Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Stories: The O’Sullivan Twins – with Madeleine D’Este

The fifth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

photo of Madeleine D'Este
Meet Madeleine D’Este, who joins us from Melbourne, Australia

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.

So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Helen Hollick on Ruby Fergusson’s Jill’s Riding School Stories – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden, Scotland and England.

This month we’re heading to the other side of the world to talk to Tasmanian author Madeleine D’Este about her love of Enid Blyton’s The O’Sullivan Twins.

I first got to know Madeleine last year when she kindly invited me to be a guest on her lively podcast series. It was great fun to speak to her online in Melbourne, Australia, at opposite ends of our day, thanks to the twelve-hour time difference! You can hear our conversation on her podcast site here. 

Madeleine is the first guest in this series to choose an Enid Blyton classic – which has surprised me, as when I mention school stories, most people immediately think of Enid Blyton.

(However I do have another post lined up for later in the year in which Malory Towers will be the guest’s choice.)

cover of The Flower and the Serpent
One of Madeleine’s own school stories – an exciting horror story for teens & young adults

Madeleine also writes school stories herself, aimed at teenagers and young adults. Her latest novel, The Flower and the Sword, nominated for a prestigious Australian Shadow Award last year, is a horror story set around a high school production of Macbeth. What a great idea, especially as in the UK at least “the Scottish play” is on the syllabus for the GCSE public exams!

Now, let’s find out why Madeleine so loves The O’Sullivan Twins


Madeleine, welcome to my blog! To kick off, for the sake of those unfamiliar with your favourite school story, can you please tell us a little about it?

Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are back for another term at St Clare’s and this term the twins are determined to buckle down and do well.

But the new term brings new faces to St Clare’s, including their vain cousin Alison, the pretty Lucy and the sullen Margery who seems determined not to make any friends.

There are blow-ups and pranks and midnight feasts to distract the twins from their school work, but when a fire threatens St Clare’s, which of the girls will turn out to be the real heroine?

How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you reread it since?

I devoured all the St Clare’s books when I was around eight years old in the early 1980s. I re-read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago and now again in 2020.

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

When I read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago, I was struck by how the key theme of the book seemed to be the need to conform. Through peer pressure, the twins and their friends ostracise and basically bully those girls who don’t fit in.

Now as an adult, I understand the historical context and that the book was written in the midst of World War II when diverting from the norm had real consequences, but the undercurrent of bullying tarnished my pristine innocent memories of the book.

But… re-reading again in 2020, I saw another side to the story. While there’s no denying the peer pressure to conform, this time I also noticed how each “outsider” character is given an opportunity to explain why they are behaving in a certain way.

The O’Sullivan Twins highlights that the non-conforming characters have various, and perfectly valid, reasons for their behaviour, they each have their own issues and traumas which the other girls may know nothing about. For example, Margery feels abandoned by her father and Mam’zelle (the French teacher) is thorny because she is worried about her sick sister. Everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Who knew Enid Blyton was so layered?

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

I was obsessed by boarding school books and desperately wanted to go to a boarding school myself. I think I was drawn to the fun and friendship and the food. The rituals of the schools were exotic and enticing to me, the midnight feasts, the trips to town in twos and I always wondered what ‘prep’ was.

In retrospect, the way the girls are described physically was irritating. A girl who is pretty is generally good while an ugly or “unattractive” girl or woman is something to be pitied or distrusted. Sigh.

Which character did you identify with?

I was fascinated by the “sneak” character, Erica, the villain of the story – the girl who went behind everyone’s backs to spoil their fun. Her motivation intrigued me and how she continued to cause trouble even though she didn’t seem benefit or gain any status from her mean tricks.

I often wonder why people act this way in real life. What are they gaining from it?

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

I never went to boarding school, although I did play lacrosse (very badly) in high school, but I became obsessed with creating my own school rolls. I would take out an atlas and a book of baby names and create a list of names of the girls in my class along with their home towns (I was also influenced by The Chalet School books and so every hometown was very exotic).

My mother still thinks it was very strange but now I understand I was creating character lists!

How did it affect your writing?

Three words: sizzling fat sausages. Enid Blyton gave me a love for sumptuous and evocative food descriptions which I still love to write (and read) today, and I continue to write feisty female characters.

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

I attended Australian state schools in Canberra, Launceston and Hobart.

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

Reading has always been my private world, my little retreat from everyone and everything. And it still is.

My favourite time of the day is when I turn off all the devices and start to wind down by reading a good book with a big mug of herbal tea.

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

Young readers would find The O’Sullivan Twins very old fashioned, I imagine. The distinct lack of technology would make St Clare’s an alien world. However, if a young reader could overlook the “olden days” setting, I believe the themes of conformity, friendship and compassion would remain constant.

And of course, the truisms of growing up and blossoming into your own person never goes out of fashion.

Thank  you so much, Madeleine D’Este, for this entertaining and insightful analysis of The O’Sullivan Twins – and best of luck with your own school stories, as well as your series for adult readers.


photo of Madeleine D'EsteTo find out more about Madeleine D’Este, her books and her podcast, visit her website:

www.madeleinedeste.com

You’ll also find her on Twitter at:  @madeleine_deste


Now Over to St Bride’s…

If our conversation has whetted your appetite for a more contemporary take on school stories for grown-ups, now’s a good time to try my St Bride’s School series:

  • SPECIAL OFFER: The ebook of the first in series, Secrets at St Bride’s, is currently on special offer at 99p/99c or the local equivalent all over the world, until the end of July. (Buy online in the ebook format of your choice here – also available in paperback here, or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you.)
  • JUST LAUNCHED: its sequel, Stranger at St Bride’s is hot off the press (published 1st July 2020), and already earning great reviews. (Buy online – click here for ebook or click here for paperback – or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you. )

advert for Stranger at St Bride's

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story – Helen Hollick on Ruby Ferguson’s Jill Series

The fourth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog. So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, and Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden and Scotland.

Now at last it’s time for my home country to get a look in, as historical novelist Helen Hollick explains her passion for a classic English series: the Riding School stories by Ruby Ferguson.

Helen Hollick writes:

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

From an early age (about four years) I always had my nose buried in a book. My favourites, back then in the late 1950s, were Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series. Not exactly school stories – although I do vividly remember one of them being about Fuzzypeg the hedgehog going to school and learning to read.

(Debbie: I love Little Grey Rabbit too, and recently bought a vintage copy of Fuzzypeg Goes to School!)

I do, vaguely, remember reading one school story. It might have been Malory Towers, but to be honest I didn’t like this genre. You see, I hated school. For my first year at  school I couldn’t see much because I was short-sighted and needed glasses, but it never occurred to Mum that this was the reason I was always bumping into or falling over things. And why I couldn’t see the blackboard.

I hated (even with glasses) always having to sit at the front. Hated being told off for bad handwriting. Hated being moaned at in sewing because I couldn’t see to thread a needle..  So there wasn’t much incentive to spend my own time at school. Even fictional ones.

School Stories with a Difference

Jill’s Gymkhana got Helen Hollick hooked on Ruby Ferguson’s classic series

Those school stories always seemed to have popular, clever, girls with friends. Lots of them. I didn’t have friends. I wasn’t popular or clever. I was shy, scared and unhappy. My friends were the characters I met in books. I met a special fictional friend when I was given a book for my ninth birthday. Jill Crewe in the book Jill’s Gymkhana.

You see, I was pony mad. Jill and her pony Blackboy introduced me to pony stories. From that day onward through my school days I read, lived, breathed – wrote – pony stories. Fiction made up for the pain of being so lonely and desperately wanting a pony of my own. (I had to wait until I was sixteen. Now at sixty-seven I have three ponies, three horses  and two donkeys in our fields here in Devon. Dreams do come true!)

The Jill books brought out the passion for ponies in a simple, funny, quirky and educational way. The first story follows Jill learning to ride and care for her pony, and I learnt with her. Then the second book brought in Mrs Darcy and the local riding school. That was it, I wanted to work there too. Funnily enough, when I did, eventually, get my own horse the owner of the riding school where I kept him reminded me of Mrs Darcy.

Classic 1950s Stories

There was a whole series of Jill stories to enjoy

The stories are very dated now – they are set in post-war England in the early 1950s. That in itself makes them interesting, for the historical detail of life back then. At the very least it wouldn’t be allowed in the 21st century for a girl of thirteen or fourteen to run a riding school! But this is exactly what happens in the second book in the series Jill Has Two Ponies.  Mrs Darcy has to go away so Jill and some friends offer to run the riding school in her absence. All well and good, but Mrs D’s valuable horse, Blue Smoke falls ill. Jill has to summon the vet:

“You girls clear out,” said the vet, cheerfully, “and let me have a look. Go and make me a cup of tea. I’ve been sitting up with a cow for hours.”

     We thought it very heartless of the vet to want tea, but we went into the house and made him a cup. We didn’t make any for ourselves, it would have choked us. Every time I caught Wendy’s eye she gave a gulp, and every time Wendy caught my eye I gave a gulp. We did nothing but gulp at each other. I set off down the yard with the vet’s cup of tea and slopped it all over into the saucer. Then suddenly I saw the vet before me. The heartless man was grinning all over his face.

“She’s just been playing you up,” he said. “A touch of a toothache, that’s all, but you know what these thoroughbreds are like, the least touch of pain and they act as if they were dying.”

(As a horse owner . . .  oh don’t they just!)

I still have that original birthday present hardback edition of Jill’s Gymkhana, and paperbacks of the others in the series – all somewhat battered because I read and re-read them as a teenager (along with many other pony stories). I re-read the first one not long ago and still thoroughly enjoyed it. Alas, I can’t read the others as I am now visually impaired and the paperback print is far too small and faded. A great shame that they are not on Kindle.

Modern Meddling

Jill was a victim of political correctness in later years and appeared in republished (awful) editions. The name ‘Blackboy’ was banned, (why, he was a black pony for goodness sake!). These re-writes completely spoil the feel of the stories – if you want to read them, get the originals!

(Debbie: It irks me too when publishers try to put a modern spin on timeless classics – such as reissuing Just William stories featuring William Brown sans school blazer and cap but with t-shirt and trainers instead. What nonsense!)

Inspiration for a Budding Novelist

The main thing Jill, her ponies, her friends and the Riding School did for me was to teach me to write.

Throughout those years I was either reading or writing. I had my own fictional pony: Tara, a palomino. (I must have heard of Gone With The Wind somewhere around then). I even wrote a story set in a riding school during a GCE exam. I’d finished the questions and had about an hour to kill. So I started writing a story about someone stealing a horse from the local riding school. I filled one A4 sheet of paper. Asked for another. And another.  I had quite a pile on my desk.

What I didn’t realise, the other girls in the class (Chingford’s, Wellington Avenue Secondary School for Girls) assumed I was answering exam questions. Like me they had only filled one A4 sheet and had no idea what else to put. But there was I, scribbling furiously…

They didn’t speak to me again for ages. I didn’t care, that meant they left me alone to escape into the world of ponies and riding schools.

© Helen Hollick


More About Helen Hollick

Thank you, Helen, that’s a fascinating insight both into Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books and into your own evolution as a writer.

I must admit that in my own childhood these stories passed me by, possibly because I’ve never been interested in horses, although my older sister remembers enjoying them. But given Helen’s persuasive tribute, I’m now keen to try one. As they’re all out of print now and have become collectors’ items, I’m going to have to keep an eye open in secondhand bookshops – a favourite haunt of mine, especially on holiday – until I can find one.

Debbie Young with Helen Holllick
Me with Helen Hollick, a great friend and mentor to authors all over the world

Meanwhile Helen grew up to write award-winning historical novels, fantasy and historical non-fiction. I’ve especially enjoyed her pirate fantasy series, which is a must for anyone who is a fan of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, and her straight historical novels with Arthurian and Saxon themes are among my mum’s favourites!

She’s also become a firm friend and mentor to many, many aspiring novelists worldwide, well known for her generous spirit and kind heart. I’m thrilled therefore to have her as my guest on my blog today.

Find out all about Helen Hollick and her many books via her one of her links below:

Newsletter Subscription: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick
Amazon Author Page (Universal Link) http://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
Twitter: @HelenHollick
Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog (submissions welcome): https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/

Meanwhile at St Bride’s…

In the meantime, my own school stories are coming along nicely:

  • Book 2 in my St Bride’s School series will be published on 1st July 2020

    The first in the series, Secrets at St Bride’s, was a finalist in The Selfies Awards 2020, given to the best independently published fiction in the UK. With the paperback and ebook selling well, I’m planning to produce an audio version this autumn, narrated by Siobhan Waring, the voice artist responsible for the audiobook of Best Murder in Show, the first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. You can order the paperback here and buy the ebook here.

  • The second in the series, Stranger at St Bride’s, will be published on 1st July in ebook and paperback. You can already preorder the ebook here.

 

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – with Historical Novelist Clare Flynn

The third in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

cover of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Historical novelist Clare Flynn picks this modern classic as her favourite school story – read my interview with her to find out why

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories. I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

So far in this series we’ve had novelists Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables and Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking – to that’s a Welsh author on a Canadian story and a Finnish author on a Swedish one! This time, I’m pleased to welcome British historical novelist Clare Flynn talking about the Scottish modern classic, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

Although I’ve known of the book for a long time, it’s one of those that I was meaning for years to get round to, and only managed it a couple of years ago. I’d also put off seeing the film until I’d read the book – so the film is now on my to-watch list!

Over to Clare Flynn to tell you about why she chose Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as her favourite school book.

Clare Flynn, welcome to my blog! Before we begin, can you please just tell us a little about yourself for readers not already familiar with your historical novels?

Clare Flynn, award-winning historical novelist, shares her passion for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I’m the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories. My tenth novel, The Pearl of Penang, set in Malaya around the Second World War, was published on December 5th and is the winner of The Selfies UK Awards for the UK’s best self-published novel for adults. I live on the Sussex coast and an a former Marketing Director and management consultant.

When did you first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

I can’t remember whether I read the book first or saw the film – probably around the same time and I would have been about fourteen or fifteen. I think my mum was reading it and I probably pinched her copy. I’ve recently read it again – fifty years later. Shriek!

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

I really enjoyed re-reading it although I can’t help hearing the unmistakable voice of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie – impossible not to. Spark’s writing is beautiful. It defies the test of time.

I wonder whether I’d have found it harder to relate to now if I hadn’t got this nostalgic link to my past reading. Miss Brodie’s girls lived a world far removed from the experiences of schoolgirls today with their phones and social media. Yet there is so much about human nature that is still very relevant today.

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

I loved the waspish humour, in particular the way it so deftly nails Miss Brodie’s overbearing certainties and incapacity to admit alternatives. In virtually all of her absolute certainties she is to be proved wrong. It is a real lesson in hubris. In some ways, Jean Brodie is a monster – her espousal of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (later modified to a post-war admission that ‘Hitler was rather naughty’), her determination to shape and mould her girls in her own image. Yet at the same time her desire to ‘put old heads on young shoulders’, to inspire and to stretch her pupils way beyond the confines of a narrow curriculum are praiseworthy. I’d have enjoyed being in her class.

I love the constant repetition by both Miss Brodie and her girls that she is ‘in her prime’ and they are the ‘creme de la crème‘. Miss Brodie has a complete absence of any sense of irony – Muriel Spark however has it in spades.

Here’s a typical example of an exchange between her and her pupils:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

Or this, regarding a poster the headmistress has stuck on the wall:

‘This is Stanley Baldwin, who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ‘ere long,‘ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan “Safety first”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’

Structurally the book is clever the way it jumps back and forward in its timeline – so that from the beginning the reader is aware of the future fates of the Brodie set and their teacher and her ‘betrayal’. This is a hard act to pull off by a writer and Spark succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the whole time we are a party to Miss Brodie’s self-delusion, her misplaced assumptions – particularly about Sandy.  Within the first few pages we are told what each girl is ‘famous for’ – Rose ‘for sex-appeal’, Eunice ‘for spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming’, Sandy ‘for her small, almost non-existent eyes’ and Mary MacGregor ‘for being a silent lump’. Just a few pages later in Chapter 2 we are to discover that at only twenty-four, Mary MacGregor is to die in a hotel fire, Sandy of the little ‘pig-eyes’ is to sleep with the art teacher, ‘betray’ Miss Brodie and then become a nun.

Spark is wonderful at creating a vivid sense of time and place. I was immediately pulled into the world of pre-war Edinburgh. Very prim, Presbyterian and proper.

Which character did you identify with?

I suppose I identified with the girls, particularly Sandy and Jenny – at least my memory of myself at that age. I loved the scenes where those two write romances in which their teacher engages in passion-fuelled entanglements with fictional heroes. I used to write daft stories all the time (when I was around eleven or twelve) and turn them into plays to perform with friends.

The two girls write imaginary letters between Miss Brodie and the music teacher. The last of which – when they fictionalise her declining his marriage proposal – ends

‘Allow me, in conclusion to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing. With fondest joy, Jean Brodie.’

I remember two or three teachers who made a big impression on me – but none in the kind of suffocating and exclusive manner Miss Brodie employed.

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

As a child, I was probably grateful I didn’t live the restricted life those Edinburgh girls did. I had access to television and radio – to pop music, to parties, to weekend/ holiday jobs to earn some cash – and so probably grew up faster.

In other ways, my own schooldays were similar. My school was full of teachers that were comparable with those at Marcia Blane Academy – numerous post-war, aging spinsters for whom we would create interesting backstories about how their motorbike despatch driver fiancé was killed in occupied France, or their true love blown up in the Blitz. None of them struck us as being in their prime! Mostly well over-the-hill so, instead of being unduly influenced by them, we felt rather sorry for them.

How did it affect your writing?

Muriel Spark was one of many good writers I read and absorbed from a tender age and I believe all of them must in a subliminal way have influenced my own writing. I just wish I had a fraction of her talent!

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

I went to a direct-grant Catholic convent then, after we moved, to a state girls’ grammar school before the comprehensive revolution began.

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

Books were a private world for me – mostly to escape from being part of a large noisy family! I shared my passion with one friend in particular and we would recommend books to each other.

Would the book still resonate with young readers today?

I hope so, but somehow, I doubt it. It is such a world apart and these days there is an expectation of ‘relatability’ – which is rather a shame.

Thanks for giving me the excuse to go back and read this again, Debbie!

cover of The Pearl of Penang against Malaysian backdrop
Clare Flynn’s tenth novel was awarded the Selfies UK Award 2020

Connect with Clare Flynn

Find out more about Clare Flynn’s excellent historical novels via her website www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you sign up for her readers’ newsletter you may claim a free download of her collection of short stories, A Fine Pair of Shoes. You can also find her on Facebook as authorclareflynn, on Twitter as @ClareFly and also on Instagram as @ClareFly.

Next time in this series I’ll be talking to another historical novelist, Helen Hollick, who will be sharing her passion for stories about quite a different kind of school to Miss Brodie’s – Ruby Ferguson’s Riding School!


POSTSCRIPT: 3 Strange Coincidences

  • cover of Secrets at St Bride'sI mentioned at the start of this interview that Clare’s novel The Pearl of Penang was awarded The Selfies UK Award 2020 last month. By a strange coincidence, my school story, Secrets at St Bride’s was in the final shortlist of six novels for that award!
  • Clare has since published the sequel to Pearl of Penang, called Prisoner from Penang – and I’m about to publish the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s, called Stranger at St Bride’s (due out on 1st July, the ebook is already available to order.
  • I’ve only just noticed that in both pairs of books, we’ve chosen alliterative titles! Kindred spirits indeed!

For more information about my School Stories for Grown-ups, and to read the first chapter of the first in series for free, click here.

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Pippi Longstocking – with Guest Author Helena Halme

The second in my occasional series of guest posts by author friends who love school stories

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories like I did! I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite school story.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

First up was Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables (click here to read her interview).

Now it’s the turn of Finnish romantic novelist Helena Halme, who nominated the Swedish classic Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren – one of my own childhood favourites.

Pippi Longstocking at St Bride’s

Funnily enough, Pippi makes an appearance in Secrets at St Bride’s as a favourite bedtime story of the youngest girls in the school, as in the following extract.

Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's

FROM CHAPTER 21 – STORY TIME

“What are you going to read to us tonight, Miss?” asked Tilly from the bed in the far corner, busy plaiting her long dark hair, presumably to keep it tangle-free overnight. 

That took me by surprise. “Me? Now? Read to you?”

“Miss Bliss always reads to us for fifteen minutes.”

I wondered why Oriana hadn’t included that in my briefing. Were they having me on?

“Really? What does she read?”

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking,” they chorused, clearly relishing the name.

“Aren’t you-?” I was about to say “too old for these stories,” which I remembered enjoying back in priarmy schol. But as I clocked their eager, hopeful faces, soft in the low light cast from their bedside lamps, I realised the connection: they shared the motherless Pippi’s vulnerability. Seeing her sea-captain father only at rare intervals she claimed complete self-reliance and gloried in her independence, although her more conventional friends suspected her of making up her madcap adventures to hide her loneliness.

“Pippi Longstocking it is, then,” I beamed, gratefully accepting the big green hardback that Imogen held out to me.

Meet Helena Halme – and Pippi Longstocking!

headshot of Helena Halme
Meet Helena Halme, Finnish novelist and Pippi Longstocking fan

Now over to Helena Halme to explain her love of Pippi Longstocking!

Helena is a prize-winning author, former BBC journalist, bookseller and magazine editor. She holds an MSc in Marketing and an MA in Creative Writing. Full-time author and self-publishing coach, Helena also acts as Nordic Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors and has published ten Nordic fiction titles and two non-fiction books. Apart from writing stories set in her native Finland, Helena is addicted to Nordic Noir and dances to Abba songs when nobody’s watching. 

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)

Hi Helena, welcome to my blog, and I’m so pleased to have you here to share your love of Astrid Lindgren’s legendary creation, Pippi Longstocking! Can you please kick off with a brief description of her books?

The latest edition in the UK features endearing illustrations by Lauren Child

Pippi Longstocking is a girl with upturned plaits the colour of fire. She lives on her own in a large wooden house with a pet monkey and a white black-spotted horse and never wants to grow up. Pippi is superhumanly strong and can lift her horse one-handed, but she’s also playful and unpredictable. She dislikes unreasonable adults and often makes fun of them or plays tricks on them, especially if they are unfair or pompous. Her father is a swashbuckling pirate captain and she tells endless adventure stories about him. Whether all of them are strictly true is another matter… Her four best friends are her horse and monkey, and the neighbours’ children, Tommy and Annika.

How old were you when you first read Pippi’s adventures?

I was seven when I was first introduced to the crazy world of Pippi and her friends. Pippi’s unconventional, unruly, and exciting life was in such stark contrast to anything I had ever experienced that I was immediately hooked. Although with a good heart, Pippi had a wicked side to her and often exposed grown-ups, particularly teachers, for their double-standards. The books tell Pippi’s story through the eyes of her two best friends, Annika and Tommy, who were ‘normal’ children, with a mum and dad at home.

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

Reading Pippi Longstocking later has made me realize how the book reflected social changes in Swedish society at the time. The books were published in 1945, with a hugely popular TV series 1969, which sealed the success of the Pippi stories. I believe that the books reflect the post-war era when the Western world craved freedom and looked toward higher moral values such as peace, humanity and even feminism, all of which are reflected in the Pippi Longstocking books.

What did you particularly like about this series and about the author? Was there anything you disliked?

I just adored the unruliness of Pippi’s life, especially as underneath it, there was often a message about right and wrong. The fight against authority to protect the weak is a ‘red thread’ running through all the books, and that really appealed to me.

I, as did many of those who read the books in Sweden, was later made uncomfortable by some of the racially offensive language used in some of Pippi books, such as Pippi in the South Seas. I believe the text has been changed in later editions.

Which character did you identify with?

In the Pippi books, I identified with Annika, who was the ‘goody two shoes’ to Pippi’s mad and Tommy’s more boisterous character. Annika would often vote against some hair-brained scheme that Pippi came up with, while Tommy was the first to agree to it. I would have liked to have been like Pippi, but knew that it just wasn’t me. However, Annika, who (mostly) followed the rules and was praised by teachers (like me) would have done anything even if it meant rebelling against authority to protect her friend. I hoped I might also behave in a similar way if called upon to do so.

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

Reading the Pippi books gave me a huge amount of confidence. Although at the time, my parents were still married, they were constantly fighting, and reading about this girl who could live on her own, supported by her friends, gave me comfort. Although I wouldn’t be able to lift a horse or stand up to my teachers if they were being unfair, it was nice to daydream! Besides, Annika didn’t have those powers, but she was best friends with a girl who did.

How reading Pippi Longstocking affect your writing?

Astrid Lindgren is, first and foremost, a storyteller. The Pippi books started off as bedtime stories she told her own daughter when ill and having to stay at home from school. Her books made me dream about being able to write, to entertain readers and also to convey a message through the stories. The Pippi Longstocking books also made me understand that there is no such thing as a story that is too fantastical!

What type of school did you go to yourself?

What type of school didn’t I go to? Mainly due to my dad’s job (he was a telecoms engineer), as well as because of the on-off break-up of my parents’ marriage, we moved a lot while I was growing up. Between the ages of eleven and sixteen, I went to five different schools. That’s a school per year.

My first years were spent in a lovely primary school in Tampere in Finland, where everyone respected the teachers and my big sister was with me. Next, we moved to Stockholm to a large secondary school where the teacher was bullied and sometimes physically abused by the pupils. This was the worst school I’ve ever attended. I cannot tell you the number of times I saw the teacher cry at the end of the lesson when the pupils piled out of class. How I wished I’d have the physical and mental abilities Pippi possessed to deal with the bullies!

The next school in Stockholm was the polar opposite of the first one. A small class of just 15 pupils, I was encouraged to pursue my artistic side by our wonderful teacher. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, every girl in my class had a crush on Johan Johansson!

Back in Finland, schools were very much the same as my primary school in Tampere. Disciplined, academic and pressurized, I thrived because I was quite good at learning. And by that stage, I’d acquired a new language: Swedish, something which helped.

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

Everyone loved Pippi Longstocking! I remember once when I was eight, a friend was having a fancy dress party for her birthday. No less than five freckled-faced Pippis, including me, turned up. They must have sold out of red wigs in the local shop…

Would the Pippi Longstocking stories still resonate with young readers today?

I absolutely think that Pippi Longstocking will still appeal to today’s children. I certainly intend to introduce the rebellious, strong and fair-minded redhead Pippi to my granddaughter when she’s old enough. Pippi’s belief in her own strength, moral judgement and refusal to follow conventions is perfect for today’s world!

Like to try one of Helena Halme’s books for free? Download the free ebook of the first in her compelling Nordic Heart series of romantic novels. Click the image to find out more.

Connect with Helena Halme

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)


Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
My own take on school stories – one for the grown-ups!

PS If you’re wondering what the girls at St Bride’s make of Miss Lamb’s rendition of Pippi, here’s what happens next:

As I read, the girls gradually clicked off their bedside lights, until I was conscious of sitting in a dark room, the only lamp still illuminated focused on Pippi. Halfway through the second chapter, I glanced around to check how many of the girls were asleep and realised that while I had been reading they had all styled their hair into two plaits, which they’d arranged at right angles to their heads, draped across the pillows as they lay down. Each had closed her eyes, slight chests gently rising and falling in the comfortable rhythm of sleep. Perhaps they were all Pippi Longstocking in their dreams, reliving the chapter in which her father returned home from sea.

Secrets at St Bride’s is now available both as a paperback and an ebook.

  • Order the ebook online from your favourite eretailer here.
  • Order the paperback from your favourite bookshop quoting ISBN 978 1911 223 436, or online from Amazon.