Six Degrees of Separation in May

Books and reading

I think that my choice of books this month make not so much an ordered chain as an untidy, loosely related pile. Beverley Cleary‘s Beezus and Ramona is the starting point, and is about Beezus’ travails with her younger sister. Somehow, though my children read this book, I didn’t read this one along with them.

But we did share another book about an annoying small sister. Dorothy EdwardsMy Naughty Little Sister is charmingly dated and old fashioned in a Listen with Mother kind of way, but is an appealing set of stories for bridging the gap between reading full-on picture books aloud with your child to those with few illustrations . My children enjoyed these cosy domestic dramas so reminiscent of their own daily lives, as well as the occasional pictures by Shirley Hughes.

From a naughty little sister to a naughty and irrepressible young boy. Just William by Richmal Crompton has been around since the 1920s. My mother liked him when she was young. I liked him: so did all my children. Martin Jarvis reading yet another misadventure of William Brown and his gang enlivened many long car journeys when they were small.

These books all seem to be about boys. I wasn’t keen on boarding school stories for girls: Malory Towers and The Chalet School held no appeal for me. I was much keener on Anthony Buckeridge‘s decent ordered word of Linbury Court, the prep school where irrepressible Jennings and his nice-but-dim friend Darbishire were pupils, and responsible for a fair bit of amiable disorder. It was never a good idea to Leave it to Jennings.

I’m still with unruly pupils who go to prep school, this one going by the unlikely name of St. Custard’s. This was where Nigel Molesworth was educated, and he recorded his ‘thorts’ (sic) in Down with Skool! (assisted by the author, Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle) on lessons (‘chiz chiz‘), the Head Boy Grabber, who was ‘winner of the Mrs. Joyful prize for raffia work’, and the ‘utterly wet‘ Fotherington-Thomas (‘Hello clouds, hello sky‘). His thoughts are clever, cynical, philosophical, yet optimistic, and he really can’t spell. To re-read them as an adult is to realise how much passes over the head of a child of a child of ten. Perhaps it’s best to think of the Molesworth books as being about childhood, but for adults.

Now I’m going to cheat. My next choice isn’t a book at all, but a defunct magazine, The Young Elizabethan. It was a magazine aimed at grammar school teenagers, and its heydays were the 1950s and 60s. It was about books, about history, world affairs, astronomy, nature, about the world at large, and attracted writers like James (now Jan) Morris, Geoffrey Trease, and Nigel Molesworth himself. I once won the runner-up prize in a story-writing competition, and got a certificate and a postal order for 10/- (fifty pence). Or was it half a crown – 2/6d (twelve and a half pence)? This magazine was unapologetically high-minded, but with writers of quality at its beck and call, I always read it from cover to cover.

I’m not quite sure where to go from here. Maybe a book I read at the time which has since reached a wider audience through having become a popular television series, which diverged wildly from the original as the series progressed. I got Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals at Christmas when I was ten, and finished it before the day was out. Gerald certainly frequented no prep school, but rather the University of Life. His family decamped to Corfu when he was about the age I was then, and he had the chance to develop the obsession with the natural world which informed his entire adult career.

So that’s my Six Degrees of Separation this month. We’ve started with a popular children’s book, and meandered through some of the reading choices I and my children have made. If you want to know more, this is what Six Degrees is all about: ‘On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book’. You can read what other bloggers made of their chains here.

72 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation in May

  1. Interesting choices! I remember reading My Naughty Little Sister, which appealed to me because I did, indeed, have a naughty little sister who used to draw on my books if I did not tidy them away!

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  2. I’d forgotten about William until earlier this year when I finished seeing BBC’s limited serial Good Omens (a whole set appears briefly in the picture towards the end). That brought back other completely forgotten, but apparently linked, memories of Biggles. Are these things still in print?

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    1. As a girl in the 1950s and ’60s, Biggles was way beyond my remit. But I understand the books were recently re-issued. William has never, as far as I know, been out of print, and the tales are now overlaid by a nostalgia for more innocent times which makes them as popular as they ever were.

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  3. I like the naughty children theme at the beginning of your chain. I’ve heard of The Young Elizabethan, although it’s a bit before my time – I do remember Look and Learn which was aimed at a similar but younger market.

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  4. What wonderful choices!! I love the sound of the The Young Elizabethan–I’d have been all over that as a kid. I love snarky books, but a snarky book with the ‘winner of the Mrs. Joyful prize for raffia work’ is too funny!

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  5. ‘My naughty little sister’ was one of my childhood favourites – probably in part because I had a naughty little sister, although on reflection no naughtier than I was myself! Beezus and Ramona came after my time but I enjoyed introducing it to children when I worked as a children’s librarian. I loved Malory Towers (and St Clares) and was convinced I would love boarding school if only my parents would let me go! But I never cam across the Young Elizabethan, despite being firmly in the target audience. Instead we were bought ‘Look and Learn’ 🙂

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    1. Oh, I knew and liked Look and Learn too. And I had Children’s Newspaper too, which I largely found dull. Perhaps because I was reading about boys rather than girls, it somehow never occurred to me that boarding school was in any way real. I’d have ended up at St. Custard’s anyway.

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  6. I can’t really believe this, but I haven’t read ANY of these books, although I knew about Just William and the Jennings books, they just weren’t the books my parents gave me – or that I found myself in the library. It seems I missed out …

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    1. Children’s books are the best! I think the best part of being a grandparent is having the chance to meet the next generation of children’s stories and illustrators.

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  7. Great chain! I very nearly linked to My Naughty Little Sister too, but went in a different direction instead as I was struggling to think of the next link after that. I should have thought of Just William, as I enjoyed those books as a child too!

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  8. Interesting concept. Not read any of the titles . I suppose in India we had more of Enid Blyton, Winnie the Pooh, Little Women (later on) and similar books . Don’t remember other names the children read

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  9. Fun chain! Love the naughty children links! I can’t believe I haven’t read any of them. For me, it was Wind in the Willows, Enid Blyton and Trixie Beldon books!

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  10. Fun chain! Love the naughty children links! I can’t believe I haven’t read any of them. For me, it was Wind in the Willows, Enid Blyton and Trixie Beldon books!

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  11. Yay for childhood favorites! I liked the jump from one naughtly little sister to the next–I’m sure that I was the naughtly little sister in the family! 🤣🤣🤣 That’s so cool that you won the runner-up prize in a story-writing competition! Do you still remember your story?? I enjoyed reading your chain!

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    1. I feel a bit ambivalent about it. It’s quite fun in its own right, but not a bit like the book. As a child I loved his other books too, though I haven’t read them since. Perhaps I should.

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    1. Ah. I was an only child, and schoolfriends complaining about their naughty little sisters and brothers, and ghastly older siblings convinced me I was the lucky one. It took me years to realise how much I’d missed out.

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  12. This post was such a delight! I’m smiling as I write here. Just William is an old, old favorite. Such a little rascal he was. I’ve heard there’s a TV show too out there, have been meaning to try that out for a while. Young Elizabethan looks like a charming magazine, wish they still had something like that in circulation for kids today. And I’m really compelled to (read) Leave it to Jennings. ❤

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    1. I think Just William on TV was really quite a few years ago and for some reason I never saw it. I wonder whether Jennings might seem hopelessly dated now? I daren’t find out! And sadly, I guess the likes of the Young Elizabethan has had its day. A real shame.

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  13. It’d funny how different people’s tastes are. The Chalet School and are part of the reason I ended up living in Austria for a year after graduation. I never came across any boy’s boarding school books as a child (other than Roald Dahl’s book about his own tone at boarding school) but I did read Molesworth as an adult.

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    1. Well, it’s just as well not only that we’re all different, but that challenges like these sometimes push us out of our comfort zones, all in the good cause of broadening our horizons. And if The Chalet School got you to Austria, that’s certainly a result!

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  14. I enjoyed that roam through children’s literature, Margaret. And I loved the covers too.
    Amazingly, I didn’t read a single one of those, not to myself or to Rachel. I was a big Chalet School fan, which was one of the things that started my itchy feet and made me keen to learn languages. And Malcolm Saville and Tove Jansson. And books about horses, horse and horses!
    And I suddenly remembered all the Dennis Wheatley books this week – spotted a lovely old copy of The prisoner in the Mask in a local bookshop. It’s now sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be opened again! He may well appear in a future reading chain.

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    1. I’m guessing we wouldn’t have been in the same gang at school. My horsey books didn’t extend beyond Black Beauty. Malcolm Saville – nope, not so much. Tove Jansson – yet to catch up with her as well. But there are a fair few books our there so it’s not surprising we’ve fixed on different ones.

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  15. Ah yes, we matched at the start and diverged! Loved this meander through your childhood faves. I was also a grammer-school girl and inveterate story writer but sadly The Young Elizabethan never came my way. I was a huge fan of the Chalet School though but had no interest in Biggles, William and the other naughty boys.

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  16. That cover by Shirley Hughes – unmistakable, and quite perfect. I wonder if she is still illustrating as well as writing at 90 plus! And, of course, a natural flow in your chain from that to Just William and Martin Jarvis’s narration, absolutely ripping.

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  17. What a wonderful post Margaret.

    I am much drawn to the whole “six points of separation” concept and often try to apply it mentally, usually to myself and someone I have read about. I love the idea of applying the idea to books.

    My late Mother did not go to Uni although she had the grades but there just wasn’t the money in the family in the 40’s although she turned out to be something of a polymath including a few years in the 60’s as an assistant librarian in the Bishop Street Library in Londonderry where I used to spend a fair bit of time and probably developed my love of reading.

    I have not read the first two books on your list (far too girly for me!) but William and Jennings were high on my reading list but my absolute favourite was “Down with Skool” although my Mother had serious reservations. I think she thought it would harm my spelling. She would never let me read Enid Blyton as she said they were not well written but bizarrely “Thomas the Tank Engine” was deemed acceptable. Don’t ask me the reasoning behind that. I loved Thomas the Tank Engine and Biggles was another childhood addiction.

    I had never heard of the Young Elizabethan before reading this post but the list of contributors is impressive. It looks like a Searle cover as well. Incidentally, had you heard that Jan Morris died last November aged 94?

    I have never read Durrell’s Corfiot classic although, coincidentally, it was one of my late Mother’s favourite books and I believe there is still a copy in my late Father’s house if my brother has not cleared out the library but I doubt he has done that. I’ll maybe have a read of it if I am ever able to get back to Northern Ireland again.

    I might even have a go at next month’s challenge although I have never even heard of the “start” book and I am going now to explore some other people’s ideas on the subject to get a better idea how it works. Thanks so much for alerting me to this.

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    1. It sounds as if we may have had similar childhoods – I too was not allowed any Enid Blyton books – I read a couple anyway, but didn’t really like them. Nigel Molesworth made my mother laugh too, so that was alright. Yes, I’d heard Jan Morris had died and have recently read a bit more of her work. Oh yes, please join in – not having read the starter book is no bar: I often haven’t. It’s enough to know enough about it to set your brain in gear thinking of where to send your chain. And we all spark off in such different directions – fun, but also frustrating. How am I going to find the time to fit in reading all those interesting sounding books? Welcome to Six Degrees!

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  18. I love this chain, Margaret as many of your choices are known and loved by me. I have never heard of Beezus and Ramona and don’t believe I read anything by Beverly Cleary but I loved My Naughty Little Sister and so did both my daughters. I had/have a very naughty little sister of my own. I loved Jennings and so did my brother, who is a year younger than me. I used to read the books aloud to him and we always laughed so much we had trouble breathing! They are a bit dated but the situations make me grin even now. I discovered William, Molesworth and Durrell’s books as an adult; my ex-husband’s grandmother bequeathed me all her William collection. I would have loved Young Elizabethan but I never came across it. I read a lot of boarding school stories from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s as my grandmother and aunt had a large collection so the Chalet School is familiar to me but I never got into Malory Towers.
    A fun post, thank you!

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  19. Thanks Clare. I think those of us who admit to having known and loved Jennings et al unwittingly date ourselves firmly a certain era. I now know you’re no longer in your 30s! But it’s good that some of our well-loved classics have survived the passage of time.

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  20. You’ve brought back some happy memories with this chain. I loved My Naughty Little Sister (maybe because I had one, but she was never naughty like the one in the book) and Jennings and Just William were favourites too, particularly Jennings. After reading your post I had to go and look for my copy of My Naughty Little Sister and it is now on my ‘to be read’ pile. My cover is slightly different – I have the 1963 edition.

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  21. Ah! That dates you accurately. The edition I chose nails me as reading with my children in the late 70s – early 80s. Glad to meet a fellow William and Jennings fan!

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