Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Top Five School Stories - Keren David

Happy second birthday to this blog! To mark the occasion I am kicking off a month of top fives – children’s authors list their personal playlists for all sorts of subjects.
I’ve chosen my favourite Top Five school stories inspired in part by the brilliant recent time travel story Beswitched by Kate Saunders, in which 21st century Flora finds herself at a 1930s boarding school. It's funny, clever and there's a lot of feminism smuggled in there too.
A good school story makes you feel as though you're in the classroom with the characters. Many are set in boarding schools - an enclosed society, perfect for authors, although I did find myself wondering why there was no series that I could think of set in a modern comprehensive. Here's my top five, in reverse order.

5 Yoko and Friends – Rosemary Edwards. Some people find the kittens and other creatures in Rosemary Edwards' picture books too cutesy, I just love the very human tales of classroom life that lie behind the fluffy exteriors. Poor Yoko, for example, is mocked by her schoolmates because her lunch is traditional Japanese sushi. ‘Raw fish, yuk!’ they say. Well-meaning adult attempts to help are doomed to failure - an international lunch ends with everything eaten except Yoko’s spurned sushi. But help is at hand, thanks to a very hungry classmate with an adventurous palate.

4 Growing up in the 1970s I loved the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent Dyer, already classics written 40 years before. A boarding school in Switzerland, where the girls come from all over Europe and speak French one day and German the next. Adventures that involve skiing and Nazis. A rolling narrative, through book after book, in which an awkward spiky outsider learns to become a true Chalet girl. It’s easy to mock these stories now- and true, it does get a bit silly when everyone begins having multiple sets of triplets – but their vision of international co-operation and the information they gave about mainland Europe was quite inspirational, growing up in monochrome 1970s England. When my children attended an international school, I was often reminded of the good old Chalet School.

3 I have no doubt that much of the success of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is down to Hogwarts, her fabulous pastiche of almost every English boarding school story trope. Eccentric teachers, dormitories, letters from home, a kind but stern matron, a fatherly head teacher, priggish prefects, rabid inter-house competition - it’s all there, with the magical elements woven in.

2 The thinking reader’s school series, Antonia Forest’s books about Kingscote School (Autumn Term, End of Term, The Attic Term and Cricket Term) and the related books about the Marlow family are the best examples of the English boarding school genre I know. Every character is nuanced and rounded, and the author is equally confident with the details of boarding school life - the cricket matches, school plays, scholarships and with huge themes like bereavement and religion. I must have read each one hundreds of times, and every reading is just as satisfying as the first.

1. But my absolute favourite school story is not about an English school at all. Masha by Mara Kay is set at Smolni, the famous St Petersburg girls’ school set up by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century for noble Russian girls. Masha, aged 9, wins a scholarship and that means leaving her mother and home for nine long years to travel to St Petersburg, far, far away.
Poor Masha’s loneliness and longing for home, amid girls who tease her for her unsophisticated country ways is heartbreaking, and every detail of school life in early nineteenth century Russia is fascinating. At Smolni the girls had their hair shaved off when they arrived. For three years they were in the Brown form, followed by the Blue and then White, named for the colour of their uniforms.
One of my favourite scenes comes the first time Masha sees a Christmas tree: ‘something green and tall, ablaze with candles, smelling with pine, resin and melted wax.’ Masha, overcome with amazement, falls to her knees in front of the tree. ‘Fraulein Knappe exclaimed, ‘Fredericks!’ The Browns stopped short, falling over eachother to get a better look at Masha. The Blues and Whites who entered the ballroom, kept asking; ‘What is it? What has happened?’
It was Madmoiselle Neighardt, appearing from nowhere, who jerked Masha up, not too gently. ‘You really should teach that child more restraint, Mademoiselle,’ she snapped, and was going to say something more but at the sight of the French woman’s elaborate coiffure words seemed to fail her.'

Masha and the sequel, The Youngest Lady in Waiting are inexplicably out of print - and copies are now highly sought by collectors. The hardback that my parents bought for me on my tenth birthday (after I'd borrowed Masha from the library week after week) must be worth about £300 by now. But I’d never sell it. My favourite school story is actually my favourite book of all.


catdownunder said...

I love Rob Scotton's picture book series about Splat the Cat. The first day at school is wonderful and so is the reference (in another book in the series which is also set in school) to loving his female feline friend "more than fish-fingers and icecream"!
More grown up than that are Elfrida Vipont's "The Lark in the Morn" and Penelope Farmer's "Charlotte Sometimes" - oh and I have a copy of Masha, rescued from a library sale!

Keren David said...

I also loved The Lark in the Morn and Charlotte Sometimes - they didn't make the top five because I thought they weren't so much about school life as the others - but would recommend both. You made a very good buy in Masha - not only is it a wonderful book, but the way prices are going it'll probably be your pension.

Elen Caldecott said...

Wot no Malory Towers? For shame! I loved the natural swimming pool, filled daily by the retreating tide.
There was also a series about a tennis school? Or a girl learning tennis at school? I can't remember the details, but at ten years old I thought it was wonderful.

Keren David said...

Always prefered St Clare's (but loved them both). Then made the mistake of re-reading them as an adult. Very strange and slightly horrifying. Enid Blyton's The Naughtiest Girl in the School series was definitely in contention for championing democracy of a sort...and for its underlying creepiness.

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh, I love The Lark in the Morn! AND Antonia Forest's books - in fact, I was just writing about her book "Peter's Room" on my own blog, - but now I want to read Masha too!

But I would definitely add Rudyards Kipling's "Stalky and Co".

Looking forward to the rest of the July Fives!

Nicky said...

Ooh I remember the Chalet school - all those improbably named girls Eustacia and Theodora, you didn't get many of them to a pound up north, back in the day!

fionadunbar said...

I'd love to know what you think of my own Pink Chameleon now, Keren! Yet another boarding school setting – albeit scary future dystopian one. I'm with Elen on the Malory Towers but I would no doubt feel the same as you, Keren, if I were to re-read one now. I've got Beswitched by my bedside; hoping to get to it soon!

Keren David said...

Definitely on my reading list Fiona - I think you'll like Beswitched.

Savita Kalhan said...

I too loved Malory Towers, St. Clare's,(although I'm not sure if I'll ever revisit them) Antonia Forest's books, Lark in the Morn etc - I have very fond memories of them all. One that I absolutely loved when I was young was Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess with the wonderful Sara and the terrible Headmistress, Miss Minchin! Masha escaped me, but how to get hold of a copy now...

Lucy Coats said...

No Masha for me either--what a shame. It is obviously a candidate for a reprint, as it sounds wonderful. Yes--the Chalet school. I am ashamed to say that my entire working knowledge of German comes from those books!

Nicola Morgan said...

My favourite book is a school story - The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein. Fabulously gothic and and awesome insght into female adolescence. Girls' boarding school, dissonant setting and time period, and the question as to whether one girl is or isn't a vampire - but forget Twilight: this is stunning, deep, dark, ironic and simply brilliant.

On a different note entirely, I loved the Jennings books!

Katherine Langrish said...

Jennings! yes! I used to laugh so hard I cried.