Monday, 30 April 2018

Before Hermione

There are many good things about the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling. I always think she's a bit like a modern day Dickens with her fast paced, intricate plots and her distinctive characters. Both authors know how to balance tension with a good ear for speech and humour; their books work very well when read aloud. As for the names ... Dumbledore, Voldemort, Lovegood, Malfoy, Longbottom - these could all be characters in Dickens and both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are definitely Dickensian.

But it's the character of Hermione Grainger that I want to talk about here. Hermione isn't pretty and she doesn't fit in easily at school because she's clever (something that clever girls will still recognise). In the first book she's seen as a 'know all' by her classmates and doesn't really have friends until battling a troll with Harry and Ron forces them together (as it would). As the books progress, her intelligence often saves them but she also shows herself to be brave and passionate. By the last book she has gone from being the rather geeky, awkward girl to the one person who sees what Harry has to do when he walks into the forest alone.

Hermione is a beacon to girls who are clever, girls who aren't pretty, girls who never know what to say in a group, girls who just don't fit in. She makes it cool to read all the time, to like Maths (what else is Arithomancy?), to not be good at or even interested in sports ... just to be different.

So, who was there before Hermione?

When I think about the books I loved as a child in the 1960s and 70s, they all had strong girls in them and none of them were new books. The characters that I identified with (and still do) were all created in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, at least fifty years before I was born.

First there was Mary Lennox. Mary appears at the start of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett as a plain, disagreeable and lonely child with no understanding of others. Gradually, she opens out and, as she helps the neglected garden back to life, so she too grows. From feeling out of place in a strange and alien world, she comes to belong there, both in the house and garden and with the people she meets.

I always pictured Mary with long, dark hair because that's what I had and was surprised when illustrators gave her fair hair but she is fair - I'd obviously ignored that bit every time I read it. This was my copy of the book as a child.

Many of my childhood books were Puffins. The cover illustration is by the wonderful Shirley Hughes who also illustrated this lovely edition.

I always liked the part where Martha shows Mary how to skip and, as for Dickon, he was just the perfect hero. Although Mary gains so much from the people she meets at Misselthwaite Manor, she is the one who has the courage and determination to force them to challenge what they've always accepted. It's not only the garden that she brings back to life.

There are many lovely editions of this book. This one, published by Walker Books, has beautiful illustrations by Inga Moore.

When I'm clearing weeds to let plants breathe I think of Mary, when I enjoy fresh air I think of Dickon and I've still got a fondness for a walled garden.

Recently I've read a sequel to 'The Secret Garden', written by Holly WebbReturn to the Secret Garden is set during the Second World War when an orphanage is evacuated to Misselthwaite Manor. I'm normally wary of sequels to classic books but this one works well. It would be a good read even if you didn't know the original book but, if you do, then it's really quite special.

I think I read A Little Princess, also by Frances Hodgson Burnett, even more times than 'The Secret Garden'. So much so that my original copy (another Puffin) is falling apart.

Sara Crewe does indeed start the book as something of a princess, coming to boarding school in Edwardian London with rich clothes and expensive toys. But then her father dies and she is forced to work as a servant in the school. Much of the book is taken up with her attempts to turn her cold attic room and bleak life into something bearable, helped only by her imagination. 

Yes, the message of 'kindness is more important than wealth' may seem a little heavy-handed now but I loved Sara and especially the way she could turn the everyday into the magical.

Holly Webb has written a sequel to this book too, The Princess and the Suffragette, featuring Sara's friend Lottie. I haven't read this one yet but am hoping it will be as good as 'Return to the Secret Garden'.

The power of the imagination is at the heart of another of my much-loved books, Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

Anne Shirley is a plain and outspoken girl who arrives at Green Gables from the orphanage by mistake and then proceeds to shake the staid little community with her wild ways. There are dark memories in Anne's past and, like Sara Crewe, she has dealt with these with the help of her imagination. Now she throws herself into her new life with a wholehearted enthusiasm that leads her into scrapes but also wins her many friends.

Anne lives by extremes, she looks for 'kindred spirits' among her new classmates and hates with a passion too. She lives in her own world of books and stories and argues with anyone and everyone. As the book goes on and Anne grows up she does learn to control her temper and behave more 'appropriately' but she's still the clever, tough girl that she always was.

I re-read 'Anne of Green Gables' recently and was surprised at how revolutionary Anne still seems as a character. If you haven't met her yet, you've got a treat in store.

Just for a change, the girl in the next book isn't an orphan. In fact, Jo March in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is very much part of a loving family. 

Another Puffin illustrated by Shirley Hughes

It wasn't the story that appealed to me so much as the character of Jo. She reads books, she's loud and she wants to break out and do things, rather than be a 'little woman'. And what does this wonderful girl get as her reward? A boring husband. Ah well, I shall just remember her in the attic with her russets and her books ...

The last of my girls is another American from the second half of the nineteenth century, although her life is very different from Jo's. Laura Ingalls Wilder's series of Little House books are based on her own childhood as part of a pioneer family.

I read the Laura books as they were published in this country as Puffin books in the 1960s. I remember the excitement of waiting for the next one, shared with my Mum who was reading them too.

I loved the detailed descriptions of Ma making cheese or Pa building their log cabin on the prairie.

After reading about this, you feel that you too would be able to build a log cabin - should the need ever arise. 

In the early books Laura is a bit of a tomboy (always a good thing) but, as she grows older, you also see how strong she has to be to overcome her own natural shyness and the trials that the family face.

I think my favourite book is The Long Winter which recounts the hard months of 1880 -81 when the town of De Smet was snowed in and the Ingalls family nearly starved. The writing becomes almost dream-like as they grow more and more malnourished and everyday existence gets harder and slower. Even in this book though there are warm moments of shared family time; Laura's often mixed feelings about her sister Mary are always touching.

By the time we get to These Happy Golden Years Laura is sixteen and teaching school miles from home. She doesn't want to teach and she doesn't want to leave her family; the strength she finds to do both is inspiring. She's so much more than just a tomboy now.

If you are interested in the facts behind these books, I can recommend Pioneer Girl, her annotated autobiography which also has a wealth of pictures. Anyone want to see what Cap Garland really looked like? I'm also looking forward to reading Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser which has won the 2018 Pulitzer prize for Biography.

Thinking about it now, I realise how much the girls in these books have meant to me. Whether it's putting books first, looking for kindred spirits or trying to play the violin like Pa, they've become part of my life. 

Mind you, I still haven't built that log cabin.

Monday, 16 April 2018

School Prizes

My daughter and I have just had a 'sorting' weekend. We worked very hard and there's now a mountain of stuff in the hall waiting to be taken to the charity shop. One of the things we sorted was all my old children's books which had been scattered fairly randomly around the top floor of the house (they were actually on shelves, not on the floor - well, mostly anyway). They're now beautifully organised and it was very exciting to find some old favourites.

It was particularly nice to see my Mum's old books from when she was a child again. They're now about seventy years old and showing signs of their age, having been read by several generations. Amongst them were some school prizes so I thought you might like to see those, together with a couple that I got at about the same age.

Mum's are the ones with plain covers and are from the 1940s. My two are from the 1970s. We were both around ten or eleven when we got them. I couldn't find a picture of me at that age but here's one of Mum.

Her earliest school prize dates from 1944 and is a book of stories called 'When the Fire Burns Blue' by Dorothy Ann Lovell.

I see that the teacher who wrote the inscription in this book was Mrs Blake. She taught at New Street School in Andover for many years and ended her career at the newly built Balksbury School in the same town ... where, some 26 years after writing in Mum's book, she taught me. 

This would have been a very special prize in 1944 when rationing was in force, making books harder to get. 

The stories in the book are whimsical and accompanied by some lovely line drawings. I remember reading this one 'Little Red Bird' again and again.

The bird is a mechanical one who sings when children put a penny in the slot in his cage. One day, while his owner Mrs Hurley, dozes by the sea, the bird flies from his cage for a short taste of freedom. When he looks down from the sky and sees Mrs Hurley and her worn shoes he remembers that she relies on the pennies he makes and returns to the cage before she wakes up.

Mum's next prize was a small book of Grimm's Fairy Tales, published by Everyman. 

The endpapers on old Everyman books are always beautiful. These were designed by the artist Eric Ravilious, one of my favourite artists and he was also responsible for this icon on the title page.

I learnt from the Everyman's Library Collecting website that different icons were used for different categories of books; this one was for books aimed at 'Young People'. I've just been to the wonderful exhibition Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship at Compton Verney which was so good I think I shall have to go again.

I don't remember reading the Fairy Tales book much but I did read this one many times.

Mum won this one in the Summer of 1948 and it's a classic girls' boarding school story. There's trouble over a missing postal order (remember those?) and someone waylays Esme and locks her in Matron's cupboard - that sort of thing.

My two prize books date from around 1970; I seem to remember that we were asked what sort of book we would like and I chose poetry for my first one.

'My Kind of Verse' is a selection of all sorts of poetry, ranging from Nursery Rhymes to Keats and Shakespeare. I've always loved poetry and I learnt some of these by heart.

I devised my own dance to go with 'I had  little nut tree' which I would perform at the drop of a hat (yes I was that sort of child). I love the fact that this rhyme shares the page with Yeats and Thomas Moore; that's what I call a proper anthology.

I got my second prize a year later and this time I chose a book of Shakespeare stories.

I really loved this book and read the stories so many times. I think my favourite was 'As You Like It', although I now prefer 'Much Ado'. I went on to study English Literature at University and now go to watch Shakespeare plays at the RSC regularly so this was obviously a good choice.

One day I'll show you some of the other old children's books I got from my Mum but I think that's enough for now. By the way, do you like the old brushed cotton sheet I've used as the background for the photos? I bought it in a charity shop to back a quilt top I pieced a few years ago. I really must make a start on that.

And here's a picture of Tolly Cat who's been sitting on my lap 'helping' me write this.

How would I manage without him?

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Blankie Progress

Knitters working on my year long blanket pattern Frankie's Blankie are now a quarter of the way through this project. Twelve squares have been knitted and sewn together (although some are still waiting for their visit from the sewing-up fairy who seems to have quite a lot on her plate at the moment). The squares are a mixture of plain ones using all sorts of textured stitches and coloured ones, worked in a variety of slip stitch patterns.

I have been completely amazed by how popular this blanket has proved to be. When I was designing it last year, I wondered whether people might think it a bit dull - just 48 blocks, one after the other - but I needn't have worried. Lots of people are knitting it and they seem to be enjoying discovering new stitch patterns.

The best thing though is the community that has developed on my ravelry group. There's a special thread there for chat about the blanket and, as I write this, it has 2823 posts. Knitters from all over the world meet there every day to compare notes about their progress and help each other. It's like a very friendly, international knitting group. Mind you, we don't just talk about the blanket. Our conversation has ranged from families to chickens, by way of rubbish collections, the weather and just about anything else you can think of. I'm already thinking that I'll have to do something next year to keep this community going. Not another 50 pattern project though.

Anyway, I thought it would be nice to share photos of some of the blankets being knitted. One of the lovely things has been to see how people have taken my basic pattern and made it their own, either with different yarn or different colours. It makes me want to knit another one, using some of their ideas. I'll start thought with a few blankets in the Stylecraft Batik DK that I used for my blanket.

Debbie, from England

These are Debbie's squares for the first month. As you can see, each set of four blocks is sewn together, with the coloured squares being turned on their sides. It looks more interesting if the lines of pattern don't all run the same way and it also helps to even up the squares which can end up slightly different sizes. Debbie's made a particularly good job of her sewing up - I don't think my 'month blocks' were that square.

Mari-Elaine, from England

Mari-Elaine is also using the Batik for her blanket. Here you can see all the squares for the first three months sewn together. That's one row of the blanket done; there will be three more below it by the end of the  year.

Amity is using cream Batik for her main yarn and then replacing all the colours with one multi-coloured yarn. She's chosen another Stylecraft Batik yarn called Elements and is using the Sulfur colourway.

Amity, from England

As you can see, she also has a furry helper when it comes to blocking her knitting. Every time I see one of Amity's blocks, I'm struck again by how well that variegated yarn works. Here's a closer look at her squares for February.

Of course, lots of knitters have chosen their own yarn for knitting the blanket. A lot of fun was had choosing yarn and then deciding on the colours. Ruth is knitting her Treasure Buster Blanket in 100% wool, using yarns from Drops and Kammgarn.

Ruth, from Germany

I think this one looks particularly fresh and bright; I'm looking forward to seeing it grow.

How about this one for a different look?

Sue, from the United States

Don't those squares look great with grey as the main colour? This one's very popular on my group. Sue is using various shades of Plymouth Yarn's Encore Worsted; I had to resist the temptation to start another blanket when I first saw this combination.

Anysia is using a very popular yarn for her blanket, Red Heart Super Saver in solid colours.
Anysia, from the United States

This is another fresh looking blanket in the making. It's interesting how much clearer those slip stitch patterns are when worked with one contrast colour, rather than a mixture.

Maggie's blanket makes me think of sunny days and long, cool drinks ...

Maggie, from England

She's using Caron Simply Soft yarn, mostly from her stash. This is a yarn I'm not familiar with but I think I shall have to give it a try; it comes in a huge range of colours.

Lots of people are dipping into their stash for this project, resulting in some beautiful colour combinations and blankets that will be unique. Here are just a few examples ...

Laurel, from Wales

Isn't this gorgeous? Grey again, it works so well to set off all the other colours. Why does this one make me think of ice-cream? I don't think I've ever knowingly eaten a grey ice-cream.

Jenny, from Australia

Another pretty set of colours from Jenny - also, why didn't I think of taking photos of long strips of knitting like that? It's got to be easier than balancing on steps which is what I normally end up doing.

There are also some knitters who are using completely different yarn. Corien has chosen a thinner 100% wool yarn from Wol met Verve so her blanket will be smaller than mine.

Corien, from the Netherlands

It's going to be beautiful when it's finished. 

There's one blanket that's going to take longer than the others to complete but that's for a very good reason. Lou is using only handspun yarn - how impressive is that?

Lou, from the United States

Don't those blocking pins look good? That's one of the many things I've discovered from the chat amongst the Blanketeers (thanks to Isabel for that name). They're called Knit Blockers and are made by Knit Pro. I think I shall have to invest in a set.

Of course, some people can't be content to make just one blanket. Paula is knitting two at once (and keeping up with everyone else). One is in solid colours and the other uses a variegated yarn and then different colours for the single colour squares.

Paula, from Australia 

I really like this one with the pastel colours. Wouldn't it be a beautiful blanket for a baby? I think using different colours for the 'plain' squares works very well.

I hope you've enjoyed this look at some of the lovely blankets being knitted this year. If it's made you want to join in, it's not too late. You can download all the patterns so far by following the links on my Frankie's Blankie page and then come and introduce yourself on my group (2824 posts now). There's no pressure to finish your blanket in a set time so  you can just enjoy the journey. If you want to use the same yarn as me, you can order it from Wool Warehouse who are super quick at sending out orders. Quote FRANKIE10 at the checkout for a 10% discount.

Here's to the next three months of Frankie's Blankie, I'll report back on progress then.