BOOKS FOR CHILDREN Turning back the page

Some people never grow out of children's books, says Suzi Feay Some adults have developed a "Chalet School mentality"
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"A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain..." Most people remember a special book from childhood: a much-loved story read aloud, or perhaps the first book they managed for themselves. The Children of Green Knowe (1954) first showed me what a powerful charm good writing can exert, and its opening lines never fail to reawaken a sense of mystery and wonder.

But while most people are content to let stories remain dim and golden memories, some never grow out of re-reading and collecting the books they loved as children. Last month Mary Cadogan, author, with Patricia Craig, of You're A Brick, Angela!, a survey of school stories from Angela Brazil to Enid Blyton, led a dis-cussion at London's South Bank about children's literature in the '40s - the era of Richmal Crompton and W E Johns. The age of those attending ranged from 20 to 70. Why do adults find these books so absorbing? "The '40s was a period of transition; a lot of things had gone forever because of the war. There's a feeling of security but also a great excitement; the books reflected reality in a way that, putting it very crudely, showed good was going to overcome evil," reckons Cadogan.

With classics, it's difficult to draw a firm line between children's and adult fiction. "A really first-rate children's book is a book you can read at any age and still find new insights," says Cadogan. "Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll, Edith Nesbitt: they never wrote down to children, they lifted the child's experience." One celebrated writer didn't follow the golden rule. "I don't want to slam Enid Blyton, but I'm afraid she did often write down. At her best she had a wonderful flow, and she's still read by nostalgic adults today."

Some books about childhood seem wasted on children, like Kenneth Grahame's The Golden Age (1985) and Dream Days (1898), which contrast the carefree world of five orphans with their remote, unimaginative guardians, the "Olympians". "Can it be that I have become an Olympian too?" mourns Grahame. But there are more sophisticated pleasures than nostalgia. In You're A Brick, Angela!, Cadogan and Craig poked mischievous fun at the hockeysticks genre. "I adore school stories, but I often have a laugh when I'm reading them," says Cadogan. "Take the line from one of Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Nancy books: `Nancy was never happier than when she was playing with her organ.' I laugh, but it doesn't in any way dim my affection for them."

Cadogan and Craig fell foul of die-hard Chalet School aficionados with this irreverent approach. Last year was the centenary of the birth of author Elinor M Brent-Dyer, and a collection of essays, The Chalet School Revisited (Bettany Press £9.99), was published to celebrate. "My God, It's The Head!" is a serious treatment of religion in the series. The book raises other posers: why, if the school is meant to be so healthy, are the girls fed so much cream and caffeine? Some adult readers, it's reported, have developed a "Chalet School mentality" of neatness under "Matey's" imaginary eye, while others endure the daily cold bath. Many just collect rare editions - the series has never been out of print.

"I'm not a fan myself," says Cadogan firmly, "but you have to admire Brent-Dyer. Her internationalism is really very modern, and the books still sell enormously well to young girls, many of whom don't realise just how long ago they were written." But school stories don't only attract women. "Men are even more sentimental about their childhood reading than women," claims Cadogan, who edits Story Paper Collectors' Digest, a monthly newsletter founded in the '40s, offering its largely male readership news from "The Old Boys Book Club" and advertisements for such items as "Armada Bunter paperbacks: amazingly mint copies", and issues of The Modern Boy and Boy's Own Paper. It remains to be seen whether today's children's fiction, with its realism and themes of bullying, step-parenting and sex, will exert such a seductive pull.

! `The Chalet School Revisited' ISBN 0 9524680 0 X

Story Paper Collectors' Digest, £1.10 monthly from 46 Overbury Ave, Beckenham, Kent BR3 2PY