Pat Thompson introduces ROBERT SWINDELLS
Robert Swindells is a writer who deserves our attention – not least because he writes very good books which children like to read. His range is wide from infant to teenager – and his subject matter and approach varied: facts which have perhaps kept him from the critical attention he merits. He writes well and can grip the reader from the start: but there is more to it than that. Children not only like his books, they often become very involved in them, something which stems from an emotional dimension within the stories, a concern for the fate of the characters, or an issue raised. Robert Swindells often attempts things which would make others hesitate. He is a daring writer and brings a degree of commitment to his books which, quite simply, makes it worthwhile reading them.
For younger children, there are four picture books about Norah, a stalwart heroine in hunches who gets things done. We have here a very positive female character who appeals to small boys as well as the Girls and all four books read aloud well.
For early independent reading, Dragons Live Forever is again about liberation. The despicable Back family are selling baby dragons as fire lighters, so Nikki and Sajida bravely engineer the dragons’ escape. The risks they take are rewarded by the sight of the dragon family flying into the distance in a shower of sapphire and emerald sparks, safely on their way home.
A favourite early reader is The Ice Palace. This is a tale of love and faithfulness simply but touchingly told. Ivan sets out to rescue his brother from the wicked Starjik in a country where ‘summer is pale and short as a celandine; winter long and cold as an icicle’. It is full of traditional elements and as in folk tales, love conquers all. Struggling readers do not give up with this book. The emotional power of the ideas and the language carry them through.
The Weather Clerk can be successfully used to support a project for it involves a class outing which depends on good weather. Anna experiences all kinds of climatic conditions as the Weather Clerk tries to keep her at bay.
Robert Swindells also writes well for the middle age range. His versatility shows strongly in his collections of short stories. The Wheaton Book of Science Fiction Stories contains examples which range from hot modern technology to time tales which recall H.G. Wells. The Moonpath and Other Stories have animals at the centre of realistic stories, a ghost story and suspense stories with a twist in the tail. The title story is a natural partner to Charles Causley’s moving poem ‘My mother saw a dancing bear’. There are images of violence and retribution, chilling and sombre moments, as well as humour, both in situations and the turn of a phrase.
This striking versatility continues in his longer novels. At the younger end of the middle age range, readers will enjoy Worldeater, a science fiction story which keeps the boy firmly in the centre, providing a point of reference while world shattering events take place all around. There is a grand opening, then the story proceeds in a series of short chapters with cliff-hanging endings and a variety of incidents and backgrounds. It is particularly suitable for children who read in short bursts and need new incidents to support their interest.
When Darkness Comes was Robert Swindells’ first book, published in 1973. Re-reading it, it is clear that the power of his writing was present from the beginning. It is a strongly written story of primitive people living the isolated lives of forest hunters. There is plenty of excitement and tension as the small band splits into two warring factions, so that they are weakened when they discover that there are others. more powerful, in the forest. With their arrival, the reader realises that the story is going to take an unexpected turn. The end is surprising but explanatory and should on no account be read first!
In this book, we see man as part of a social group, something which is present in most of Robert Swindells’ writing. The individual is important but cannot change the course of events alone. He must work with others. It is so in A Candle in the Dark, set in a nineteenth-century mining community. Jimmy is taken from the Union Workhouse to work in the mine. We are made painfully aware of the crushing physical burden imposed on these young workers. Robert Swindells based his story on the Reports of the Royal Commission on child labour and Jimmy and Joe were real people. Although they did not have all the adventures of the book, it is true that only Joe survived, broken and bent, to give his evidence, some of which is now transmitted to children today through the story. We can tell children of these facts, but perhaps they understand them most when they are made to feel by experiencing them through the characters.
It is no surprise after reading these powerful novels to find that Robert Swindells’ new book also deals with a subject of importance in a manner which grips and provokes. Brother in the Land opens in a northern landscape on the eve of a major nuclear strike. The central character survives and describes the events which follow. The book has all the fascination of the `post holocaust’ fantasy but here is no bleak but safely distanced science fiction story. It is real. Should it happen, it would surely be rather like this.
Danny is left with the responsibility of a young brother when his mother dies in the rubble and his father is taken away, accused of hoarding food. He can join one of two communities. The official one is directed from a fortified stronghold. For them, surviving means a ruthless organisation of the remaining resources. An alternative community struggles to build a new life on more humanitarian grounds. Danny takes little Ben there and hope grows with the new crops. The turning point comes when at last a butterfly is seen again – only to be proved a mutant. There can be no return to normality after such an event. The time comes when Danny must tenderly lay his brother in the land and face the short future as best he can.
This is a book for the middle and upper school, rich in implications, discussion points and arguments. It is a big subject but thoroughly accessible through its excellent characterisation. good story telling and short, eventful chapters. Nor is it a depressing book. Paradoxically, this is due to its reality. It makes the issue urgent rather than defeating. Although it seems that there will be no survivors, it is not a book without hope. The hope seems to lie between the author and his readers. To know that such a thing is possible may make it less likely. Robert Swindells believes that children must be told the truth. Without that, then there really would be no hope. And this is the truth as hesees it. He always writes with a commitment to his subject which he quite deliberately wishes to transmit to the reader, though always within the framework of a good story, well told.
The author’s skill as a story teller makes his books an easy read in one sense. They are often as compelling and accessible as an adventure story. The subject matter, however, is never facile and by the time the reader has finished the books for older children, he or she may have thought a little. even grown a little. That must be one definition of a good children’s book.
And if you want proof of his power as a story teller, or need to bring 4B to heel, read them his short story ‘Moths’ from The Methuen Book of Strange Tales. They, and possibly you, will never feel the same about moths again.
Norah’s Ark, Wheaton, 0 08 024177 8, £3.95
Norah’s Shark, Wheaton, 0 08 024178 6, £3.95
Norah and the Whale, Wheaton, 008 024980 0, £3.95
Norah to the Rescue, Wheaton, 0 08 024980 0, £3.95
Dragons Live Forever, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 22769 9, £2.50
The Ice Palace, Fontana Lion, 0 00 671699 7, 75p
The Weather Clerk, Hodder & Stoughton,0 340 23904 2. £4.95: Knight, 0 340 34619 1, £ 1.50
The Wheaton Book of Science Fiction Stories, Wheaton, 0 08 026425 5, £3.95
The Moonpath and other Stories. Wheaton, 0 08 022903 4, £3.50
Worldeater, Knight, 0 340 32889 4, £ 1.10
When Darkness Comes, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 17506 0, £4.95
A Candle in the Dark, Knight, 0 340 32098 2, £1.25
Brother in the Land, 0. U. P., 0 19 271491 0, £5.95
The Methuen Book of Strange Tales, ed. Jean Russell, Methuen, 0 416 88350 8, £4.50; Magnet, 041621190 9, £1.00
Voyage to Valhalla, Heinemann Ed., Windmill series. 0 435 12217 7. £1.40
Pat Thompson is a librarian at Nene College and past chairman of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.