The Little White Horse (1946)

  J.K. Rowling single-handedly rescued this book from obscurity by mentioning that it was a childhood favorite which influenced her writing.

(It is somewhat hilarious that the only book Rowling really remembers as an influence is one of the few that appears to have had little direct influence. Tallying Rowling’s sources has become something of a parlour game. My own personal top picks, besides the obvious Lord of the Rings, are Mio My Son, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Worst Witch, and The Secret of Platform 13.)

Whether Little White Horse ought to be rescued is a question. Written by a religious eccentric with repellent opinions, this book still manages to be, to a large extent, witty, touching, and fun.

In an ostentatiously Victorian beginning, recently-orphaned Maria leaves her wealthy London existence to go live with her cousin Sir Benjamin Merryweather in the country. Her new home is Moonacre Manor, ancestral home of the Merryweathers, nestled in a valley nearly unreachable by the outside world. As Maria gets to know the valley and its inhabitants, she discovers that her governess Miss Heliotrope is the long-lost love of the elderly parson of the village; that Sir Benjamin’s long-lost love is living in the valley unbeknownst to him; and that her own not-so-imaginary playmate from childhood, named Robin, is a real live shepherd boy who used visit her while he was asleep. Then there are the villains living in the pine woods, nursing a centuries-old grudge against the Merryweathers, and a hill that was stolen from some monks by a Merryweather ancestor. Until these wrongs are set right, “sun Merryweathers” (those with brave souls) and “moon Merryweathers” (those with pure spirits) will always end up quarreling.

Maria is determined to be the first “moon maiden” not to quarrel and leave Moonacre Manor forever, so she talks Sir Benjamin into giving up to the poor the income from the sheep he grazes on the hill (“‘My income will be considerably depleted,’ said Sir Benjamin in rather dry tones. ‘You could eat less,’ suggested Maria helpfully.”). Then she undertakes great danger to broker a deal with the villains, creating the only really suspenseful adventure in the book. Finally, she organizes a tea-party at which she engineers the reunion of the two long-parted couples. And of course, she and Robin end up marrying as well.

If one can gloss over the more distasteful sentiments, and if the non-Christian reader can be okay with the overtly religious messaging, there is much to enjoy in this book. The character of Maria, in spite of the author’s stated expectations for girls, is inquisitive, action-oriented, and decisive. One cannot help liking her.

The Magic Bedknob (1943)

Modern readers may know Bedknob and Broomstick, a combined volume by English author Mary Norton (who also wrote the Borrowers books). Publishers continue to market this as a timeless classic, with the most recent cover by the amazing illustrator Marla Frazee (who illustrated the Clementine books as well as numerous picture books).


The originals of these books, though, were more quirky and interesting than the “timeless classic” label would suggest.

The first book, The Magic Bedknob, was very short, barely more than a long picture book,  published during WWII. (In fact, it was published first in the U.S., probably due to wartime shortages of paper and personnel in the U.K.) Mary Norton was unknown and unpublished at the time, and it was not a particularly original book in terms of plot. One gets the impression that it was pushed through into publication with scarce resources to keep wartime spirits up. (A similar oddity is The Magic Door, 1943, which was written by a soldier on active duty, mailed back to England, badly illustrated by his wife, and published with seriously inadequate editing.) What The Magic Bedknob does have, though, is a sense of humor, and a distinctive grounding in a time and a place.

In terms of plot it is a standard magic story in the E. Nesbit tradition, with the twist that the magical personage the children meet, Miss Price, is modern and up-to-date in her witchcraft methods, having learned through a correspondence course. Miss Price enchants a bed-knob for the children, so that the bed will take them wherever they wish to go. They go on only two adventures in this first book, both lifted straight from Nesbit’s oeuvre: the first is a wish to see their mother (they have been sent away from London during the bombing), which results in a standard magic-creates-awkwardness-with-grownups adventure; the second is a trip to a South Pacific island with cannibals. (I’ll have a future post in which I get exercised about the trope of “cannibals” in children’s books.)

Bedknob was combined with its sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks (1945) for a new American edition, Bedknob and Broomstick (1957), with very different illustrations by Eric Blegvad (who illustrated Diamond in the Window, The Gammage Cup, and the later Rescuers books). These illustrations continue to be used even as the cover art has changed.

The editing is slight, but often to the book’s loss. The bulk of the changes are to remove any reference to World War II, which has the effect of unmooring the story from its moment in history, as well as losing some of the best jokes. (Miss Price, explaining why she is giving up magic: “I was terribly tempted, and it brought me to my senses; I was tempted — how am I to tell you? . . . to DOUBLE MY BUTTER RATION.” This is quintessential Miss Price, who is trying to dabble in the dark arts but can never quite overcome her proper upbringing.) By trying to make this book “timeless,” the publishers succeeded in flattening it.

The remainder of the changes are a failed attempt to deal with the racism of the south sea island adventure. This mostly consisted of removing references to dark skin and curly hair — as if mentioning such things were in itself racist — while leaving intact all that is offensive and patronizing in the description of the island’s residents.

The sequel, Bonfires and Broomsticks, is a much better book, and will be the topic of next week’s post.

The Alley (1964)

Though it does involve a mystery of sorts, with a burglary and the children organizing a hunt for clues, The Alley is written in Estes’ characterisicaly slow and contemplative style. (She also wrote the Moffats series, based on her childhood in small-town Connecticut, and The Hundred Dresses.) Aside from a couple of chance encounters with the suspected burglar, the burglary itself, and the wrapup of the mystery, this is mostly a book about daily life.

What hooked me, though, was the Alley itself. It is an enclosed space between the back yards of the faculty houses on the campus of the fictional Granby College in Brooklyn. Connie Ives, age 10, is one of a few dozen children whose lives revolve around the Alley and its games and routines and rituals. There is Katie Starr the Lawmaker, who organizes games and makes sure the bicycle traffic runs smoothly; the Carroll children who play superman with pillowcase capes or frankenstein with cardboard box heads; Hugsy Goode, who talks a lot and passes along a rumor that there are tunnels under the houses; and Connie’s best friend, the unsociable, quiet, likable Billy Malloon.

The community composed entirely of faculty children probably held some fascination for me as well, being a faculty child myself, though never having heard of faculty housing. (My own daughter, growing up in faculty housing, did not find this aspect of the book noteworthy at all.)

Estes’ was a master at observing what children are really like. For example, when Katie has the exact same idea as Connie — holding a mock-trial of the suspected burglars — moments after Connie suggests it to Billy, Connie thinks this is a kind of synchronicity between herself and Katie. But just moments earlier we learned, casually, that Connie and Billy could overhear Katie in the house next door. This means that likewise Katie could overhear Connie and Billy, and so she is probably just passing off Connie’s idea as her own. The reader is left to either notice this, or not notice it.

Still, Estes’ slow, observational style gets a little out of hand in this book. She developed a technique of repeating things to show what is absorbing a character’s thoughts, but in this book it becomes almost a tic. My daughter doesn’t like to give up on things, but she did say more than once, “When is this awful book going to end?” I myself never felt the urge to re-read it as a child, and I’m not even entirely sure that I finished it, but I have always remembered it fondly.

The Alley draws on Estes’ own adult life in peculiar and interesting ways. She attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she met a fellow student whom she married, and later the couple returned to Pratt when Estes’ husband got a job there. In The Alley Connie’s mother was an art student at the fictional Granby College, and married one of her professors. Estes’ husband was from South Carolina, as is Connie’s father in The Alley.

The row houses on the Pratt campus that are the model for the Alley can still be seen on Google Maps. It is bounded by Steuben Street (“Story Street”), Emerson Place (“Waldo Place”), and Willoughby Avenue (“Larrabee Street”). The central cement alleyway has been replaced by grass, and the turnaround circle at the end is gone (as indeed it already was by the time of the sequel, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode).

Estes’ only daughter was born in 1948, and a few details suggest the story is set during her daughter’s childhood, and not in 1964; for example, Connie’s mother was already an adult when the Little House books were published, and Dragnet (the original 1950’s series) is popular among the kids. Most tellingly, it is on the news that the Soviets had seen the far side of the moon, an event that happened in 1959.

The Alley has a hidden connection to an earlier Estes’ book. In The Alley we learn that Connie lived in Washington D.C. when she was six, on a street lined with ginko trees, with a best friend Clarissa who was practically her sister. The two would endlessly draw pictures, and Connie had a favorite little red rocking chair. All this is straight from the The Witch Family, though Connie’s parallel character in that book is named Amy. I think Estes put this in as a kind of easter egg, or a bit of authorial self-indulgence. Purely in terms of the plot of The Alley, it makes no sense. It is unexplained why the family was away from Granby college for six years during Connie’s early childhood, if her father was already a Granby professor before she was born. (It actually makes a better fit with the Estes family’s own trajectory.)

The Alley also has a sequel, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode (1972), another almost-mystery (though not involving crime). Half a generation later, the children of the Alley remember the rumor passed along by Hugsy (now a college student) about tunnels under houses, and two of them create elaborate imaginings of what the tunnels are like, before eventually discovering that they are real. I’m afraid I can’t recommend The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode, though. The main character is a toxic little sociopath, which makes it hard to care about anything he does.

The Unicorn Window (1961)

In very Narnian fashion, two children, Anne and Patrick, go to spend the holidays with a professor who lives in an old house in the country, where they stumble into a magical medieval land. (The impression of Narnia is heightened by the drawings by Pauline Baynes.)

The premise is that the children break a stained glass window depicting the family crest, allowing the unicorn to escape; to bring it back they must enter the realm of Armorie. This is a kingdom much like medieval Europe, except that it exists in the flattened and symbolically conventionalized world of coats of arms. In its outer Verge particularly, there are no shadows, flowers are all the same shape and size, the sun is a perfect circle surrounded by rays and has certain fixed positions in the sky.

The children are taken to the Castle of Arms, whose denizens all have roles corresponding to aspects of heraldry. Anne is taken charge of by the ladies and does lady things, and Patrick bunks down more roughly with some of the pages and has boy adventures. An expedition is mounted to find the unicorn in the Outer Ring beyond the forest of Family Trees. Patrick participates in a boar hunt, and Anne plays the part of the maiden who can tame the unicorn. After a great festival of celebration, the children return home to find the window restored.

It is a terrific premise, bearing echos of Through the Looking Glass with its fantasy land based on a chess board, as well as The Dog in the Tapestry Garden (1942, Dorothy Lathrop) in which a greyhound enters a medieval tapestry, and the device of passing through a stained glass window in The Amazing Vacation (1956, Dan Wickenden).

Unfortunately, the story itself is dull. Muir was a scholar of medieval studies at the University of Leeds, and The Unicorn Window was her first and one of her few forays into children’s fiction. The adventurous bits are all very derivative from earlier books, and in between the adventures there is a great deal of telling about heraldry and how the realm of Armorie functions.

Nevertheless, I like it that this book exists.

Nathaniel’s Witch (1941)

Nathaniel lives in small Massachussetts village in 1785. He does his lessons in the Horn book, longs to go to sea, and is being raised by a puritanical uncle. Period details abound, and the first chapter feels like we’re in Johnny Tremain or Carry On Mr. Bowdich. But after a long detour about Nathaniel wanting and getting a dog, we are dropped — a little too abruptly — into a supernatural tale.

With no warning Nathaniel is pulled off of a country path into a coven of witches who are awaiting the devil. (These are not modern cute-scary witches, they are the genuine, creepy New England witches of folklore. Nathaniel’s Witches is set just a few generations after the Salem Witch Trials.) Nathaniel befriends a witch who regrets her choice to sell her soul, and he stands by her when the devil taunts her, “You’ll be free when you’re Saint Nick!”

Now, this was a time in history when puritan-descended New Englanders didn’t celebrate Christmas: too much merry-making for their taste. So Nathaniel has a sudden inspiration. The witch should be Saint Nicholas, making the devil’s terms — which he didn’t intend literally — come true. (This was doubly clever of the author, since the devil is sometimes known as Old Nick.)

And there we have the delightful premise of the book. The two raid the local toy maker’s shop, buying everything with the witch’s single gold coin, and fly from house to house on the witch’s broom dropping gifts down the chimneys of the befuddled villagers. When they drop the last gift down the last chimney the witch becomes an ordinary young woman again, and the two of them are ridiculously stranded on someone’s roof (to the disapproval of the more humorless citizens). It’s not quite enough plot to sustain even this very short book, but it is a sparklingly good idea.

The Marvellous Land of Snergs (1927)

The S.R.S.C. (Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children) has established a colony for children unwanted by their parents, at Watkyns Bay which cannot be reached from the ordinary world unless you know how. (The one exception is a cursed boatful of 17th century Dutch sailors.) There, the children live a life of play and adventure, between the woods and the seaside, in a land reminiscent of Peter Pan without the creep factor. Two of the children, Sylvia and Joe, are caught making mischief, and run away from Watkyns Bay to the nearby land of the Snergs. Adventures ensue, with an ogre, a witch, a jester, a rumored tyrant king who turns out to be benevolent, and the faithful companionship of a Snerg named Gorbo. After the Dutchmen and Snergs stage a rescue operation, Sylvia and Joe are safe again.

Much of the charm of the book is in the beginning. We learn about the cinnamon bears that live in the woods, whose soft fur smells slightly of cinnamon, and who try to get into the houses at night, making the children giggle. The Snergs do much of the daily work for the S.R.S.C.: “When they are bathing a Snerg or two sits on a rock ready to dive in and pick out any child that has got into trouble. It is interesting to see how they reach such a one with a few vigorous strokes, take it to land, up-end it by the heels to let the water run out, and lay it on the grass to dry.”

Unfortunately, the middle sags badly, and for a while we seem trapped in a nonsense book. There are even giant edible mushrooms, as per Alice and The Magical Land of Noom, and an ogre with a conscience (or so we think) like the Hungry Tiger of the Oz books. The ending is saved, though, by a return of the author’s distinctive style. Here is the king mourning Baldry the Jester, who is pretending to be dead: “‘Too late poor fool, this unavailing woe! I loved thee more than thou did’st ever know.’ ‘Then in that case,’ said Baldry, turning smartly onto his back, ‘why are you making things so difficult?'”

Be aware that violence, though rare, is shockingly frank. Near the beginning, there is a too-realistic description of keel-hauling. Later in the book, the villains meet gruesome ends, but a certain sort of child will find this funny. “‘Yes,’ agreed King Merse as he looked, ‘it is undoubtedly as you say. That is Mother Meldrum–or part of her.'” The author concludes that the moral of his tale is, “if you by any chance meet an ogre who claims to be reformed, pretend to believe him until you have got a gun and then blow his head off at the first opportunity.”

Miss Watkyns
Mary Poppins

Though now forgotten, Snergs was influential in its day. Snergs‘s Miss Watkyns, founder of the S.R.S.C., would appear to be the original for Mary Poppins (1934), stepping in with a stiff exterior to care for and entertain children. They even look the same, down to the sensible shoes. She and the other ladies depart for Watkyns Bay by meeting “on Hampstead Heath one blowy October night.” When all the ladies (each with one well-wrapped superfluous child) have gathered, “she gave the word and away they all went on a high wind.”

Tolkien openly acknowledged the impact of Snergs on The Hobbit (1938). Hobbits resemble Snergs in being short and fond of feasting, and in living a very long time with a prolonged childhood and youth. (Snergs, in their turn, may have been based on the Munchkins, Winkies, Gillikins, and Quadlings of Oz. It was at any rate an unsavory fashion of the time to use a real variant of the human form as the basis for a humorous and childlike “race” of not-quite-humans.) Then there is the matter of naming, with Gorbo clearly in the same vein as Bilbo and Frodo (along with dozens of other hobbits with -o names, like Bungo and Minto and Dudo). This may have been part of a larger cultural trend of -o endings, including Jumbo the elephant, the invention of the game Bingo, and the names of the Marx Brothers.

A Munchkin, a Snerg, and a Hobbit. (Tolkien drew gorgeous art-nouveau-like illustrations for The Hobbit, but actual Hobbits were not his forté.)

But slightly before The Hobbit, another author copied these features of the snergs. In 1936, Upton Sinclair published The Gnomobile. The gnomes in this book are named Bobo and Glogo, and are respectively a youthful 100 years old and a venerable 1,000.