What makes good children’s fiction? Is it about education – showing children how the world works and exploring how they might react when it’s their turn? Or is it more about entertainment and giving children something they want?
One of the joys of proofreading books at DP is coming across attitudes that have changed so much that motivations are almost unrecognisable. Especially when the change has been so slow that we only realise things have changed when we look back. The past can indeed be a foreign country.
Today, children’s books have to compete with a huge range of different entertainment options, and they have first and foremost to appeal to the child. In a previous age they were bought by parents for their children, and it seems to me that a major requirement was to give the child a strong moral compass. If you’re thinking that’s the same today, I would encourage you to take a look at The Child of the Moat, by Ian B. Stoughton Holborn (or Holbourn).
Written exactly a hundred years ago during the First World War, the book describes the adventures of a twelve year old girl, set at the time of the Reformation. In spite of everything that fate throws at Aline, our young heroine always manages to act in precisely the way that a parent would want their children to act. I had to look twice to check that the subtitle wasn’t “A book to teach young girls proper decorum.” Aline is kind, forgiving, intelligent, well-educated, hard-working, selfless, uncomplaining, brave, perceptive, saintly.… At one point, she fights her way into a burning building to effect a rescue without, it seems, any thought of her own life.
Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Then I read this about the author on Wikipedia:
Holbourn was a second-class passenger on the RMS Lusitania on her last voyage in May 1915. During the voyage, Holbourn befriended 12-year-old Avis Dolphin, who was being escorted to school and family in England by two nurses, Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith.
With his insights into the largely hushed-up events surrounding the wreck of the RMS Oceanic off Foula, Professor Holbourn was aware of the imminent dangers presented to ocean liners during the First World War, and as a passenger on Lusitania was prepared to face the worst. Holbourn attempted to insist that Captain William Thomas Turner should take the precautions of ordering lifeboat drills and instructing passengers on how to wear lifejackets. His efforts to stimulate safety awareness during a time of war were unwelcome, and he was asked to keep quiet. When the ship was torpedoed, Holbourn guided Avis Dolphin and her nurses to his cabin where he fitted them with life belts, even offering up his own; he then steered them through the tilting passageways to the decks above and into a lifeboat. This lifeboat capsized while being lowered into the water. Nevertheless, Avis was saved, though her nurses were not.
Holbourn himself dived into the ocean to find himself surrounded by a mass of bodies and wreckage. His hope of reaching the nearest boat was interrupted when he stopped to help a man who was floating helplessly nearby. By the time Holbourn found his way to a boat, the man he had pulled along with him was dead.
Holbourn was picked up by the fishing boat Wanderer of Peel and later transferred to the Stormcock. He was one of over 750 rescued from the Lusitania to arrive at Queenstown in Ireland that night.
Holbourn continued to write and remained lifelong friends with Avis Dolphin. One of his books, The Child of the Moat (1916), was written for Avis because she had complained that books for girls were uninteresting.
Not bad for a professor of archaeology.
I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed proofreading this book, and am happy to see the finished product posted to Project Gutenberg.
And if you have any thoughts about mentioning any of the inaccuracies or anachronisms in the book, let me give the last word to the author:
When, therefore, your learned uncle tells you that the story is all wrong and that they did not fence with helmets and that the curtsey was not invented till much later and that the library is far too big and so on; you just tell him to write you a sixteenth century story and then you send it to me, and we will see how he gets along.
This post was contributed by wainwra, a DP volunteer.