As well as being funny, clever and moving, having a great story and songs which are still going round and round my head, it was also thought-provoking. John, Susan, Titty and Roger are – wait for it – twelve, eleven, nine and seven (and the seven-year-old can’t swim) when they are set loose on their yacht, unaccompanied, to sail and camp around a Cumbrian lake.
if not duffers won't drown
is their father’s famous rationale for this decision!
As it happens, the children I was with were roughly these ages. I imagined waving them off from the jetty with their sleeping bags, compasses and pen knifes – and a couple of hours later the police arriving on my door. I’m not sure which precise law forbids you from sending kids afloat, alone, in the Lake District. But there must be one.
Maybe even in the 1930s that scenario was a tad unrealistic. But now it has become utterly incredible – and something has been lost as a result. In fact Play England made this very point in the show's programme. Children thrive on outdoor freedom and the chance for imaginative play.
I’m already well aware of this issue. I write books for children which are set in the here-and –now. I write about mischievous, curious characters having everyday adventures. And what a lot of problems that gives me with the action, in today’s constrained world.
If I want my young character Martha Bones to run away from home – as she does – where is she to go? Her 1930s equivalent My Naughty Little Sister struck out for the middle of town. (She also took trains unaccompanied- as a pre-schooler!) In the twenty-first century that’s just an impossible dream.
Martha ends up camping out in Next Door’s garden instead.
Children in 2012 can’t ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, jump on a bus, explore the woods or camp out alone. Just William would have surely exploded from the pressures of staying home all day. Or would he just have been glued to an x-box instead?
The imagination, however, is still its own realm. Like many authors, I’ve been on the road this last month, visiting the many schools who have been having their annual Book Week. (Why do they all choose March? But that’s another issue.)
It’s fascinating to come into contact with young readers, and to see their imaginations at work. In the workshops that I do, I try to give them the freedom to roam, to play around with their own ideas, without the preoccupation with planning, spelling and punctuation which is often inevitable in school hours.
Their imagination takes them all kinds of places – OK, sometimes rather gorey places for my taste – but also to funny and exotic worlds of their own imaginings, as they invent their own “naughty characters” and record their exploits.
It's this playfulness that we need to nourish - in school, at home and maybe even on the waters of Lake Windermere...
Emma's latest book is How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good