A 7 page Supplement on SCHOOL STORIES
It’s over seventy years since the first of the ‘chaps’ of Greyfriars appeared in the pages of that immortal comic, Magnet. Since then we have had two World Wars, the rise (and fall) of state Grammar Schools, the arrival of Comprehensive education, and massive social change – including the growth of a popular ‘youth culture’. Hardly surprising then that in that time the School Story lost its place as the dominant form of children’s fiction. At one time it seemed to have disappeared for ever in favour of ‘family adventures’, social realism or, that first division of children’s books in the 1960’s, fantasy. But school stories are staging a comeback. In The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler Gene Kemp showed the junior school to be full of possibilities for action-packed, humorous storytelling. Others have followed her example, not least Tim Kenne-more whose first novel, published last year, is firmly set in a village primary school. And of course the huge success of Grange Hill first on television and then in Robert Leeson’s stories has given the secondary school story a new lease of life.
The world the fans of Grange Hill were born into is far, far removed from that of the readers of the tales of Greyfriars. So how different is Comprehensive. co-educational Grange Hill from its boarding school predecessors, Greyfriars, St. Dominics, and the Rugby of Tom Brown? Nowadays, we are told, they tell it like it is. Realism comes to school stories: kids get into trouble in and out of school: there’s shoplifting, gangs in the precinct, bullying. But remember Flashman and his cronies ‘roasting’ Tom Brown’! Flashman carried back to school drunk from too much gin punch? Tom caught by the keeper for poaching? Skittles, billiards, beer and gambling at the Cockchafer out of bounds to all the boys of St. Dominics? Perhaps it’s the ‘code’ that is different: stiff upper lip, the honour of the school, no sneaking, stand up for the underdog. Is all that past? How different is Tucker Jenkins from Bob Cherry and Harry Wharton’
And what about the girls’ school story which has its own history? How would Trisha Yates or tomboy Annette Firman, a new Grange Hill character, fit into a story by Angela Brazil? Could you see them at the Chalet School or Malory Towers? (Institutions which kept their fans right through the school story recession and have recently been joined by Ann Digby’s Trebizon which is straight out of School Friend.)
What is the appeal of the school story? How ‘real’ does it have to be? Many of the most enthusiastic readers of the Greyfriars tales had never been to boarding school. Many of the fans of Grange Hill are not at urban comprehensive schools. Even if the outward trappings are different, perhaps the experience of being at school is much the same in any time or place. There is more than one way of being ‘real’. Perhaps too some readers are not looking for realism in school stories. They may be seeking instead an excitement, an order, a justice which is missing from their own boring, chaotic, arbitrary existence.
To give us some perspective on all this we have compiled a seven page special feature on School Stories.
Mary Cadogan surveys school stories of the last sixty years. Her list is not meant to be comprehensive: but if you are interested to follow up the subject this is the place to start. It’s also the place to find some new names to offer to those developing or pursuing a taste for the school story.
Also in this feature: a brief look at school stories for the youngest: an interview with a new young writer who sees school as a natural background for her stories, and a chance to get to know the man behind Grange Hill, Phil Redmond.
The Rise and Fall and Rise of School Stories
Mary Cadogan traces the history of the school story since the beginning of the century.
The twentieth-century school story began with Angela Brazil’s The Fortunes of Philippa (1906) and Charles Hamilton’s tales of St Jim’s in the 1907 halfpenny story paper, the Gem. In real life, many girls were at last getting away from domestic restraints by going to boarding school. Angela Brazil caught – and glamorised – the new mood of expansive excitement that the world of school symbolised for them, and she swept away for ever the mawkishness that had characterised earlier school stories for girls by L.T. Meade and others. Hamilton, first as ‘Martin Clifford’ in the Gem and then as ‘Frank Richards’ in the Magnet (1908), had more to build on, but also more to demolish in the boys’ school genre. With the establishment of Greyfriars he lifted this from muscular but oppressive morality into addictive entertainment for several generations of children.
Angela Brazil achieved her ends with ‘jinky’ girlish jargon, ‘spiffing’ stunts and a positive mania for games and sport. Hamilton was successful because he never wrote down to the child; he dispensed with stereotyped ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and created larger-than-life (literally in Billy Bunter’s case) characterizations that were nevertheless believable. Adding his own exuberance to the ironies of Kipling’s Stalky & Co (1899) and Wodehouse’s amalgam of drollery and languid individualism in Tales of St Austin’s (1903 and now available in Puffin), Hamilton hit on the formula for the school story’s enduring appeal. This was, of course, the setting up of school as a vigorous world in microcosm, where juveniles – despite the ostensible adult authority of the teaching staff – came into their own as initiators and organisers.
This pattern was embroidered and refurbished over several decades by Hamilton/Brazil imitators and successors. Bernard Ashley has clearly redefined this formula, for the 1980s, in terms of his own school stories, which, he says, deal with ‘a boy’s attempts to cope with a crisis point in his life, each crisis presenting a problem as serious at the time as any he will later have to face as an adult’. (Like Hamilton and most other successful authors of school stories, Ashley manages not only to express juvenile experiences as if from the inside, but also to convey hints of the child character’s adult potential in a way that is revealing and satisfying to the young reader.)
Decline and virtual demise of the genre occurred during the 1960s, when real life children in mixed comprehensive schools increasingly found tales based on single sex boarding schools anachronistic. But recently the school story has been inching back into fashion and, according to several publishers, it is now alive and well. It has, of course, been given a boost by the popularity of the television Grange Hill series, possibly also by The Public School (Radley) programmes, and the TV serialisation of Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days which, as well as reawakening adult appetites for school adventures. may also have stimulated juvenile interest. On the market now we see two distinct types of school story – those that look back to classic boarding-school conventions, and those that are firmly contemporaneous and set in co-educational junior and comprehensive backgrounds.
In traditional boarding-school mould, some of the Jennings books are still available in Armada. The first story was published in hardback in 1950, and new titles continued to appear until the late 1970s. Predictably, with such a long series, a certain amount of stereotyping has set in, but the generally lively, genteelly anarchic mood still attracts readers whose social and educational experiences differ vastly from those of Anthony Buckeridge’s hero. Jennings and Derbyshire have perfected their own blend of enterprise and ingenuousness which easily confounds adult authority. They still natter in their 1950s slang – ‘Mouldy chizz!’ for commiseration, and, to express approval, ‘Superfantabulistic!’
It was Elinor Brent-Dyer, in fact, who first injected the word ‘fabulous’ and its jaunty abbreviation ‘fab’ into school stories. This adjective could appropriately be applied to her own publishing history, as the first of her 58 Chalet School books came out as long ago as 1925 and today in Armada the series goes from strength to strength. (In recessionary 1981 its sales were up by 20,000 on the previous year’s.) The Chalet School, a single sex, but tri-lingual and international Alpine school, is an extraordinary amalgam of British Grit and foreign glamour. Brent-Dyer updated Brazil’s turn-of-the-century progressiveness and, while adhering to the basic boarding-school story formula, she added colourful embellishments and, above all, a sense of pace and drama. Girls regularly fall into icebound rivers, get stranded on exposed mountainsides or narrowly escape death by burning.
In the first five books, for example, heroine Joey saves the lives of at least six girls and one dog! All this explains, perhaps, why despite the rival fictional attractions of co-ed schools, adolescent romance and pony sagas the Chalet School, in its author’s own jargon, still ‘turns up trumps’. Like certain other children’s writers, Elinor Brent-Dyer was not only a teacher but a school Principal; one often wonders how she found time for her school, and to produce her hundred or so novels for girls.
Enid Blyton, of course, was another teacher-cum-prolific-author, and her school stories date back to the I940s but still survive tenaciously (St Clare’s and Malory Towers in Methuen and Granada; the Naughtiest Girl series in Beaver and Armada).
With less charisma and definition than the Chalet School adventures, they appeal to younger girls. Blyton skated over the surfaces of pubescent allegiances and animosities, but never missed a trick, spicing up her school tales with the expected gruelling lacrosse games and dormy revels, and also with animal antics and sleuthing exploits.
Antonia Forest’s school stories also began in the 1940s, and three of them are available in Puffin (Autumn Term, End of Term, The Cricket Term). These combine the conventional trappings with a practical, uninflated approach that ensures their continuing sense of realism for today’s readers. However, the fact that these long surviving stories – like those of Brent-Dyer – offer plentiful action suggests that girls now demand this as a quintessential ingredient of the genre.
Anne Digby provides it in her Trebizon books, which began as recently as 1978 (six titles are now in Granada paperbacks). The series is midway in mood and style between Brent-Dyer and Blyton, addictive but anachronistic. There are, however, intriguing concessions to social change. For example, Brazil’s schoolgirls were often packed off to boarding-school because their parents were away administering the outposts of the British Empire – but Anne Digby’s heroine boards at traditional single-sex Trebizon because her oil-expert father is working for the Saudi Arabians. The Trebizon series is an exception to the general rule of today’s stories for both boys and girls which, apart from reissues, have moved almost entirely away from boarding-to day-school themes.
The break with the old tradition came first in Geoffrey Trease’s Black Banner books. The first, No Boats on Bannermere (Heinemann 1949) reflected the expansive, post-war mood. It skilfully introduced the flavours of outdoor and mystery adventure into a day-school setting (the background is the Lake District and echoes of Arthur Ransome are psychological as well as physical), and provided an intelligent perspective on contemporary issues. The adolescent participants matured during the course of the five-book series, which tackled many of the currently popular ‘new adult’ themes. The schools were grammar rather than comprehensive, and sexually segregated, but there was lively and realistic joint activity between boys and girls. There were flashes of feminism, too, but this – in the girls-and-boys-together context – was predictably a fluctuating business: there is, for example. a satisfactory moment when Penny and Sue roll Tim down a rock into the lake for calling them ‘feeble females’, but generally leadership is firmly foisted on the male characters.
The day-school background was also exploited with distinction by Mary K. Harris in Penny’s Way (1963), which is now available in Puffin. Penny is an unusual heroine – nervous, sensitive and not academically bright but one with whom many readers can identify. Her school friendships, first with the ingratiating Mavis, then her real meeting of minds with Nicola, are as well defined as those that were so superbly realized in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s between the wars stories. (Her most popular and heavily idealised character, ‘Dimsie’, might not succeed with today’s readers, but one wonders why some enterprising publisher hasn’t resurrected her excellent day-school ‘Nancy’ series in paperback, as this provides all the elements for addictiveness.)
Realism has taken off since Penny’s Way and the Black Banner books to tackle, with increasing vigour, the challenges facing many children today: their feelings of rejection in alien environments, complexities of relationship in multi-racial groups, or struggles to establish themselves in new and unfriendly schools. Honest and unsentimental examination of social antagonisms, cultural gaps, individual and collective responsibilities are the keynote of the best contemporary school stories. The pill has been sugared with iconoclastic humour in Tony Drake’s Playing It Right (Puffin). But essentially the mood at Drake’s under-privileged, under-equipped Jubilee Street junior school is hard-hitting, and it applies not only to the cricket which is the book’s ostensible theme but to its deeper one of airing and alleviating multi-cultural tensions. In All My Men (Puffin), Bernard Ashley also exploits with sensitivity intimidation and the misuses of power in a junior school setting. Ashley’s experiences as teacher and headmaster have, of course, given him vivid insights into many of the predicaments of the child under class and playground pressures, and he deals effectively with these for various age groups. The individual’s need to understand and take responsibility for himself is well tackled for very young primary children in Dinner Ladies Don’t Count (Julia MacRae Books).
Tim Kennemore’s The Middle of the Sandwich (Faber) discusses disorientation at the upper junior level, and it is an index of the author’s skill that she brings a sense of freshness and discovery to this well trodden theme. Helen, the heroine, has to leave her London home and school because of her mother’s illness, and spend a term at a country village school. At first everything and everyone seems hostile, but Helen eventually learns how to cope by harnessing unsuspected inner resources. There is plenty of dramatic action and humour as well as perceptive use of the confines of school to heighten emotions and awareness. A very different new girl, this time at a co-ed comprehensive, is featured in ‘Chutzpah’, one of the two school stories in Jan Mark’s Hairs in the Palm of the Hand (Kestrel). Aggressively resilient Eileen makes it clear from the word go that she will not be regimented by anyone, and on her first day she thoroughly confuses her teachers and schoolmates. She campaigns for pupil-power and, especially, for women’s rights (wood- and metal-work classes instead of domestic science, for a start). There is an almost farcical pile-up of disruptive events but the witty, pacey narrative is always well-controlled with a satisfying twist in its tail that reveals the real strength of Eileen’s position.
Since William Mayne’s 1965 No More School (Puffin), the save-our-school-from-closure-or-destruction motif has attracted several writers. Mayne’s original, which focussed on the interests of rural children, had a quirky warmth and charm. Gillian Cross’s recent Save Our School (Methuen) is a much more anarchic affair. Barny, Spag and Clipper are an irrepressible trio of juniors who, despite being bang up to date as their nicknames suggest, still manage to hark back to the inventive antics of Richmal Crompton’s William Brown or Evadne Price’s Jane.
In Save Our School, Clipper – like Jane in the 1940s and 50s – is strongly feminist, and leader of her group. Her adherents are boys: they are white and she is black. Grange Hill pupils too in their latest exploits (Grange Hill For Sale, Fontana Lions) have to put aside individual antagonisms and toe the team-spirited line to save their school. Lively as always, this Grange Hill story nevertheless seems to have lost some of the freshness of the preceding books in the series. (The success of Grange Hill has prompted Armada to launch a new series about a coeducational comprehensive later this year; this time it is a rural school and the author is Alison Prince.)
A heroine who doesn’t preserve her school but practically breaks it up is Gene Kemp’s Tyke Tiler. The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (Puffin) is a truly innovatory book which has given new horizons to the day-school story and an exhilarating boost to juvenile feminism. (The author’s follow up, Gowie Corby Plays Chicken (Puffin), also about a rebel in a school setting, is entertaining but doesn’t rise to Tyke Tiler’s literally shattering rooftop heights!)
There are two other really original books which stand half a head above the wide range of currently available school stories good though so many of these are. Cora Ravenwing by Gina Wilson (Faber 1980) and Jan Needle’s My Mate Shofiq (Fontana Lions 1978) are, like The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, concerned with school friendships of an unusual nature, and also with the gradual reconciliation of ‘the outsider’ with the privileged, accepted child. In Cora Ravenwing, Becky resists but is irrevocably drawn to Cora, an odd, lonely, gipsy-like girl, friendship with whom threatens Becky’s status in her ‘posh’ school – and indeed the reputation of her whole family in their new and conservatively affluent social environment. Community pressures pile up and coerce: the story ends on a note of irresolution and frustration, but the reader is left with a deep sense of the real meaning and quality of friendship. (It’s astounding that this beautifully written story hasn’t yet been snapped up by paperback publishers.)
In My Mate Shofiq the ‘outsider’ character is the quiet Pakistani boy who stands up to the bullies and eventually strikes up a friendship with the white, ordinary and conformist Bernard. It is difficult to add much to what has already been written about My Mate Shofiq’s impressive tackling of multi-ethnic problems, except to say that one looks forward to developments of the new and stimulating dimensions that this book has opened for the school story.
Many changes have overtaken this addictive branch of English fiction since its beginnings, but it is satisfying to note that though their methods differ, Shofiq and Bernard, and Tucker Jenkins and his gang are putting down thugs and bullies as decisively as Harry Wharton and other heroes of the Greyfriars remove have been doing since 1908. The wheel of the school story has come full circle with them. Since 1970 the Howard Baker Press has been publishing (in facsimile) more Magnets every year than were issued in the original 2d weekly editions during the paper’s 1920s and 30s heyday. These are doubtless read mainly by nostalgic adults, but also by some children. The Edwardian manly-boy mood of Greyfriars is perhaps not so far removed after all from that of the tough, co-educational, contemporary, urban comprehensive, Grange Hill.
Greyfriars to Grange Hill Booklist
Tales of St Austin’s
P.G. Wodehouse, Puffin, 0 14 03.0994 2, 60p
Anthony Buckeridge. Armada, 6 available, 60p-85p
Chalet School series
Elinor Brent-Dyer, Armada, approx. 15 available. 75p-85p
St Clare’s series
Enid Blyton. 6 available. Methuen, £3.50, and Granada, 75p
Malory Towers series
Enid Blyton, 6 available, Methuen, £2.95-£3.50, and Granada 75p
Naughtiest Girl series
Enid Blyton. Beaver, 2 available, 75p, and Armada, 1 available, 85p
0 14 03.0954 3, 95p
End of Term
0 14 03.1019 3, £1.25
The Cricket Term
0 14 03.1137 8, £1.10
All by Antonia Forest in Puffin
Anne Digby, Granada, 4 available. 60p-85p
Also, published in January 1982:
More Trouble at Trebizon
0 583 30434 6, 85p
The Tennis Term at Trebizon
0 583 30433 8. 85p
No Boats on Bannermere
Geoffrey Trease. Heinemann, 0 435 12016 6, £2.90
Marv K. Harris. Puffin, 0 14 03.1202 1, 85p
Playing It Right
Tony Drake. Puffin. 0 14 03.1298 6, 80p
All My Men
Bernard Ashley, Puffin, 0 14 03.1131 9, £1.10
Dinner Ladies Don’t Count
Bernard Ashley, Julia MacRae Books. 0 86203 017 X, £2.75
The Middle of the Sandwich
Tim Kennemore, Faber. 0 571 11678 7, £4.25
Hairs in the Palm f the Hand
Jan Mark, Kestrel, 0 7226 5728 5. £4.25
No More School
William Mayne, Puffin. 0 14 03.0376 6. 75p
Save Our School Gillian Cross
Methuen, 0 416 89800 9, £3.50
Grange Hill For Sale
Robert Leeson. Fontana Lions, 0 00 671813 2, 85p
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler
Gene Kemp, Puffin, 0 14 03 11351 , 85p
Gowie Corby Plays Chicken
Gene Kemp, Puffin, 0 14 03.1322 2, 90p
Gina Wilson, Faber, 0 571 11471 7. £5.25
My Mate Shofiq
Jan Needle, Fontana Lions, 0 00 671518 4, 70p
Frank Richards, Howard Baker Press, 150 available. £4.75-£7.95
Mary Cadogan is an author and reviewer of long standing. In the children’s book world she is probably best known for You’re a Brick, Angela! (about girls’ stories) which she co-authored with Patricia Craig (Gollancz, 0 575 02061 X – unhappily out of print but worth pursuing in libraries), She is also known for her widespread reviewing and articles in, amongst others, the Sunday Times, TES, Guardian and now, we’re delighted to see, Books for Keeps.
Mary is a governor and Secretary of the Krishnamurti Foundation, and she also teaches Movement and Dance. She is married with one teacher daughter and lives in Beckenham, Kent.
Other books include Women and Children First, 1978, Gollancz, 0 575 02418 6, £7.50 (aspects of war in literature) and The Lady Investigates with Patricia Craig, 1981, Gollancz, 0 575 02885 8, £9.95 (about women detectives).
First School Stories
School stories for four and five-year-olds stand or fall by how accurate and reassuring a picture they paint of this new environment. School here is no background for exciting plots of mystery and intrigue: its activities, its rituals, the personalities and relationships of the people in it are all of absorbing interest to those developing a personal survival kit for institutional life. Two of the very best on offer at the moment are
Lucy and Tom Go to School, Shirley Hughes, Gollancz, 0 575 01689 2, £1.75, and Carousel, 0 552 52145 0, 95p,
Timothy Goes to School, Rosemary Wells, Kestrel, 0 7226 5740 4, £3.95.
In Lucy and Tom Go to School the events of Lucy’s first day – finding a peg (with name and picture), meeting Miss Walker, the busy classroom, playing shops, saying goodbye to Mum, the noisy playground. sorting. colouring, having a story – are all recorded in Shirley Hughes’ detailed pictures. Her ability to capture exactly how children sit, stand, play and be makes these especially realistic pictures to explore with children. And Shirley Hughes doesn’t make it all sound like a bed of roses either.
Timothy Goes to School, like Rosemary Wells equally splendid Benjamin and Tulip, Noisy Nora, Morris’s Disappearing Bag and Stanley and Rhoda, has furry animals standing in for people. Timothy is really looking forward to starting school but sitting next to Claude who is popular and good at everything, especially at making newcomers feel small, unwelcome and wrongly dressed, makes him wonder. His mum tries hard but by the fourth day he’s feeling very low.
Suddenly everything begins to look a lot better. The new friends can’t understand how they’ve missed each other – and there’s a special pleasure in going back over the pictures to see how Violet was there all the time.
As always with Rosemary Wells it’s the interrelationship of words and pictures that makes this apparently simple book so much richer than a first glance might suggest.