotson offers the fantasy of living that dream. Antonia Fraser offers the comforting reassurance that not getting the dream isn’t so bad after all. For myself, I prefer reality every time, although this would not be everyone’s choice. But the return to childhood reading puts us back in the place before reality has bitten into the imagination, and gives us the chance to pretend that all kinds of achievement are still within our grasp in a world that has yet to reveal itself as both random and indifferent. The prospect is bound to be comforting.