Posted in Writing

My Favourite School Story: The Adventures of Jennings – with Alison Morton

array of Jennings books
Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings stories – an addictive series

In this last of my series about favourite school stories, which I launched to celebrate the publication of my own school series for grown-ups, Staffroom at St Bride’s, I’m delighted to welcome thriller writer Alison Morton to talk about her choice: the Jennings series by Antony Buckeridge. These hilarious books were my personal favourite when I was growing up, although they seemed dated even then.

Alison Morton with Jennings books
Alison Morton shares her love of Anthony Buckeridge’s school stories

Set in a traditional English boys’ boarding school, and written by a former prep school teacher, the series revolves around the spirited, well-intentioned Jennings and his cautious best friend Darbishire. What I liked most about it was the humour, and it came as no surprise to me to learn recently that one of Buckeridge’s writing heroes was P G Wodehouse. (One of mine, too!)

I especially adored the language, peppered with posh schoolboy slang that I’d never come across in real life – a “wizard wheeze” for a good idea, and so on. (More on that in a moment from Alison.) But I could never use those terms in conversation, as only fellow Jennings fans might understand them. Which is why I was especially pleased to hear that Alison Morton was on the same wavelength.

Over to Alison now to tell us more…

Please give title, author and a brief description of the book.

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge.

It’s (John Christopher Timothy) Jennings’s first term at Linbury Court prep school. He befriends clever, but socially inept vicar’s son Darbishire, foxes into town in disguise, accidentally kicks the Archbeako (headmaster) on the kneecap while practising his football-skills, displays too much (or not enough) initiative during fire practice, and has a hair-raising incident with a poisonous spider. The expression ‘getting into scrapes’ must have been invented for Jennings, but he has such a genuine sense of honour it’s hard to be cross with him!

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?

photo of Alison in school uniform aged 11
Alison first “met” Jennings when she started secondary school

Ha! I think I was eleven, as I remember borrowing it from the library in my new school when I was in the Lower Thirds (equivalent of Year 7 today). I re-read it recently, and let’s say it’s several decades on from when I was first enthralled by Jennings and Darbishire.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

I was surprised to find myself still chuckling. Either author Anthony Buckeridge was a very clever man or I still have an infantile sense of humour. Actually, I probably laugh at different places today. And although Jennings is impetuous and sees the world in a very specific way, I still find him endearing and, in his own way, logical. I probably don’t find him as exciting as eleven-year-old me did as I have done more exciting things during my own life!

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

The humour (and there is plenty of it) rests on misunderstandings resulting from Jennings’s literal-mindedness and impetuosity. In the earliest novels in the series there are some Latin puns; these were often omitted from later reprints which is a pity, but times changed from the 1950s and few children now learn Latin. Comradeship, behaving fairly and a desire to ‘do the right thing’, even though the school staff might not agree with the boys’ view of what that right thing was, runs through the books.

The earlier novels including Jennings Goes to School present an idealised version of small town, middle-class English life in the 1950s and mid-1960s which is the period I went to school in Tunbridge Wells, so a lot of the environment was what I considered ‘normal’.

But for me, who loved playing with words, spoke passable French and was learning Latin, the coolest thing (although we didn’t say cool then) was the invented language.

Post-war slang ‘wizard’ generally meant ‘good’ or ‘very good’. ‘Ozard’ that the boys use derives from ‘Wizard of Oz’ and was used to describe anything the boys disliked or dreaded.

It was also used to describe the anger of Mr Wilkins, Jennings’ form master, which could be ‘ozard’. ‘Ozard squared’ and occasionally ‘ozard cubed’ implied the direst of occurrences!

I have to confess that we still use ‘bish’ in our family to describe a mistake and will often ‘square’ or ‘cube’ something that’s very unfortunate.

Which character did you identify with?

It has to be Jennings, but I do sympathise with Darbishire on occasion. As an adult, I can sympathise with ‘Old Wilkie’ being completely unsuitable in temperament to deal with a class of bright, lively little demons.

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

Even though it was written about boys, this and the other Jennings stories were set in a children’s world where exciting things happened. I was extremely fortunate to be brought up by a mother who was determined to treat her son and daughter equally and my father agreed. I couldn’t see why girls and boys shouldn’t have the same adventures.

Jennings’ world was one I could escape to when my school had been particularly insistent on me behaving like a young lady rather than just a child.

How did it affect your writing?

Hm, interesting question. Perhaps it gave me a wish to read books only with snappy dialogue and a succinct style and plenty of action. And as we write what we would like to read, I hope I have passed this partiality onto the readers of my Roma Nova series.

In that equally imaginary world, my first heroine Aurelia’s child is home-schooled in the 1960s with a tutor although she did attend a private girls’ school in London when Aurelia was posted there. In her early days, Carina, my second heroine, and still Karen went to the local state school in rural America. Her children in Roma Nova went to school in the 2010s after initial nursery education at home.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

A Church of England primary school which actually had an unofficial admissions policy. My mother, a teacher herself, had sussed this out and revealed this to me years later. It had an 80% pass rate of the 11 Plus (the national school exam that determined what kind of senior school you went to) and highest entry into grammar school in the area. Talk about hothouse! We didn’t know anything about that – it was just school.

I went on to one of the local grammar schools – Tunbridge Wells County Grammar School for Girls (as it was called then.) Famous alumnae include comedian Jo Brand and tennis player Virginia Wade. It was at TWCGS that thanks to Latin classes I discovered the rude poetry of Catullus, a book of which I actually gave to Carina, the heroine of Inceptio, my first Roma Nova novel!

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

Oh no, Jennings was definitely my private world!

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

I think so. Anthony Buckeridge was still writing the stories in 1994, although he changed some of the content with the times while keeping the basic concept intact. The themes of interacting with others in your group, acting equitably, trying to make your way through the bewildering business of school and growing-up are universal even though expressed differently today. My son went to a local prep school for a while in the 1990s before transferring to grammar school, and there were definitely some resemblances to Jennings’ Linbury Court!

It was a (surprising) pleasure to re-read Jennings and thank you, Debbie, for nudging me to rediscover that world.

Thank you, Alison, for sharing your passion for the Jennings school stories. I hope our shared enthusiasm will encourage more 21st century readers to discover his joyous world. 


About Alison Morton

cover of Double Identity by Alison Morton
Available to pre-order before its 7 January launch

After tearing round Europe clambering over Roman ruins, serving six years in uniform and collecting an MA in History on the way, Alison settled down to write the award-winning Roma Nova alternative history thriller series of nine books. Her first psychological thriller, Double Identity, will be published on 7th January 2021 and is now available to pre-order here.

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: https://alison-morton.com

Introduction to Alison’s Roma Nova series,  via the first series, Inceptio:

cover of Inceptio by Alison Morton
The first in Alison Morton’s alternative history thriller series set in Roma Nova

“It’s about blood, survival and money. Mostly yours.”

New Yorker Karen Brown is running for her life. She makes a snap decision to flee to Roma Nova – her dead mother’s homeland, and last remnant of the Roman Empire in the 21st century. But can Karen tough it out in such an alien culture? And with a crazy killer determined to terminate her?

Store links for Inceptio:
Order paperback here
Order ebook here


That’s all from my Favourite School Stories series for 2020. Next year, I’ll be introducing a new monthly guest post series to my blog: Travels with my Books, exploring books set in other countries and times. 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Writing

My Work as a Children’s Book Reviewer

Continuing the series of posts that describe what I do all day, here’s a post about my gig as children’s book reviewer for Today’s Child magazine.

Banner advertising Today's Child
With a little help from yours truly, the latest issue of Today’s Child hits the ether

For the Love of Children’s Books

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I love to read books. A few years ago I landed a super job with children’s reading charity Read for Good, which gave me a great excuse to embrace children’s books. Read for Good’s fabulous work, through its Readathon and ReadWell brands, also made me realise the importance of leisure reading in children’s lives:

  • being in the habit of reading for pleasure in childhood is a greater influence on your lifelong success and happiness than financial wealth and social class (which is why Readathon runs sponsors reads in schools to encourage children to read for fun)
  • having access to books in hospital makes seriously ill children and their carers feel better (which is why ReadWell provides free books and storytellers to children’s hospitals)
Sir Tony Robinson is the inspiring patron of Read for Good
Sir Tony Robinson is the inspiring patron of Read for Good

Read for Good and Today’s Child

My role at Read for Good included administrative, promotional and marketing tasks. One day I fielded a phone call from Today’s Child‘s advertising department, asking whether we’d be willing to place a paid advert in its pages. As a registered charity, we spent very little on advertising, but I did offer as an alternative some free editorial copy about Read for Good, which they were happy to accept.

They liked what I wrote so much that they invited me to write a regular column for them, not always about the charity’s work, but focusing on aspects of reading. This has evolved into a regular double-page spread of book reviews, and in each issue I look at a particular genre, such as books about art or sport or the current season, and I put it into a wider parenting context. That way the feature is much more than a series of book reviews but an interesting, longer read that hangs together.

When I left Read for Good last year to write full time from home, I continued to write for Today’s Child, which has rapidly evolved from a London-only freebie paper to an online magazine with global reach.

How I Compile the Review Features

I announce in each issue what the next feature’s theme will be, so that any publishers wishing to send me suitable free review copies may do so. I welcome submissions from self-publishing authors too that match the chosen theme, so if you have a book that you think would be suitable, please contact me with more details.

ReadWell logo
Going full circle

After use, I pass all review copies on to Read for Good to put to use for that fabulous charity, whether to give to schools running Readathon sponsored reads or to send into children in hospital via ReadWell.

The July/August issue has just been published, and this time I was looking at books about art. You can read the feature online here via the paper’s fab online reading app.

Next issue, I’ll be considering back-to-school books. But first, let the summer holidays begin!

Further Reading

Posted in Family, Personal life, Reading, Writing

Branching Out from Books

Kideeko logo   An update about one of my freelance writing projects   For the last year or so, I’ve been writing a regular column for a British online parenting magazine called Kideeko (www.kideeko.co.uk). I first became involved with Kideeko when I was still working part-time at the children’s reading charity Read for Good. At first, I was writing exclusively about children’s books and reading, fuelled by the knowledge and experience I’d gained through my work at Read for Good, and these articles provided a valuable opportunity to raise awareness before a family audience of Read for Good’s excellent work. For those of you who don’t already know, Read for Good is a UK national charity which exists to promote reading for pleasure among children. There are two distinct parts to the charity, which is funded entirely by donations (it’s easy to donate online via their websites):

  • Readathon, which provides schools with free materials to runs sponsored reading schemes in thousands of schools all over the country, at any time
  • ReadWell, which takes free books and storytellers into children’s hospitals to make life better for young patients, their families and their carers

In the three and a half years that I worked for Read for Good, I learned what I had already known instinctively: that books change lives for the better, in all kinds of ways.

Growing Up With Books

Page from Teddy Robinson book that has been coloured in by a young Debbie
An early indication of my love of books: enthusiastic colouring

My own life experience endorses that view. I was a lucky child: I was brought up in a house full of books, taken on regular visits to the local public library and had my own bookshelves in my bedroom. Books were valued and reading always encouraged. Whether sharing books with other members of the family, listening to stories on the radio or on vinyl records (no CDs or iPods in those days!), or reading alone, I grew up loving books. It was no surprise to anyone when I chose English Literature for my degree, or when my career revolved around writing, at first under the guise of trade press hack and PR consultant, and latterly as a published author, journalist and blogger. Although Kideeko’s editor has now asked me to address broader parenting topics, the joys of children’s books and reading are never far from my mind whenever I’m writing about children. (I also write for Today’s Child Magazine, available in print and online.) For evidence, you have only to read my article about Mother’s Day in Kideeko‘s March issue, in which I hark back to treasured moments sharing books and stories with my mum. You can read that column here: Making Mother’s Day

My mum and my daughter together
An 80th birthday hug from her granddaughter in a Christmas onesie

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to sharing Mother’s Day with my child, as well as my mum, this Sunday, and I wish a happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere. If you’d like to read more about my lovely mum and daughter, here are some past posts about them: The Scent of a Mummy – remembering my grandmothers’ and mother’s perfumes The Only Certainties in Life: Birthdays and Taxescelebrating my mum’s 80th birthday Father’s Day To Followmy daughter’s take on such celebrations

Posted in Reading

All Booked Up for World Book Day

Debbie Young celebrates World Book Day, sharing the love of children’s books

Laura reading inside a play tunnel
Poster girl for Read for Good – Laura and friend at a Readathon photoshoot

Having spent the last four years gainfully employed at the British children’s reading charity Read for Good, it felt odd this year to be counting down the days to March (as I always do) without having to consider my World Book Day workload.

How to Make Reading Cool for Kids

World Book Day logo 2014For those not familiar with World Book Day, it’s a UNESCO-led global celebration of reading which children take part in all over the, er, world.

Perversely, the UK celebrates it on a different day to the rest of the world, as the official day, April 23rd, usually clashes with British school holidays.

Most primary schools and many secondary schools celebrate World Book Day by staging all kinds of book-related events to make reading seem cool. (Incidentally I’m reliably informed by my 10-year-old daughter that it’s not cool for me to use the word “cool”.) This is because research shows that children who learn to love reading for pleasure grow up happier and more fulfilled in every respect. (Visit the Read for Good site for more information on that score.)

Read for Good LogoReadathon Gets Kids Reading for Good

Read for Good helps schools run a Readathon Sponsored Read by providing a colourful box of tricks free of charge. This enables teachers to get an easy tick on their World Book Day action list while actively enthusing their pupils to enjoy reading. The children choose what they want to be sponsored to read – much more motivating than reading what’s on their curriculum – and friends and family sponsor them. Most of the sponsorship money goes to help seriously ill children, partly through Read for Good’s fabulous ReadWell programme. The school also earns a book voucher to buy new school library books to the value of  20% of the total raised. What’s not to love about Readathon?

But unlike World Book Day, Readathon isn’t a once-a-year opportunity. Schools can run a Readathon any time of year that suits them – and they do. Some even set it as a school holiday challenge.

Helping Poorly Children Escape into a Book

Little boy taking book off ReadWell hospital bookshelf
ReadWell gives free books to children in hospital

Around 3,000 school Readathons take place every year, benefiting seriously ill children. These children are helped  partly through the charity’s ReadWell programme. ReadWell sends free books and storytellers to children in hospital all over the UK, making life better not only for the children but also their parents, carers and siblings. Getting lost in a good book is a great way to while away time in hospital and escape from pain, fear and anxiety surrounding hospital procedures.

Spreading the Word(s)

Page from Teddy Robinson book that has been coloured in by a young Debbie
An early indication of my love of books: enthusiastic colouring

Even though I left Readathon last autumn to concentrate full-time on my writing, I’m still flying the flag for recreational reading, for both children and adults.

Tomorrow I’ll be going into the village school that my daughter attends to get involved with their World Book Day celebrations. Hawkesbury Primary School has invited members of the community to come in to tell the children about their favourite books from their own childhood.

Mine was Teddy Robinson’s Omnibus by Joan G Robinson, whose central characters were a little girl called Deborah and a teddy bear that looks remarkably like my own. (Hmm, I wondered why I liked that book best?) I still have both the bear and the book, which displays evidence of my early hands-on approach to reading – some enthusiastic colouring of the line drawings in wax crayon. 

After the school book-sharing session, I’ll be setting up a second-hand book stall in the school hall enabling the children to buy books at pocket-money prices to foster their own love of reading. It’s wonderful to think that tomorrow some of them may also find treasures they’ll still remember when they’re grown ups.

My Love of Children’s Books

Cover of Today's Child March/April 2014I must admit I still adore children’s books, which is one reason that I write a regular review feature in Today’s Child Magazine. For this issue, I’ve also written an article called “Make Reading Fun”, as featured on the cover. To read it, click on this link and flick to pages 12-13. (My book reviews are on pages 20-21).

World Book Night logo 2014But I’m also glad that there’s an equivalent for adults coming up soon: World Book Night, which even in the UK will be celebrated on the official day of April 23rd. World Book Night is a completely different event from World Book Day (yes, it is confusing!) More about that event nearer the time – or you can check out its website, www.worldbooknight.org.

ReadWell logoWondering how to celebrate World Book Day? Just share a good book with a child that you know. And to help other children throughout the UK, please consider making a donation to help ReadWell continue its good work, sharing the joy of books with children in hospital every day of the year. Donations may be made direct on ReadWell’s donations page here. No donation is too small.

But now, I’m off to find a comfy spot in which to read a good book…

Title page of Teddy Robinson's Omnibus
All aboard for some recreational reading