Saturday, April 18, 2009

Real childhood, children's book childhood

I'm re-reading Noel Streatfield books (when I love a book, I read it over and over), including her autobiographical novel for adults, A VICARAGE CHILDHOOD.

The differences between the childhood in her autobiographical novels for children (FAMILY SHOES and MOVING SHOES, sometimes titled THE BELL FAMILY and MOVING SHOES) and adults is totally fascinating to me.

In the children's books, the parents are loving and supportive; the family doesn't have much money, but the mother understands how hard it is for the girls to wear their cousin's old clothes, and feeds them plain but nourishing food, with treats whenever she can manage it. Ginny (the character based on Noel Streatfeild) in the Bell family is outspoken, in a hilarious way, and gets in trouble in a charming way.

Vicky, her counterpart in the adult book, is much angrier (and with good reason!). Once she throws a bottle of ink at her governess's face -- and is pleased when ink gets all over her. In the way of dysfunctional families, this incident is "smoothed over" and never mentioned again, while Vicky is severely punished for little things like once eating bread with sprinkles during Lent -- at a party where all the other children were having the cake and cookies her father had forbidden her and her sisters to eat!

In the adult version, the mother is bored by clothes and cooking, too: meals are "poorly planned" and not nutritious (a biscuit and some cocoa for supper). The mother resents Vicky for her energy and strength and is quite mean to her at times. She makes Vicky go back to school while she still has influenza, while her younger sister (who has a less severe case) remains at home and is coddled. Vicky makes a vow: she will never forget what it feels like to be thirteen and treated unfairly.

Judging from her books, she never did -- and that is probably one thing that makes them so successful, and so satisfying.

What I wonder is: would her children's books be as satisfying as they are if they included more of her real childhood? I don't mean if they focused exclusively on the dark side -- books that do that are equally one-sided, though people often seem to consider "the dark side" more realistic than the bright side. I don't think either "side" is as interesting as a more rounded picture would be, after all life isn't a pancake! What I'd like to read is a Noel Streatfeild children's book in which the heroine's optimism and hope were achieved despite the obstacles of less-than-perfect parents.

And I may get to do just that! In June there will be a new Noel Streatfeild novel (at least, I hope it's new and not just a previously published book with a new title): SAPLINGS. It's been described as "an inversion of BALLET SHOES." It's not autobiographical, but it's a Noel Streatfeild children's book I haven't read (I hope) -- I can't wait!


alvinaling said...

Fascinating. I've never read her adult books, but hope to someday. I had to look up Saplings, and it looks like it was originally published in 1945--and was also originally a ten-part serial on BBC radio!

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