Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ghosts, Wizards, and Teachers Bumped Off In The Night - Griselda Heppel

What do these children's books - or series - have in common?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1905
The Chalet School by Elinor Brent Dyer, 1925 – 1970
Malory Towers Enid Blyton, 1946 – 1951
Down with Skool by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, 1953
Harry Potter by J K Rowling, 1997 - 2007
The Dragonfly Pool by Eve Ibbotson, 2008
Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke, 2012
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens, 2014

The list isn't exhaustive. I could have begun with Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Tom Brown's Schooldays but that's going a little too far back and besides, those great classics don't generally count as children's books.  By now you'll have got it: these are all stories set in boarding schools, a type of establishment reserved for the pampered offspring of only the very wealthiest in society – or at least, that's how it's seen today. 

As a children's author, you'd be mad to use an environment totally alien to the experience of 95% of your audience, with more than a whiff of a bygone age about it. Wouldn’t you? Tell most adults that the plot of your latest book takes place in a boarding school and their eyes glaze over. 'Oh, that old thing again,' is the message, sometimes spoken out loud.

Yet that’s not how children feel.  Look at that list again. The first four titles do belong to a different era, or even several, dating from 1905 to 1970. But the other four are highly successful works by contemporary authors, who've created brilliant stories against backgrounds ranging from a bonkers wartime school deep in the English countryside, to a ghostly cathedral school in Salisbury, to a magical castle in Scotland, to a 1920s finishing school for young ladies. Children reading these books don't care whether boarding schools are old-fashioned or divisive: what they recognize is the perfect background for a tightly structured, smooth-flowing plot, whether about ghosts or wizards or teachers being bumped off in the night. Parents (who get in the way of adventures and have to be neutralized in some way) are got rid of from the outset. Left to themselves day and night – apart from the teachers of course, who don't count – your characters have to tackle problems, deal with enemies, fight their battles (often literally, as in the Harry Potter books), uninterrupted by school pickup time and weekends.
It's the equivalent, I suppose, of sending a group of disparate adults on to an island where they are gradually murdered, one by one, or forming them into a fighting unit in a war zone. Besides, it's hard to write a children's adventure that doesn't involve school in some way, unless you resort to fantasy; school is what children do. Why shouldn't the action take place in a kind of school they don't go to? Tuck boxes, eccentric, wild-haired teachers, talking after lights out and braving dark, shadowy corridors at midnight add to the frisson of the story. 

So I'll come clean now and admit it: my wip, The Fall of a Sparrow, takes place in a boarding school. Not only that, I’ve followed Eve Ibbotson’s and Robin Stevens's example by setting the story in a different era, in this case the 1960s. Cynics may assume this is so I don't have to bother with mobile phones and social networking but that's not the reason. Mobiles are easily dealt with: at critical moments there's bound to be no network, or the battery's run out, or they've been dropped down the loo. For anyone who's ever tried to get texts from their children this is all too believable.

Much harder to deal with is how different boarding school life is now from how it was 50 years ago, when exeats didn’t exist and school life for most boarders went on uninterrupted until Half Term. This would appal present day parents, who bring their children home at weekends and often visit them during the week as well. Phone calls, texts and emails in between times keep everyone in touch with each other. Placing your characters in predicaments that they must use all their ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness to overcome becomes increasingly challenging when in real life they'll be home every few days, curled up on the sofa with an xbox and a cup of cocoa. A gentler, more nurturing attitude to children poses problems for the writer (though I know which I'd rather have).

A good place for talking after lights out
So, no easy way out for my heroine, 11 year-old Ellie Cooke. Lonely, angry, terrified her past will catch up with her, she arrives at Limewood House in 1968 ready to fight her corner; only to be greeted like a long lost friend by a strange 9 year-old boy who appears out of nowhere. Who is he, and why does he think he knows her? Unravelling the dark family secret concealed under the sunny surface of Limewood plunges Ellie into mortal danger, as the house’s tragic history threatens to engulf her too.

And not a cup of cocoa in sight.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:

Ante's Inferno 


The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst


Andrew Crofts said...

Having spent the entirety of the 1960s in English boarding schools I can confirm that they are the perfect setting for children's adventures - although the reality in my experience was more Gormenghast than Harry Potter.

Chris Longmuir said...

This brings back memories of favourite books. I loved the Chalet Girls and desperately wanted to go to boarding school. However, when I became a social worker I saw a different type of boarding school. These were the establishments that children with educational and behavioural difficulties were sent to ensure they received an education. It spoiled my cosy view of boarding schools and as a child, I definitely wouldn't have wanted to be sent to this type of boarding school. On the other hand, I'm sure these boarding schools could be mined for children's books nowadays.

Dennis Hamley said...

Gunby Hadath was the man! 'The New School at Shropp', 'The March of Time' and 'All Clear!' (set in a very minor public school in wartime) were childhood favourites of mine. I hadn't got a clue in hell about what sort of places they were set, except that it didn't matter because I still read on fascinated. And then there was 'Tragedy at Trinket' (author's name forgotten), which was fascinating. The climax and unmasking of the schoolboy murderer took place at Lords, at the Trinket v. Brooch annual cricket match. Presumably this was really Eton v. Harrow. The assumed names didn't seem to me to suggest a very high opinion of those two establishments was not held by the unknown author. As a murder mystery, it was remarkable in that the guilty party's name was only revealed as the very last word of the book. I looked through it again and swear blind that that was the only time it was mentioned at all. So you'll see that, as a genre, the boarding school story doesn't sit high in my personal Pantheon (except for Gunby Hadath), though I will concede that it gave me some innocent fun fifty years ago.

Dennis Hamley said...

'Held', not 'not held'!

griseldaheppel said...

Gormenghast - aargh, yes! It does seem that what works as wonderful inspiration for fiction is far less pleasant in real life. Even Harry Potter's boarding school experience isn't that cosy; leaving aside his constant battle for survival against Voldemort, his victimisation by Snape is right back there with Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. And yes,special schools for children with behavioural difficulties would make a terrific setting - talk about overcoming real hardship and trauma.
Dennis, your Gunby Hadath sounds a riot, I must look him up! Also Tragedy at Trinket which sounds more spoof than anything and perhaps is just a really bad book (the murderer making no appearance in a story at all until the last line is not how whodunnits work, after all!).
I do recommend Robin Stevens's Murder Most Unladylike series (Other titles include Arsenic for Tea and Mistletoe and Murder) in which Hazel and Daisy solve crimes at their 1920s boarding school. Brilliant Agatha Christie style stuff for children.

Thanks, all for these comments.

Dennis Hamley said...

'Tragedy at Trinket', I find, was written by Brian Flynn and published in 1930. Mine, I hasten to add, was a dog-eared secondhand copy. After the T v. B cricket match, the priestly uncle of Trinket's match-winning hero says, 'I doff my biretta to you.' I spent many years incuriously assuming this was one of the many things in books which you didn't have to understand. But when I saw my first Bond story and found that 007 also possessed a Biretta, that short conversation took on a sinister aspect. Perhaps I was meant to add the reverend uncle to the very short list of suspects.