The Children of Green Knowe

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The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

1954

Illustrated by Peter Boston

“A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as much as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train – more stop than go – and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water – not sea or rivers or lakes, but just senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train noise was quite different, softer than a boat.”

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So begins The Children of Green Knowe. And already we are witness to a rare exquisite prose and a gift for conveying character, describing nature, and creating mood. Lucy Boston penned this, her first manuscript, at the age of 62, and she proceeded to write six volumes of the Green Knowe chronicles, inspired by the 12th century Norman house that was her home.

Tolly is en route from his lonely boarding school existence to spend the Christmas holidays with his great grandmother in the ancient castle of Green Knowe. Mrs Oldknow provides the kindness, wisdom, and solace that is lacking in his life, his father and step-mother being off in remote Burma. She shares with him the stories of three children who lived at Green Knowe in the 17th century, and gradually Toby, Alexander, and Linnet come to people Tolly’s world. Lucy Boston is able to convey perfectly the palpable richness that accompanies the spirit children, even when they are invisible and silent, contrasted with the flat emptiness when they are absent.

The beautiful blend of reality and fantasy that is introduced in The Children of Green Knowe is continued in The Treasure of Green Knowe, every bit as good as the first. This time “the others”, who come from the turn of the 19th century, are Susan, a young girl blind from birth, and Jacob, a slave boy from Barbados brought to England to be her eyes. The Green Knowe chronicles, with their breathtaking writing, are a treasure of children’s literature, and it is a shame that they are so little known.

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Box:   “At one side there was a beautiful old rocking horse – not a “safety” rocking horse hanging on iron swings from a centre shaft, but a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.”

Box: “At school he was learning to ride real horses. They were not, alas, at all like Feste, Toby’s horse. Their coats were not shining silk but rough like railway upholstery, and when one patted them, clouds of dust came out.”

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The Polar Express

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The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

1985

Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

At some point in every childhood, the first crack of doubt appears in the veneer of belief.  A child is confronted by a more jaded peer who asks witheringly, “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”  The pressure is on.  The child faces a painful conundrum.  Should he or she really give up the carefully worded missives to the North Pole and the excitement of opening the replies (with their spidery rune-like writing and envelopes proclaiming “Sleigh Mail!”), the Christmas Eve plate of star-shaped sprinkle cookies and peeled carrots for Saint Nick and the reindeer, the laying awake in bed hoping to catch the sound of sleigh bells and the scattering of hooves on the roof, and the joy of rushing downstairs on Christmas morning to find the stockings filled – yes, Santa Claus really did come?  It’s a slippery slope, for where Santa goeth, the other two characters in the mythical trinity – the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy – are sure to follow close behind.

In The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg tells a story in which those who retain their belief are in an enviable state of grace.  On Christmas Eve, a boy arises from bed to find a train standing perfectly still in front of his sleeping house.  The cars are filled with children in their pajamas or nightgowns, all heading to the North Pole.  Upon arrival, Santa Claus chooses the boy to be the recipient of the first gift of Christmas, a silver bell from his sleigh.  On Christmas morning, the boy finds the bell under the tree and he and his sister hear the most beautiful sound in the world, while his parents hear nothing and think the bell is broken.  “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.  Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.  Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”polar express

Van Allsburg began as an artist rather than a writer, and his distinctive illustrations are imbued with a strong narrative current.  He borrows from the surrealists the juxtaposition of objects onto impossible backdrops – a house floating by the partially submerged heads of Mount Rushmore (in Ben’s Dream), a straight backed chair with nun levitating high above two priests in a cathedral (in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick), or the train in front of the house in The Polar Express.  The illustrations have a luminous mysterious quality, often with a vaguely ominous or unsettling undercurrent, as when the Polar Express passes silent wolves standing sentry in the forest.  This could not be further from the candy cane and gumdrop school of Christmas art.

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Aside:  Fritz, a white bull terrier with a dark eye patch, first appears in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, where he is turned into a duck by a fez-wearing magician.  Like Hitchcock in his own movies, Fritz turns up for a cameo role in each of Van Allsburg’s subsequent books.  In The Sweetest Fig,  his image appears on the label of a wine bottle.  In Probuditi, he becomes a tea pot.  In Two Bad Ants, he is a shade of himself in the spinning refuse of a garbage disposal.  In The Polar Express, he is a hand puppet impaled on the boy’s bedpost.