NZ Forest Native Birds
Revisiting My Childhood Reading

The Obsidian Quest,
short-listed in the Dream Realm Awards 2001

My first visit to my childhood reading was with an Enid Blyton story some years ago and shortly after I read it I was lucky enough to win, by writing a review of the novel, a lovely first-day cover of stamps published to celebrate Blyton's 100th birthday. You can read the review I wrote here.

One of the questions I was always asking myself, in the fifties, about the children’s books I read (and I’m including Enid Blyton here) was, “Why do I have to read nearly two-thirds of the book before something exciting happens?” I continued reading Blyton’s books because I knew she would deliver in the end, but it really bugged me. I don’t think the books for children today have this problem—well, most don’t.

Writers tend to dump their main characters right into the middle of the action instead of “setting the scene” as Enid Blyton invariably did. By the way, I recently read Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (published in 1971) and was surprised to find it distinctly slow. But at least the writing was excellent.

In the fifties publishers gave us what they wanted us to read (as opposed to giving us a wide choice) just as many of them seem to do today. In fact, if I’m honest I have to admit I think they were even worse in the fifties. School stories reigned supreme. In my quest for stories from my childhood I excluded the adult writers whose books I remember (Alistair McLean and Dennis Wheatley are the only ones that spring to mind, but there must have been others) because the object of the exercise was to judge what writing for children was like in the fifties, not what was being published for adults. School Friend and Girls’ Crystal were our favourite reading matter (because that’s what we were mostly given). I hadn’t even heard of the Narnia books, never mind The Hobbit. (Grrrr!)

I started my research on the Internet and was astonished to learn two things:

  1. Stories for boys are very thoroughly documented, but there are huge holes in the documentation of stories for girls.
  2. All the writers in School Friend and Girls’ Crystal were men writing under women’s names. Apparently the publishers of these two illustrated magazines already published similar things for boys and, when they saw there was a market for the same type of material for girls, simply asked the writers they already had to do the writing. I have no problems with a male writer whose protagonist is a girl, but for some reason I felt cheated on learning this. Very strange! J
Now, magazines from the fifties are hard to come by and often very expensive, but I was lucky enough to get three School Friends from 1964 and 9 “digest” size complete stories for $10. At least two of the digests were Schoolgirls Own Library from about 1958. (Publication dates were not on them and I had to trace these through documentation on the Internet.) One of these stories I recognised. Not its title but its content. It was called Wendy and the Secret Cottage, but from its title alone I guessed it was originally a serial from School Friend in the mid-fifties called Chums at Bramvale (which, strangely, I can’t find documented anywhere on the Internet, although other Wendy Marsh stories are documented). I read it with some trepidation but found, to my surprise, that John W. Wheway (writing as Hazel Armitage) got into the story fairly quickly, just as I remembered. Sure, his writing is distinctly raw compared with what we expect from children’s writers today. Was it better than Enid Blyton? I would have to say yes—mostly because he didn’t waste the reader’s time with a load of waffle as Blyton did.

As for the School Friend, by 1964 it hadn’t changed a lot, except for its title: School Friend and Girls’ Crystal, with the words “School Friend” being a lot bigger than the rest. I guess readership was already dropping off by then? Anyway, I found many favourite characters were still there—Dilly Dreem, the Loveable Duffer (except the series was now called Dilly Dreem’s Schooldays) and the Silent Three (except this time they were featured in narrative instead of picture stories—a definite improvement). Princess Anita was still there, too. Except her name was now Sarina. Otherwise the story and the illustrations were very familiar, obviously recycled.

In later years my sisters and I also read The Phantom and I notice there are far more copies of these around (in New Zealand anyway) and they are surprisingly expensive. A quick glance at some of the covers suggested The Ghost Who Walks invariably solved his problems with a powerful right hook or two. What on earth I saw in this “comic” I guess I will never know.

We also read other books for children besides Enid Blyton and School Friend and Girls’ Crystal, of course. I remember we enjoyed the Heidi books, the Anne of Green Gable series and, of course, Little Women and its sequels. Then there was Alice in Wonderland, one of the few fantasy titles to reach us. It was just that School Friend and Girls’ Crystal were published every week, so they tended to dominate our reading.

So what is my conclusion? Well, the most obvious one is that children of today “don’t know they’re born”. In the fifties almost anything did for children, and poor—or at least indifferent—writing abounded. It’s still around, of course, but at least it’s in the minority—relative to the fifties anyway.

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Excerpts: The Obsidian Quest | Mark Willoughby and the Impostor-King of Lazaronia
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