Home School Book Review, May 22, 2012 (view all comments by Home School Book Review)
What did kids do to amuse and entertain themselves before television, video games, computers, and smart phones? They played outside and used their imagination. That’s exactly what Captain John Walker, his sister Mate Susan, their sister Able-seaman Titty, and brother the Boy Roger do. Their father, probably in the Royal Navy, is on a ship at Malta but under orders for Hong-King, so for their summer vacation their mother has rented a cottage on a farm at Holly Howe located next to a huge lake. They also have a baby sister, Vicky, who is taken care of by a nurse. The children have been taught how to sail, and they have use of the farm’s sailboat, the Swallow. While out on the lake, they find an island where they receive permission to camp.
During the course of their adventure, they meet up with the Blacketts, Captain Nancy (real name Ruth) and sister Mate Peggy, who have their own pirate sailboat, the Amazon, along with the girls’ uncle James Taylor who lives on a houseboat near the island and becomes “Captain Flint” to the children. The Swallows and the Amazons declare war on each other with victory going to the side who can take the others’ ship, then together they declare war on Captain Flint. Who will win? How will a burglary at Captain Flint’s houseboat affect their relationship? And what will they do when a huge storm comes up over Wild Cat Island? The book had its beginning long before when as a child author Arthur Mitchell Ransome, with his brother and sisters, spent most of their holidays on a farm at the south end of Coniston and played on the nearby lake, but it was further inspired by a summer in which Ransome taught the children of his friends, the Altounyans, to sail. In fact, three of the Altounyan children's names are adopted directly for the Walker family.
Swallows and Amazons, a paean to children’s make-believe play and exploring their surrounding world, is a very pleasant story that involves the great outdoors, boats, fishing, and camping, with rich characterization, vivid descriptions, wholesome reading, and old-fashioned ideals. It includes a good deal of everyday Lakeland life in the early twentieth century, from the local farmers to charcoal burners working in the woods. Seldom have I ever come to the end of a book and felt sorry that it was over. If you read it and reach the same conclusion, you’re in luck! Ransome wrote eleven more books in the “Swallows and Amazons Forever” series: Swallowdale (1931); Peter Duck (1932); Winter Holiday (1933); Coot Club (1934); Pigeon Post (1936); We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea (1937); Secret Water (1939); The Big Six (1940); Missee Lee (1941); The Picts And The Martyrs: or Not Welcome At All (1943); and Great Northern? (1947). A thirteenth book, Coots in the North, was left incomplete at the time of Ransome's 1967 death and published in an unfinished form in 1988 with some other short works. In subsequent adventures in the series, the children progressively grow older, change their usual roles, and become explorers or miners.
Morro, June 23, 2011 (view all comments by Morro)
"Swallows and Amazons" is a classic British children's novel that can be enjoyed by any age from 4 to 104! Loosley based on the author's own childhood adventures in the Lake District of northern England, this book (and several subsequent books in the ALMOST consistantly wonderful 12-book series) follows the imaginative sailing and camping adventures of six children and their two small sailboats, the Swallow and the Amazon, during summer holidays.
Although the ages of the children are not made explicitely known, the youngest is mentioned as being seven, and the eldest ones can be assumed to be in their early teens or late tweens. They are a group of polite, hardworking, cheerful, friendly characters who actually manage to seem like real children in spite of this (heh - don't worry, I'm a parent, I can joke). This is quiet adventuring - there is no violence to speak of, the plot conflicts are basically small, but somehow it is captivating and joyful and rollicking good fun nonetheless.
Ransome was also interested in writing children's books that would be in some way instructional, and so they are, without being overtly didactic. For example, clever readers will glean much small-craft sailing terminology and practise from it's pages, and will also learn rustic camping strategies, like how to make a simple tent that requires no staking, or the way to build a proper firepit. These "educational" insights are not plopped down lecture-style, but elegantly worked into the story so that they serve as a jumping off point for active minds, not a recipe book or scout manual.
Today's children (not to mention their parents), much deprived of the genuine outdoor pleasures of a simpler time (the book was written and takes place in the 1930's), can take inspiration from these adventures; my own 5-yr-old girl loves this book, and now delights in pretend sailing voyages, desert island life, and friendly pirates (yes, FRIENDLY pirates).
Point of interest: this fairly obscure (in America) book was also listed as #57 on the BBC's Top 100 Books to Read, as part of their "Best National Novel" hunt, in which novels of British origin were nomiated by ordinary people in the UK and rank ordered. I vote it as "Not To Be Missed" for parents, as well as for lovers of children's and young adult literature. But a word of warning, once you get started, you can't read just one! You'll soon find your shelf filled with the other eleven books in the series!
smolin, September 28, 2010 (view all comments by smolin)
If I were to pick a book that I'd like every child to experience, this is it. It has wonderful characters who can serve as great role models; realistic situations to which the reader can relate; and excellent, accessible English prose. Mr. Ransome speaks to, and never down to children and their experience of the world. And it has that one element that I so crave in children's literature: the children are authors of their own adventures, using their imagination to engage the world in a rich and rewarding way. They are never the passive pawns of fate. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I have.
David R. Godine Publisher -
For anyone who loves sailing and adventure, Arthur Ransome's classic Swallows and Amazons series stands alone. Originally published in the UK over a half century ago, these books are still eagerly read by children, despite their length and their decidedly British protagonists. We attribute their success to two facts: first, Ransome is a great storyteller and, second, he clearly writes from first-hand experience. Independence and initiative are qualities any child can understand and every volume in this collection celebrates these virtues.
Swallows and Amazons, the book that started it all in 1930, introduces the Walker family, the camp on Wild Cat Island, the able-bodied catboat Swallow, and the two intrepid Amazons, plucky Nancy and Peggy Blackett.
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.