Review: Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge‘You’ve heard of the Wizard of Oz, of course. Well, obviously, the opposite of wizard is ozard, isn’t it?’

Jennings conceded the point.

‘That shepherd’s pie we’ve just had was supersonic muck so it’s wizard, but this school jam’s ghastly so it’s ozard. Everything ghastly is ozard; being a new chap’s pretty ozard for a bit, but you’ll get used to it when you’ve been here as long as I have.’”

Jennings Goes to School, the first of the Jennings series, was published in 1950. At this point children’s books were still wholesome and pure, staying right away from difficult issues like divorce or sexuality. The Jennings books obeyed this rule even after the revolution in children’s literature that began in the 60s and is still continuing today. They are unusual in that few school stories were written to be deliberately humorous, and indeed the boys’ school story genre had long been in decline by the 50s. However, the Jennings books, like any really good series, succeed in rising above petty considerations of genre.

The character of John Christopher Timothy Jennings himself is precisely what is needed for a story of this sort. He is intelligent, impulsive and imaginative, and takes himself and his occupations incredibly seriously. He’s rarely much upset by getting into trouble, even in his early days at Linbury Court, and as Mr. Carter explains, is “like a cork in water … you can push him under, but the next moment he’s bobbing about on the top again.” A significant amount of the humour in the book comes from Jennings’ tendency to take things literally, and this continues throughout the series.

Darbishire (Charles Edwin Jeremy) is an excellent foil for Jennings. An earnest, cautious and bespectacled young man, he is more fearful of getting into scrapes than his friend, but is generally drawn into Jennings’ schemes with the result that he receives his fair share of trouble. He is given to quoting proverbs and, like his father, speaks in a “welter of glistening consonants”.

The rest of the boys at Linbury Court have few distinguishing features, especially this early in the series. Temple is top in Latin and prone to handing out threats of “bashings-up”. Atkinson, like Darbishire, is definitely a follower (and for some reason I always see him as terribly skinny), while Venables is a pleasant but undeniably generic boy. The others are mere ciphers in the background at this point and mostly appear to call Jennings or Darbishire “Mud” or laugh uproariously in Mr. Wilkins’ class.

The plot of Jennings Goes to School is fairly episodic in nature. Not that this matters, because each episode is hilarious. My own particular favourite is the one in which Mr. Wilkins ends up dangling down the side of the school on the end of a rope, though the episode of the Thing is almost as funny. The later books tend to contain more of a continuing narrative, though Jennings Goes to School still feels well structured, and any loose ends are nicely tied up.

The language and humour of Jennings Goes to School is highly popular with children, but also with adults.. Much of the book is written from Jennings’ perspective but enough is from Mr. Carter’s or Mr. Wilkins’ that we get a distinct impression of the adults’ view of the boys. I get the feeling that the book is probably written as much for adults as for children. This may, of course, be because I didn’t discover Jennings Goes to School until I was an adult so I have never read the book as a child. Certainly it seems that the book (and the later books in the series) are as enjoyable to adults as they are to children. Having said this, much of the humour is distinctly childish – for example, Mr. Wilkins’ frequent exclamations of “I – I – Corwumph!”

All in all, Jennings Goes to School is an excellent read for both children and adults; splendid if you need something light and not too challenging, and want a good laugh.

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Review: The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

The Glass Bird Girl by Esme KerrIf we don’t get some results by the end of term we might decide you’re in the wrong job. I trust you’ve already pulled out of the play – the best servants remain invisible, and you weren’t sent to Knight’s Haddon to lark about onstage. I shall be telephoning your headmistress this week to keep myself informed.”

The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr is a rather lovely book. It’s a contemporary school story with more than a hint of mystery, but it reads a bit like a story of an earlier period. This is partly the fault (or, some might say, the advantage) of the setting. The girls at Knight’s Haddon school are not permitted mobile phones, computers, tablets or any other device, and they wear a distinctly old-fashioned uniform. In addition, Edie has not been sent to the school for normal reasons, but to find out (as she puts it in her own mind) whether someone is stealing another girl’s pencils. One Prince Stolonov is afraid that his daughter Anastasia is being “horribly teased” and insists on importing a girl into the school to investigate the possibility. This, of course, leads Edie to discover the much deeper and darker mystery that is going on in the school.

Edie herself is a delightful character and it is undoubtedly she who makes this book. She’s not much good at standing up to people, never, one suspects, having had much chance to do so. Like Harry Potter, she is sent to school after having led a miserable life in her aunt’s house (the book opens with her cousins cooking and forcing her to eat her own pet fish). But shy and awkward as she may be, she has a strong streak of determination and courage which allows her to end the book with a triumphant flourish.

The other girls in the school are mostly a bit bland. Sally is pleasant, Phoebe unpleasant, and the rest somewhere in between. The only one who stands out is Anastasia, who is peculiar by any standards, though quite appealing. Interestingly for a book aimed at 9-12s, it’s the adults in the story who come across most clearly. First there is the ineffectual Aunt Sophia, then the slightly creepy Cousin Charles, who is both benefactor and boss, with the power to instantly withdraw the new, fragile security that school gives to Edie. There’s Miss Winifred, sweet but not altogether supportive, and Miss Mannering, who is rumoured to be going through the menopause. Finally and most importantly comes Miss Fotheringay, who fits the role of goddess very well. She is a little remote, has striking looks and seems to understand Edie in a way that no one else can. But even she is hiding her own secrets.

The plot is interesting and nicely managed, although it does rather jump from almost no action to very little else with only minimal build-up. But that’s quite typical of books aimed at this age group and is only to be expected from what is actually a shortish story. Most of the conflict for the reader comes not from the mystery surrounding what is happening to Anastasia’s belongings, but from the danger that Edie will be removed from Knight’s Haddon and not be able to solve the said mystery. Having said that, when the plot gets going it does so with a vengeance and no one could complain that the book is dull!

I’d thoroughly recommend The Glass Bird Girl for those who want a light, unchallenging read and who have enjoyed books such as the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton or the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I read it on the recommendation of Robin Stevens (author of Murder Most Unladylike) and have not been disappointed.

Review: First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

First Term at Malory Towers, Enid BlytonMy school,” thought Darrell, and a little warm feeling came into her heart. “It’s fine. How lucky I am to be having Malory Towers as my school-home for so many years. I shall love it.”

First Term at Malory Towers is the story of Darrell Rivers’ first term at Malory Towers. It was written in 1946, around the time that Enid Blyton wrote some of her best-loved fiction. Darrell arrives at Malory Towers determined to work and play as hard as she can, but she finds that it’s not as easy as that, and soon she is losing her temper and getting into trouble as well as playing pranks and having fun.

My opinon is that Enid Blyton writes some of the most realistic school stories that there are. Her characters are spot on. They aren’t as complex as some other school story writers’ characters, for example Elinor Brent-Dyer’s, but they behave just as real people do. Darrell, the heroine, is a genuinely interesting creation. At first she seems like a normal, jolly schoolgirl, excited to be going away to school and eager to be popular. It isn’t until more than a quarter of the way into the book that we, along with the rest of the characters, learn that she has a violent temper. Shortly afterwards we’re given another surprise when we find that she’s courageous enough to own up to her own greatest failing and apologise unreservedly for it. This is something she struggles with throughout her school journey, and we are eventually privileged to see her overcome it.

The plot is unremarkable, but perhaps that in itself is remarkable. There are no avalanches, snowstorms, or floods (Elinor Brent-Dyer), no secret passages or spies (Dorita Fairlie-Bruce), no fires (Angela Brazil) or sudden rises to fame (Elsie Oxenham). Instead we see a relatively small prank (Gwendoline’s ducking of Mary-Lou) blown up into an enormously important incident which results in misery for Darrell and a huge improvement on the part of Mary-Lou, not to mention unfortunate results for Gwendoline herself, all because of that young lady’s desire for revenge. The other main piece of plot, which revolves around quiet Sally Hope, is equally interesting and brings more challenges for Darrell. Her temper once again comes to the fore, and this time she isn’t so eager to put herself forward to admit her mistake and struggles to do the right thing.

Enid Blyton’s language is undeniably simplistic, but is this necessarily a bad thing? It leads to a less interesting story and means that the reader is rarely challenged (one of my favourite things about Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series was that it constantly made me run to the dictionary to find things out), but it also makes for a nice, easy, relaxing read. And yet there’s something about Enid Blyton’s use of language – she can really tell a story. It might not be challenging but it’s interesting and gripping, and younger readers in particular simply don’t want to put it down.

So, not complex, subtle or challenging, but holding an undeniable something, Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers is definitely worth another look.