Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 12 September 2015

Children’s books aren’t just for children - or are they? By Cally Phillips

This week I’m pleased to introduce Cally Phillips of Ayton Publishing. Cally is on a mission to revive interest in Scottish author S R Crockett, once a hugely successful novelist whose books sold in the hundreds of thousands. Mary Smith


If you were a child over 40 years ago, as I was, then your reading material might well have included quite a few 19th century ‘classic’ children’s stories. I was brought up on a diet of E. Nesbit and Noel Streatfield as well as the more modern Alan Garner and Alison Uttley. I was a reading omnivore ranging freely from Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens. I read and re-read Arthur Ransome and Allan Campbell MacLean and Robert Louis Stevenson (he was considered a children’s author when I was a child!).

I have had major book culls to my library several times in my life but I cannot let go of many of my beloved children’s books, from The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) to Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) and A Dog So Small (1962) and many more besides. They are more than just books I’ve read. They are part of my childhood and in a way part of who I am.  That’s part of the beauty of books isn’t it? I find it interesting that in those days whether they were set in the 1950s or 1850s didn’t matter so much to me as whether I made friends with the characters! I hadn’t bought into the cult of either ‘classic’ or ‘new.’  It’s taken me a long time to escape from both of those cults back to a more free way of reading. But that’s another story.

As a reader my first love is probably character. I’ve always sought out characters to befriend. I especially like characters who appear to be cut in the cloth of their authors. That way I feel a sense of commonality not just with the fictional character but the very real author. I like authors who play with the boundaries between character, narrator and author. One such is S.R.Crockett.

As a publisher my goal is to share my ‘friends’ with others who might enjoy their company but have never met them because they don’t hang out on the ‘bestseller’ shelves. These are not friends for ‘followers of fashion’ but for people who have history, adventure and romance in their souls.

This year I’ve published all seven of Crockett’s stories for children as The Rainbow Crockett series. To categorise these as books for children is disingenuous. No self -respecting modern child would want to read them. Yet in their day they were bestsellers for years on end (especially in the lucrative Christmas market). If they were furniture, today they’d be described (along with Nesbit, Streatfield and even Garner) as a sort of ‘distressed shabby’ in style, certainly not high fashion. In all cases I suggest this is no small part of their charm – they take us to a place that no longer exists except in our memory. 

Certainly today, The Rainbow Crockett stories are more suitable for adults who have children/grandchildren, or who were children themselves around half a century ago.  They are also interesting for people who want to know about domestic minutiae of the nineteenth century (I’m guilty as charged on that one.) 

Six of the stories feature the barely fictional Picton-Smith family.  Based on Crockett’s own children, his close observation is key to both the humour and the charm of the books. This is a man who knew and loved his children. Warts and all. 

Crockett’s eldest daughter Maisie is the nominal heroine of the two ‘Sweetheart’ stories. The first sees Crockett and Sweetheart cycling the countryside on a giant tricycle and the second is a ‘spoof’ diary kept by Sweetheart through her childhood. 

The Red Cap books feature the Picton-Smith children struggling to read Walter Scott. Much of the humour of the stories lies not in the Scott excerpt/adaptations (which Crockett breathes admirable life into) but the responses and antics of the children themselves. Even if you can’t thole Scott (as I’m afraid I can’t) don’t worry, the Picton-Smiths steal the scenes admirably.

Two books showcase Sir Toady Lion. Crockett’s second son George is the blueprint for one of my all-time favourite fictional characters.  He gets his name from his inability to pronounce Coeur de Lion and he steals every scene he enters. He is a force of nature. I’ll go so far as to say it’s worth reading the Rainbow Crockett simply for the antics of Toady.

The final story, published a decade after Crockett’s death, is a semi-autobiographical teenage rites of passage boys own adventure story. Written from the juvenile perspective it is funny as well as informative and gives a real insight into the young Crockett and some of his contemporaries – MacGeorge the artist and Penman the engineer – when they were still teenagers.  Think Adrian Mole for the 1870s.

I hope I’ve given you a brief introduction to some of my fictional friends. If you enjoyed the company of The Bastable children when you were a child, you will find a whole new set of friends in the Picton-Smiths. If you like boy’s own adventure, Sir Toady will take you on a couple. If you like Stevenson you might even bridge the gap and try some of Crockett’s novels for adults. I think we lose something if we stick to rigid classification of books and I suggest simply that The Rainbow Crockett offers great stories for people who still remember what it felt like reading ‘great stories’ when they were children.  

You can buy The Rainbow Crockett series in paperback direct from the Galloway Raiders online store HERE where you’ll also find many more of my ‘friends’ just waiting to while away some happy hours with you. And if you’re really adventurous you might want to take part in either High Tea for SRC or Get on Your Bike with SRC… just follow the links.


10 comments:

  1. Thanks so much Cally, for a great post. The Rainbow series sounds great and you've also reminded me of some of the books I loved as a child.

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  2. Fascinating! I have read almost all the books Cally mentions except S R Crockett. I am now off to order some and rectify that lack. They sound like exactly the sort of books I love. And if i can re-read and re-read them, like other old friends, even better.

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    1. Yes, she made me remember some old favourites. I think you'll enjoy Crockett.

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  3. Well Gillian, if you loved the Bastables, the Picton-Smiths are their Scottish cousins and Toady Lion is incomparable!

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  4. Great post! Pure nostalgia for me. I have a friend with over a hundred very old children's books. I think the artwork in most of them is worthy of framing - especially the black and whites, my fave!

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    1. Cally has certainly taken us all on a trip down memory lane. What I'm wondering is how come the people who commented have all read the same books as children - except we never read any of S R Crockett's books?

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  5. Forgot to say I have a friend with a passion for collecting old, illustrated, children's books. Many black and white but some with beautiful pastel-coloured plates as well. I love going to her house for a snoop and a quiet read in the conservatory!

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    1. I also enjoy looking at old illustrated books and I love the ones Cally has included in her guest post. There is so much detail to enjoy in what are fairly simple images.

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  6. Really enjoyed this post, Cally and Mary. Sorry I missed it - I was away. The books look delightful, a real bit of nostalgia, and I love the rainbow idea. The illustrations are great too - thanks for this!

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  7. Glad you enjoyed the post, Jenny - now you've found it. The Rainbow books have now been launched and are available.

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