#1956Club: Children’s Books

Alf Prøysen: Little Old Mrs Pepperpot

The first Mrs Pepperpot story appeared in 1956 in Norway, so I am using that date, rather than the 1959 date for its first English translation. Sadly, my 1984 Red Fox edition does not name the translator and only credits Hutchinson (publisher) for the 1959 translation.

This was one of the books that our teacher would read out loud in class while we were doing Arts and Crafts (others included Pippi Longstocking, the Moomins, Paddington Bear and Olga da Polga). I loved stories and hated being crafty, so unsurprisingly, I have fonder memories of the books than of the messy, glue-stricken ‘masterpieces’ I created. The Scandinavian book choices might seem surprising for a school that was so resolutely, old-fashionedly English, especially since all of them have a slightly anarchic tendency. Pippi is anti-school and anti-grown-ups, the Moomins and their friends often rush off and do strange things, while Mrs Pepperpot… Well, she seems to take the sudden shrinking to the size of a salt-and-pepper shaker in her stride, but she often does eccentric or even naughty things when she is that size. See for instance the chaos that ensues when she goes to the school bazaar – although you could argue that the snobbish smart ladies organising the bazaar deserve their come-uppance.

This first volume contains only five Mrs Pepperpot stories, while the remaining seven are more general, very short and often quite funny stories. Those too tend to subvert the given order: Mr Puffblow’s hat is blown away and becomes a boat for field mice; a fancy new doll longs to escape from the display case and get rough and dirty; little mice make their appearance in houses and wreak havoc.

However, I have to admit that, though charming, I did find the stories rather slight upon rereading. I think this is a book best enjoyed with 4-6 year olds.

Ian Serraillier: The Silver Sword

Another book from my schooldays – this one and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr were the two mainstays of English children’s literature about the Second World War, but The Silver Sword appeared first. This book achieves that rare feat of depicting (then recent) history in such a way that children will both enjoy but also remember. It’s an adventure tale, as the three parentless children from the Warsaw ghetto set off across Europe as the war draws to an end, in an effort to rejoin their father, whom they believe to be in Switzerland. But it is also a story of friendship, sibling loyalty, courage and human kindness triumphing in the face of adversity.

Although many of the scenes are based upon factual research and period documents, the story is a bit too sanitised. I suppose it is intended for a young audience, but the idea of the soldiers in the Soviet army being all helpful and not at all observant of the fact that the oldest child is seventeen and a pretty girl… just doesn’t seem quite plausible. At least, not according to the stories my grandmother and great-aunts told me. And pretty much everyone they meet along the way is just so darn helpful. Even if this is after the end of the war, would deprivation have made people more or less willing to help?

However, there were some scenes that were remarkable and thoughtful: the long line of refugees and the chaos of trying to reunite families or the conversation between the children and the German farmers who provide them with shelter somewhere in Bavaria, whose sons would have been killing Poles on the front.

Once again, this didn’t quite live up to my fond memories of it, which just goes to show that perhaps childhood favourites are best left on the high shelf of nostalgia.

So these are my first two reads for the #1956Club of books published in 1956, hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I look forward to seeing what the others have found and reviewed. My next review will be of one of the first ‘ecological’ novels ever written, The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel) by Romain Gary. I’m about halfway through reading it now and have high hopes that it won’t disappoint me!

23 thoughts on “#1956Club: Children’s Books”

  1. Highly enjoyable review, and opened me up to the idea of reading books for children again, as I haven’t had occasion to do so since my daughter basically kinda told me to go away (there was only so much Enid Blyton she could take, apparently). Thoroughly charming and thoughtful reviewing!

    1. Ha, yes, the saddest day of my life when the children said they no longer wanted to read with me at bedtime. Admittedly, we were reading The Lord of the Rings at the time and it would have taken us YEARS to finish.

      1. I don’t have children, but as the oldest of four siblings, I did a lot of reading to them when I was little, which I subsequently missed as an adult. A while ago I took a book to a friend’s place who had a five year old and I literally begged him to let me read to him. It worked.

  2. I think it varies, revisiting childhood favourites. I was disappointed by Heidi when I reread it a few years ago – it had been an extremely important part of my childhood, getting me into the most terrible trouble. But I was relieved to discover that Richmal Crompton’s William series was at least as enjoyable as when I first ploughed through them as a kiddie.

    1. Yes, it really does. I still adore the Moomins, for example. I’ve been thinking of rereading Heidi (my boys never got into it, so I didn’t reread it with them).

  3. This sounds my kind of club as I would have been 9 in 1956. Somehow, although a voracious reader, I never read Mrs. Pepperpot – I was too old I suppose. But The Silver Sword was an important book for me, as my father was Polish and had fled from Warsaw, like so many Polish young men, to come to England and join the RAF. I’ve often thought of re-reading this book, but following your comments, perhaps it’s best left on the shelf, to preserve my memories.

    1. What an amazing personal story to link to the book, Margaret. It is a very moving book, but perhaps we have become too jaded now, and there have been so many other books about the war since.

      1. I never read this as a child or even later, but I acquired a copy in the last few months and — despite your justifiable caveats — hope to read it at an opportune moment.

  4. A shame they didn’t quite live up to the memories, but I suppose the important thing is that they worked at the time! My brother loved The Silver Sword, but I never read it.

  5. Interesting choices, Marina. I never read Mrs. Pepperpot, though I did read The Silver Sword at school. I remember nothing about it, but suspect I would find the same flaws as you. Some children’s books *do* wear better than others, I agree – the Moomins are a great example!

  6. Thank you for this. I’d forgotten about Mrs Pepperpot, and as I hadn’t revisited her it’s never occurred to me that she was translated. What I remember is the thing you note, that she caused chaos. I’ll take your hint and not revisit. I think I’ll keep my memories of enjoying the stories undiluted.

  7. Oh, this post is fantastic, Marina Sofia! I really like the topic, as I think children’s literature is so important. And there are always those stories that make us nostalgic. Funny you’d mention Pippi Longstocking… Don’t tell anyone, will you, but I played Pippi in a grade-school play once…

  8. I’m also planning to read Mrs Pepperpot, assuming that my library has it in tomorrow. I don’t think I’ve actually read it but there was a TV-series which I vaguely remember. Anyway, as Prøysen was one of Norway’s most loved children’s authors and I now live in Norway, it is high time that I make a closer acquaintance with Mrs Pepperpot.

  9. I remember The Silver Sword being taught in schools in the 1990s – I wonder if it still is. My older daughter (the one who read voraciously as a child) enjoyed the Mrs Pepperpot stories but I can’t remember reading any to her.

  10. I felt so nostalgic reading your review, but am taking advice not to revisit the stories in adulthood. I’m sorry it didn’t live up to your expectations!

    1. It’s not that they’re bad, but it’s hard for anything to live up to our fond childhood memories, isn’t it? I do still love Ballet Shoes, but when I reread some of the pony books or Enid Blyton recently, I was not quite as enthusiastic as once upon a time.

      1. I read THE SILVER SWORD in the Scholastic Book Services edition repackaged as ESCAPE FROM WARSAW…read it when I was about 9 or 10…I have to wonder how it would strike me today, as well…thanks for reminding me of it…it struck me as very “quasi-adult” at time of reading, but uniformly gentlemanly wartime soldiers does tend to strain credulity.

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