It’s a long time since I read a children’s book. Don’t get me wrong, as a child I was a voracious reader covering all the classics more than once before moving on to adult fare. And as an adult I ‘put aside childish things’ and reading became something one did primarily for research, work or study. As a pleasure it was usually a guilty one. Time one might spend reading for pleasure comes way down the list when you write for a living (in my case anyway.)
That said, I think the Arthur Ransome series of books are possibly the last children’s books I did read as an adult, many years ago and it was with some trepidation (and a bit of guilty excitement) that I started The Salt Stained Book. The fear was it would be a poor reflection of a happy experience, a failed tribute or homage, or worse a crass ‘modernisation.’ I needed have no such fear.
What I (re)discovered in reading The Salt Stained Book was the absolute joy of literally losing oneself in a good story. As a child I suspect our identities, prejudices and class consciousness are less developed or at least less rigid and we are more open to simply ‘enjoy’ a book without bringing these things to it and with SSB I experienced that feeling for the first time in a long time. I completely lost myself in the story. Time passed without me noticing and I did not exist. Only the world of the story existed. The world, and I, stood outside of time for quite some hours. I believe that this is the best that reading a book can give a person.
Donny’s world is quite alien to the polite middle class world of the ‘original’ John Walker in Swallows and Amazons, but Julia Jones has hit upon the one thing that might prevent young people from engaging with Ransome’s books, and rectified it. In the process, after reading SSB the Ransome series must become more accessible to an otherwise ‘streetwise’ and more cynical modern youth. You don’t have to love sailing to appreciate it. You don’t have to love ‘boys own adventure stories’. It goes far beyond that.
Working on two levels, from a child’s perspective we see the complete inpenetrability of the workings of the Social Services in specific and adults in general From the adult perspective there is a dark humour in seeing how Looked After Children and SS (the Social Services) actually work (or more accurately don’t work) for the young people they are meant to set up to Protect. (The use of Capital letters is both funny and apposite!)
Both shocking and funny, the book is a triumph; allowing a child to engage with a confusing world and feel they are not alone, and an adult to reflect upon the world we foist on children. And the master stroke is that this duality is central to the very narrative world of the story.
Central Ransome themes such as the banding together of children in the face of the alien adult world, a sense of freedom, excitement, responsibility and fear are all here in SSB but in a contemporary and classless package which will make this book appealing to a wide range of readers. It’s a ripping good yarn for sure, but it does so much more and it has real depth which makes it as much a joy for an adult as for a child. I am straight onto the next one A Ravelled Flag, and I don’t know how I will pass the time till the final part comes out (oh, I’ll go back to Ransome.)
And I’ve learned a lesson. Some children/YA books are good for ‘grown up’s’ too!
Reviewed by Cally Phillips
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