Sailing and magic in 20th century children’s books

Cover of "Swallows and Amazons"

Double Review: Twentieth century novels for Children: Swallows and Amazons and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

Early realist novel Swallows and Amazons (1930) by Arthur Ransome, and modern fantasy novel Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone (1997) by J.K.Rowling may seem like unusual novels to review together.  One is seen as prestigious and the other popular.  But what difference does that make to the enjoyment of the two books?

Swallows and Amazons with its maps and compass point locations has a strong sense of place.  Even though the places are given names such as ‘Rio’ rather than their correct names, the reader is aware that the imagined world takes place in the real location of the Lake District. Prestigious realist books often use imagination to stimulate child readers. When swept away in their imagination, the children always slip back into the real world before continuing with their play: “we’ll agree to Rio. It’s a good name”

Swallows and Amazons has a  literary approach to dialogue, plot and characters.  It begins with Roger anticipating a response to a request sent out to their father, one which the reader is not yet aware.  The narrative then takes us back to when they first had the idea to land on “their island”.

When Swallows and Amazons was written it was quite modern for its day to feature gender equality in terms of sailing: the girls were just as good as, if not better than John: “Nancy never looked up, but altered the direction of the boat…” However, the role of the ‘substitute parent’ was adopted not by John, the eldest, but by Susan, who one day woke up “to find the boy pulling at her… [for] ‘something to eat’”

What makes Swallows and Amazons so good?

It pays homage to Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe.  It creates a very different story using the same island adventure idea.  These stories help the characters play and imagine they are Robinson Crusoe “It’s Man Friday’s Tent”.

Ransome is credited by critics with developing modern children’s literature by challenging what came before.  His characters use modern language and abbreviations such as “Can’t now” rather than the standard middle class English still used by authors at the time Ransome was writing.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is described as fantasy fiction, where the extraordinary can happen and mythical creatures exist such as unicorns.  In children’s literature fantasy allows for greater subtextual meaning. The book has been criticized by some religious organizations for its use of magic yet the story is rooted in older children’s literature making it less controversial that some critics suggest.  The boarding school setting and rivalry for academic excellence and winning the “house cup” give it an old fashioned feel, and fundamentally the story is about good versus evil, with good winning.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

 Rowling avoids complex sentence structures and the story has a straight forward narrative. When comparing it against Swallows and Amazons the structure in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is simple, child-friendly and starts from the beginning, in a normal world, then moving into his extraordinary adventures.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was shortlisted for the 1997 Carnegie Medal, but was not a winner. It did however win the Nestle´ Smarties Book Prize and other awards where children were involved with the judging process, but failed to win any prestigious prizes judged by adults such as The Newberry Prize.  This prize is awarded for books which contribute to literature.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was blocked for not being brilliantly written, but even though the text is not as literary sophisticated as Swallows and Amazons it has proven popular with children. It has re-engaged both boys and girls with reading, which is by a large degree an important contribution to literature.

What makes Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone so good?

It pays homage to other great works of literature: The boarding school format from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays; and the wizard school from Jill Murphey’s The Worst Witch. There are also various examples of Lewis Carroll’s influence in the book: From falling through the trapdoor, like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole, to the giant chess game, like Alice through the Looking Glass to the riddle with the bottles, like the shrinking and growing potions in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

For child enjoyment, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has proven to be very successful.


10 thoughts on “Sailing and magic in 20th century children’s books

  1. I understand you were just talking about the first book, which is definitely a children’s book, but in my opinion, you can’t talk about Harry Potter without mentioning how Rowling managed to allow her readers to grow up with Harry Potter, making the books much more sophisticated as he got older.

    • Children who grew up with Harry Potter are very lucky. The closest experience I have to this is with Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books. I was a few years younger than Adrian when I read the first book, and even though the books were published years before, I did not discover the second book for a long time after. I always stayed just a little bit younger than Adrian, but as he matured in each book, I had too.

  2. I grew up with the fairies and with stories of all kinds. i was taught about herbs and flowers, folklore and many secrets of the nature and its animals. I realize now, the stories were a treasure chamber full of wisdom and knowledge. My world gave me a perspective of divinity that religion never describe. You learn a lot in school and in life but what still remains within my heart and memories are the world of fairies. Nothing is more pervasive and lasting than the stories for children. Never underestimate its importance and dont be afraid to put the the essentials of life in the stories.

    • Thanks for the comment. Wow, I love your passion for folklore and fantasy; the land Tolkien described as ‘faerie’. The world of magic is precious for children (and adults!). I think Ransome shows that even in a realist story magic can exist. It exists in the imagination of children. It’s a shame that fairytales are usually seen as exclusively for children. We should take inspiration from C.S.Lewis: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” 🙂

      • Indeed Hannah! In fact its just a way of describing our subconsciousness. We are Mind, Heart, Senses and Myth. Stories have the functions of depicting and transporting knowledge.

        “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”
        ― Albert Einstein

    • Wow, I’m amazed. I grew up with fairies and folklore, too, as well as animals and nature, but except for “Ferngully” and a story my mom told me, I didn’t combine the two that much. Now I’m thinking of ways I can in my children’s books that aren’t too cliche.
      As for linking stories with religion, I am a Unitarian Universalist, but I also have an Earth-based spirituality that I believe may make me a budding neo-Pagan. I have just started using old favorite children’s books for prayer and meditation, so I know what its like to get a sense of divinity from children’s stories.
      I couldn’t agree more with what you say about children’s stories. Just out of curiosity, what do you consider to be the “essentials of life” that should be put in the stories?

      • Its good to have presence, but be careful to ritualize too much. Rituals are a methods to remember not an actual catalyst.

        Basically i mean: dont be afraid to put anything in a story. Specifically I would prefer to convey the importance to be present in the moment. I believe our most essential purpose is to experience life and this world in relation to ourselves and to divinity. If God created us it was because of the experience of everything from the outside of itself.


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