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Rosemary Sutcliff spoke to a ‘Children’s Literature New England’ conference in 1989, in Cambridge (UK). Her contribution was entitled ‘History and Time’. At one point she told an anecdote to indicate that she saw her task as a historical novelist to be to breathe life into the bare bones of the accounts of academic historians and teachers.

Many years ago, when I was sure of myself as only someone scarcely out of their apprenticeship can be, I was talking to an audience of school teachers in the Midlands that are sodden and unkind, when a County Inspector of Education stood up and asked what was my justification for writing historical novels, which he clearly considered a bastard form, instead of leaving the job to legitimate historians who knew what they were talking about. I looked him straight in the eye and said: “Historians and teachers, you and your kind, can produce the bare bones, all in their right order, but still bare bones. I and my kind can breathe life into them. And history is not bare bones alone, but a living process.” Looking back I’m rather shaken at my hardihood, but I still think I was right.

  • Source: Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past by Fiona M. Collins, Judith Graham. Routledge (2013). p 112

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The Oxford University Press are the original publishers of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels for children. So it worries me greatly me to learn that in their most recent Junior English Dictionary they have removed a wealth of words about nature, many of which appear in those self-same books—and probably in other more recent children’s books which OUP are happy to profit from. They have removed:

adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy,porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow

It is also astonishing that they have thrown out such words as:

carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe

dwarf, elf, goblin

abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar

Apparently they have made room for such words as these instead:

blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue

celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate,

EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic,

allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro

apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify,

chronological, block graph

Source: http://www.naturemusicpoetry.com/news-and-blog/literary-stars-support-naturewords-campaign

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Cover of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks was nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Holly Sykes, the heroine, appears in some form in each of its six segments, which begin in 1984 and stretch to 2034. The sixth and final portion imagines a near future in which an ‘Endarkment’ has reset the world into barbaric times.

In an interview for an online magazine about books, arts, and culture—The Millions— David Mitchell was asked whether any specific sources inspired his vision of how the world might look in twenty years time. He spoke first of a “really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans…but gets the crops we eat”. The second source of inspiration was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth series, which is “the book that Holly is reading to the kids in the last section”.

Cover of The Lantern Bearers

 

Cover of The Death of Grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosemary Sutcliff … was an English, wheelchair-bound classicist in the 1950s who wrote about the Romans leaving Britain and the collapse of Roman civilization. The series focuses on the power vacuums a collapse of that magnitude leaves, and how the innocents always end up having to pay more then the soldiers. Those books are colossal. They are fantastic. In the third book of the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, the best of the three, there is a scene where the Roman ships leave the shores of Britain for the last time, and they know it’s the last time. What are they leaving behind? What’s going to happen to these people? That’s what was at the forefront of my mind—really how our world will look to my daughter as she grows—as I was writing that last section.

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Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of Millions

Like Rosemary Sutcliff, Frank Cottrell Boyce was awarded the Carnegie medal—for his children’s book, Millions. Like Rosemary, he believes passionately in reading for the sake of reading. I suspect also that, like Rosemary, he is passionate about being read to.

An article in the Guardian newspaper on Friday last quotes him from a lecture in which he argues that children are too often asked to analyse the text of a book or respond to a story with their own story, thus “polluting the whole reading experience”.

I visit many schools. I see amazing, creative work being done – especially in primary schools. But I have a nagging fear that in encouraging literacy we are killing the pleasure of reading…

There’s a humbling, Homeric magic in the sight of a crowd of children sitting down waiting to listen to your story…

Time and time again I come across teachers reading a story and then asking immediately for some kind of feedback. A piece of ‘creative writing’ ‘inspired by’ the story. Some opinions about character and wow words. Something to show the parents or the school inspectors. It pollutes the reading experience by bringing something transactional in to play. It destroys pleasure.

Pleasure in reading is deeply important. Pleasure is a profound and potent form of attention, a kind of slow thinking.When I offer you a story I don’t want you to come back to me with a description of how I did it. I don’t think of my reader as a trainee writer. I’m hoping that it stays in your mind and comes out in different ways I could never have predicted – as an engineering idea, as a cake, as a hug that you give your dad.

We think of reading as a solitary activity but some of my most important reading experiences were very much shared.

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Rosemary Sutcliff spent a limited time in formal school education, but it did not hinder her  in becoming what The Guardian newspaper called on her death ‘a writer of genius’.

I didn’t go to school for a very long time because of traipsing around so much. My mother used to educate me herself, chiefly by just reading to me the books that she liked. (But I did go to school, and I’ve always been very thankful that I went to an ordinary school, I never got incarcerated with other disabled children).

(But) chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day. I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old. Me and Kipling, we were both nine before we could read: I think in my case  this was because my mother read aloud to me so much, and this I loved very very much.

I left school, which one could do at fourteen in those days, and put in three years at art school. I did the general art course—painting in oils and water-colours and making charcoal drawings of the Apollo Belvedere from the north, south, east, and west!

I had not written as a child, I had not written stories. I wasn’t at all writing-minded at school.

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Rosemary Sutcliff spoke about when and why she started writing when she spoke on BBC Radio’s famous Desert Island Discs programme.

I set up as a miniaturist and found commissions coming in. In the war I had quite lot of work to do: quite often, rather sadly, from photographs of young soldiers who weren’t coming back, and things of that sort. I worked at home, and also at the local art school (in Bideford); I was allowed to use a room. I enjoyed it, but I found miniature painting cramping. I was a good craftsman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it.

I think for this very reason, that I began to feel that I’d got to do something to break out. I gave it up to write. And I could write as big as ever I wanted to, I could use an enormous canvas if I wanted to.

I had not written as a child, I had not written stories. I wasn’t at all writing-minded at school. I don’t know when it started, I just wanted to write. And I scribbled happily most of the time through the war. It was quite dreadful, it was rather a mixture of Jeffery Farnol and Georgette Heyer. They’re both good writers, but I took the worst elements from both of them.

It is intriguing to plot the trends in the relative use of the three names Rosemary Sutcliff, Jeffery Farnol and Georgette Heyer.

Rosemary Sutcliff, Georgette Heyer and Jeffery Farnol

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In 2010 Joanna R. Smith blogged about reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind—“gorgeous historical fiction” about Britain in the 6th Century AD. She loved (Rosemary Sutcliff’s): “storytelling and characters, and her talent of letting you hear and see and feel the things in her books. Her prose is quiet and lyrical and compelling, and this is “ Lovely, lovely stuff. The kind of writing I aspire to!”

The moon drifted clear of a long bank of cloud, and the cool slippery light hung for a moment on the crest of the high ground, and then spilled down the gentle bush-grown slope to the river. Between the darkness under the banks the water which had been leaden gray woke into moving ripple-patterns, and a crinkled skin of silver light marked where the paved ford carried across the road from Corinium to Aquae Sulis. Somewhere among the matted islands of rushes and water crowfoot, a moorhen cucked and was still. On the high ground in the loop of the river nothing moved at all, save the little wind that ran shivering through the hawthorn bushes.

Source: Just a Lyric in a Children’s Rhyme: A long bank of cloud

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