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The wonderful, timeless, Arthur Ransome

I am a working mother. I don’t feel guilt about this, I know it is the best thing for me and for my children, and I know that my children are well cared for, either by my partner or by their school or childcare. Nonetheless, it does mean that the time I spend with them and our rituals around it are just that bit more precious, as anything that is rarer is more precious.

One of my favourite things is story time. Sure, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that some nights it feels like a chore when I am sick or tired or required to read the same hideously written Bob the Builder story for the 5th night running (and don’t get me started on Thomas the Tank Engine), but it is, even then, a wonderful time when I sit on my boys’ beds, with them cuddled up or playing with my hair or sprawled about and we take a shared voyage together.

The Swallows & Amazons series were books that I adored as a child, and I can still recall parts of them. I was thus delighted when, one night after a meeting in Melbourne I discovered open a little bookshop called the Paperback Book at the top of Bourke Street. Its children’s novels’ section was marvellous -and both Swallows & Amazons and The Eagle of the Ninth were immediate purchases. Once home, it was decided that I would  read it aloud at storytime each night.

I must admit, though I loved these books myself, I wasn’t sure they would hold up and how much the boys would enjoy them. The kids in these adventures don’t have computers or go to the movies; they sing sea shanties and do algebra in their holidays. Written in the 1930s, these books could be seen as existing in a different world, divorced from modern amenities and helicopter parenting. But they immediately clicked with the boys (well, the 6 and 8 yr old ones). The characterisations are such that my boys can identify with the children (especially the 7 yr old and Roger) and the simple adventures capture their imaginations. The boys love the details of camp life with which the stories are imbued, and the freedom inherent in a bunch of children not much older than themselves spending their summer sailing around a lake.

I have enjoyed rediscovering the books as well; not only are the stories engaging despite their simplicity, but Ransome also writes with a gentle humour that might be missed by the smaller audience members at times. The emotional engagement of the characters is the central attraction of the books, an they really do come to life. Starting Winter Holiday tonight, the boys can identify the children immediately from the descriptions of them as seen from a distance, and are excited by their reappearance.

There are challenges in reading books which are nearly 80 years old to small people, but they can be part of the enjoyment. The boys, who knew nothing about sailing, are now getting the hang of what jibs, booms and halyards are – and also are getting quite keen to have sailing lessons themselves. Explaining the use of terms like “natives” and “savages” opens up a post-colonial theory discussion around bed time. I must admit that I found it hard to read the word “dago” when it was used in Peter Duck, but again it, and “negroes” offers opportunity to discuss issues of both the past and the present. Similarly we can discuss changes in technology and lifestyles with children at boarding schools, lanterns instead of torches and having to fetch the milk from a farm each morning. The gender relations in the books are not as awful as they might be – Susan and Peggy do all the cooking and look after the crew because they are the Mates, not just because they are girls. And with Nancy and Titty around, there is no implications that cooking and sewing are what girls should be interested in. Nancy and John, both captains, are equals. One of the points of humour and horror in Swallowdale is the fact that Nancy and Peggy are forced out of their sailors’ gear and into pretty dresses for the benefit of their (much despised) Great Aunt.

We have now read the first three of the series, and are onto number 4, with number  awaiting us on the shelf. It was an anxious wait until Winter Holiday turned up today from the Book Depository. I am just happy to have found a wonderful way to share my story time with my boys, transported to another world, engendering in them a love of sailing, adventures and, most of all, reading.

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