Series Book Spotlight: The School at the Chalet

The School at the Chalet
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
First published 1925

My history with this book
As a child, I read a later book in the Chalet School series, The Princess of the Chalet School, which I acquired in Ireland. I loved it, but since the books weren’t easily available in the U.S., I hadn’t read any of the other books in the series.

My thoughts
The School at the Chalet is part a long tradition of British girls’ boarding school books. The series has 59 books, and they were published over a 45-year-period. Unlike many img_2963long-running series (such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys), all of the books were written by the same author.

Twenty-four-year old Madge Bettany and her twin brother Dick are alone in the world with their 12-year-old sister Joey. Their parents are long dead, and their guardian recently died, leaving them without much money. Dick has a job in India, and Madge needs to find a job that will help her support Joey, whose health is delicate. Madge decides that she’ll start a school in the Tyrol in Austria, a place the siblings once visited. She rents a chalet and within no time, the school has numerous pupils, with several girls coming from the UK and several from the neighboring area. This required a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, at least by today’s standards, but I suppose that school accreditation and teacher training weren’t issues at the time.

The book tells the story of the school’s first term. The school quickly increases in size, and Joey’s health improves greatly in the mountain air. There are lots of hijinks and the occasional drama, including the students pulling a series of pranks. Much of the drama is caused by two difficult students, both of whom cause a lot of stress for Madge. We learn that both of these girls come from dysfunctional families, and although their behavior isn’t excused, Madge shows some understanding for the reasons behind it.

The School at the Chalet is a very old-fashioned book, but I found it enjoyable. It’s a bit like stepping back in time, to an era when anyone could start a school and, with a little British pluck, make a success of it. Much like Enid Blyton’s St. Clare’s series, the girls struck me as very young, even though some of them are as old as 15 or 16. img_2965There’s something very innocent about this book. I always find it interesting to read books that are from a seemingly more innocent time. Of course, the 1920s were hardly innocent and there was a great deal of societal change happening, but in the world of the Chalet School, the ugliness of the real world never intrudes.

Most of the books were edited in the later (1960s/1970s) paperback editions. Some of the edits were fairly minor, but some of the books were heavily edited, and in a few cases, longer books were split into two. The version I read was the original text. The paperback version is heavily edited from the original. The series is chronological, so it helps to read them in order.

Does it hold up?
As I never read this one as a child, I can’t say, but I enjoyed it, although not quite as much as I remember enjoying The Princess of the Chalet School (which had a more exciting plot).

Would I want my kid to read it?
If he’s interested.

Is there any objectionable content?
The author exhibits a very specific prejudice toward certain types of German. Written not long after the end of World War I, there’s some anti-German sentiment, but it’s directed at North Germans (specifically the Prussians). The Austrians and Bavarians are said to be good people, but the Prussians (and particularly people from Berlin) are not.There’s also some sexism, as it’s assumed by many that Madge needs assistance from the men in her life (although she seems to do quite well running the school on her own).

Can you read it aloud?
It’s a bit long for reading aloud.

Availability
Currently out of print, but used copies are occasionally available. The series is popular with collectors, and early editions can be pricey. A small publishing house has reprinted the books, so new editions of the original text are available for some volumes, but even the new reprints are out of print for many titles. This is a series I try to collect, but finding them in the U.S. is difficult and can get expensive, since you usually have to buy from overseas. The paperback editions are more affordable, but may have significant revisions to the original text. Ebay and abe.com have been useful resources for me.

80s Flashback: Someone Is Out There

Someone Is Out There (Windswept #2)
Carole Standish
First published 1982

My history with this book
Someone Is Out There is one of many teen romances I read as a pre-teen. For some reason, this one seemed more memorable than most of the others I read and so I tracked down a copy.

My thoughts
I think the reason that Someone Is Out There stuck out to me is that in addition to the requisite romance, it’s also a mystery. The Windswept series featured romances of course, but the romance was always in the context of a slightly Gothic mystery, which gives the books more compelling plots than the usual 80s teen series fare.

Our heroine Marcie has big plans with her friends for her Christmas break, but because her grandmother has a broken leg and can’t travel, Marcie and her parents must travel to Cape Cod for the holidays. Shortly after her arrival, Marcie is drawn to a creepy shasomeone-is-out-thereck near the beach, where she meets a handsome young fisherman named Peter. Although Peter warns her away from the shack, Marcie is a budding Nancy Drew and she can’t leave well enough alone. Of course, Marcie is also drawn to Peter, who’s got just the sort of brooding mysterious demeanor that sets a teenage girl’s heart aflutter.

Marcie soon learns that the shack belonged to a murdered fisherman who was the business partner of Peter’s uncle, and that the uncle, and Peter by association, are suspects in the crime. Marcie can’t believe that a dreamy (albeit troubled) young man like Peter could possibly be guilty, so she’s determined to clear his (and his uncle’s) name.

I was pleasantly surprised by my re-read of Someone Is Out There. I wasn’t expecting much, and the first chapter, which was filled with clunky exposition and awkward prose, didn’t fill me with confidence. For example, this passage was painful:

She sat down on the edge of one of the twin couches that flanked the walls of in the William’s spacious living room, quite unaware of the lovely picture she made. She was wearing a plaid skirt in which green predominated, and her turtleneck sweater picked up the green tone. The color of the clothes made her eyes seem more green than hazel, and agitation brought a flush to her cheeks that was actually very becoming.

However, I ended up enjoying the book much more than I expected. The writing improved after the first chapter, and the author does a nice job of making the atmosphere of Cape Cod in the winter come alive for the reader. The mystery is a little weak, and I guessed the killer’s identity early on, mostly because there aren’t that many characters in the book. But also, I’m an adult who’s read hundreds of mysteries over the years, and I’m sure the mystery was much more mysterious to me when I was 12. Also, the climax of the mystery isn’t very suspenseful, since it happens mostly off the page after Marcie is knocked out.

I really love the cover. Marcie’s plaid coat, with its built-in scarf, is so 80s. Peter is lurking in the background wearing what appear to be a wool pea coat and high-heeled boots. Since he’s usually described in the book as wearing waterproof gear appropriate for life on a fishing boat, this outfit makes no sense, but I suppose the turtleneck and pea coat do have a sort of Cape Cod in winter vibe.

Does it hold up?
Yes, much better than I expected.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Eh, if he really wants to.

Is there any objectionable content?
No

Can you read it aloud?
Not really, but it might be hilarious if you tried.

Availability
The Windswept books are out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.

A 70s Time Capsule: Freaky Friday

Freaky Friday
Mary Rodgers
First published 1972

My history with this book
I loved Freaky Friday as a kid, and I read it multiple times. I remember thinking it was very funny, so I was curious to see if the humor would hold up.

My thoughts
I had a lot of fun re-reading Freaky Friday, and I still found it very funny, but the book feels a bit dated to me, because it’s very much a 70s time capsule. I was a kid in the 70s, so this was a nostalgia trip for me, but there are a few elements that might seem odd to a kid in 2016. The 70s aren’t quite far enough in the past to make this feel like historical fiction, and the dated bits may need some explaining.

In case you’ve not familiar with the book (or the two film versions), Freaky Friday is the story of a sullen 13-year-old named Annabel, who wakes up one morning in her mother’s body. Although she’s thrilled at first by all the freedom, the day quickly turns into a series of hilarious misadventures, and Annabel learns that life isn’t necessarily easier for her mom.

This book is genuinely funny, and parts of it made me laugh as an adult in a way that I don’t think I got as a kid. For example, Annabel’s idea of a typical day for her mother is convincing her father to take her (as her mother) out for dinner and an R-rated movie, trying on dressy clothes, and watching TV. Of course, the day actually involves Annabel being condescended to by her father, being harangued by the family’s racist cleaning lady, and being judged by everyone she meets for wearing a velvet pantsuit.

There are so many things in this book that are very 70s. Annabel is a liberal, socially conscious kid, and she makes a lot of references to “women’s liberation” and “male chauvinist pigs,” both terms I remember from my youth, but which may takes some explaining today. Annabel picks up the phone (a landline of course) at one point and refers to crossed wires, another relic of the past. When Annabel (as her mother) goes to a meeting to discuss the problems she’s having at school, the principal smokes during the meeting. Annabel mentions a classroom “rap session,” and her crush talks about beautiful “chicks.”

Of course, Annabel learns some valuable lessons: thatimg_2956 being a grown-up doesn’t necessarily make life easier, that her little brother isn’t nearly as annoying as she thinks, and that she’s the cause of a lot of chaos in her life.

There was one scene that really bothered me. In it, Annabel’s father, thinking she is her mother, speaks very condescendingly to her. He had given her (the mother) $50 the day before and when she can’t account for every penny spent, he treats her like a child. It’s ¬†an unpleasant scene, and I wish Annabel had called her father out for being a “male chauvinist pig.” Instead, although she feels momentarily bad for her mother, she wonders why her mother isn’t nicer to “such a cute man.” I don’t recall this scene bothering me as a child, but as an adult, it was weird. (Also, the mother has to ask her husband for cash for her daily expenses? Ugh. That felt very retro.)

Does it hold up?
Pretty well, despite the super-70s groovyness.

Is there any objectionable content?
There are two instances of offensive racial terms, but in both cases, Annabel is quick to point out that this is inappropriate. In her mother’s body, she takes the family’s racist cleaning lady to task and fires her.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, but the target age might be past the reading aloud stage.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Sure.

Availability
Still in print, but not available in ebook form. I like my old 70s paperback with the Edward Gorey cover.

Dancing Shoes

Dancing Shoes
Noel Streatfeild
First published 1957

My history with this book
Dancing Shoes was one of my favorite books as a child and I was interested to see how it would hold up.

My thoughts
Re-reading Dancing Shoes was sort of like seeing an old friend after many years and falling right back into a comfortable rapport. It was a wonderful experience, and it made me want to buy a lot of copies and start handing them out to every child I know. Dancing Shoes has two classic children’s book tropes: orphans sent to live with people who don’t particularly want them, and good characters triumphing over adversity (and an appropriate comeuppance for the villains of the tale).

Noel Streatfield wrote many beloved children’s books, including several with “Shoes” in the title. They’re not a series, but many of her books deal with children in the performing arts. Dancing Shoes is about a troupe of child dancers. Cora Wintle, a failed dancer/actress, runs a school for aspiring dancers in London. They’re called Wintle’s Little Wonders, and troupes of them perform in stage shows around the UK. Cora has a daughter, the beautiful and talented, but absolutely awful, Dulcie. Cora is the ultimate stage mother, pushing her child to fulfill Cora’s failed dreams of stardom. Of course, Dulcie doesn’t need much pushing, and she’s a spoiled little monster.

Dulcie is Cora’s main focus, so she’s not thrilled to learn that her husband’s sister-in-law has died, leaving two young daughters, Rachel and Hillary, orphaned (their father died some years earlier). Initially, Cora plans to take in only Rachel, since Hillary is adopted. Cora says:

It’s so tiresome, but it looks as if we may have to bring Rachel here. We have no responsibility for Hillary; she is an adopted child. I shall arrange to have her sent to a home. [Cora is the worst.]

However, once she realizes that Hillary has dancing talent, Cora decides that she’ll make a perfect Little Wonder, so both girls go to live at the dancing school with their Aunt, Uncle Tom, cousin Dulcie, and Pursie, the kind older woman who serves asimg_2931 housekeeper for the school.

I loved performing and I took dancing lessons as a child, so the story of performing kids was right up my alley. Also, I was a quiet, thoughtful child, and I’m sure I identified with Rachel, a quiet, thoughtful child who is often misunderstood. Her aunt is a woman of little perception, and she mistakes Rachel’s deep grief for coldness and jealousy toward Hillary.

In some ways, it’s a bleak life for Rachel. She’s forced to study dancing, with the objective of becoming a Wintle’s Little Wonder, although she has no talent and is totally unsuited for the dancing life. But there are some bright spots. Although Rachel and Hillary are very different in personality, they remain close. Cora’s husband, Uncle Tom, is a very kind man who actually takes the time to try to understand Rachel, and their relationship is lovely. Unfortunately, he’s very much under his wife’s thumb, and he can’t or won’t help Rachel with her dancing issues. (As an adult, I couldn’t help but wonder how Cora and Tom ever got together in the first place, as they seem to have nothing in common.) Pursie looks after Rachel and Hillary and gives them the love they’ve lacked since their mother’s death. Their tutor, Mrs. Storm, is also very kind, and she recognizes Rachel’s talents and best qualities and does her best for her pupil, defending her to Cora.

Rachel and her mother were convinced that Hillary, who is a talented dancer, must be trained as a ballerina, and Rachel becomes obsessed with making sure that Hillary is able to pursue ballet as a career, although Hillary herself doesn’t want it. Of course, Wintle’s Little Wonders don’t focus on ballet, but rather tap, acrobatics, and musical comedy, so Rachel spends a lot of time worrying about her sister learning the wrong kind of dance. Hillary is actually quite lazy, and doesn’t have the interest or temperament to be a ballerina, but Rachel ignores this and tries everything, including bribery, to get her to continue with ballet, even though Hillary prefers the Wintle’s sort of dancing and just wants to be a member of the troupe. But this obsession is just a way for Rachel to process her grief over her mother’s death, and as she finally begins to heal, she comes to accept that Hillary will never be a ballerina.

I found the descriptions of the dancing troupe and the theatrical life quite vivid, and as Streatfeild was a former actress, there’s a ring of authenticity to the world. Many of the shows that the troupe performs in are pantomimes, a particularly British form of entertainment, so that may seem a bit foreign to today’s readers.

The ending of this book is absolutely perfect (I won’t give any details to avoid spoilers), but virtue is rewarded and the villains are knocked down a few pegs. I loved the ending when I was a kid, and I still find it enormously satisfying as an adult.

Does it hold up?
Very well.

Is there any objectionable content?
The attitudes toward adoption seem very dated. On the other hand, Rachel and Hillary never treat each other as anything less than sisters, and Uncle Tom welcomes Hillary as his niece, so it’s really only the dreadful Cora who acts as if Hillary is less than a true relation. There’s one passing reference to a “Negro” band. The context isn’t offensive, but the term is still jarring.

Can you read it aloud?
It’s a bit long for reading aloud, but most of the chapters are fairly short, so it might work

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes.

Availability
It’s available in print and as an audiobook.