Richmal Crompton on writing for children

Today, when fully formed adults from around the world queue patiently at the portal to  Platform 9 ¾ at  King’s Cross Station to have their photograph taken beside the Harry Potter luggage trolley, it’s worth reading another and better children’s writer, the one-time Classics teacher and creator of William, Richmal Crompton, as she explains in an article in the October 1952 issue of The Writer, how she began her career as a writer for adults.

‘I submitted the first one to a women’s magazine and the editor, accepting it, asked for another story about children. I remember that I racked my brains, trying to invent a different set of children from the ones I had already used, and it was with a feeling of guilt and inadequacy that I finally fell back again on the children of the first story. Asked for a third story about children, I wrestled once more with the temptation to use the same set of children, succumbing to it finally with the same sense of guilt. When I had written the fifth story I said to myself: “This must stop. You must find a completely different set of children for the next story.” But somehow I didn’t and gradually the ‘William’ books evolved. They were still, however, regarded as books for adult reading, and I think it was not till the last war that they found their way from the general shelves to the children’s department in the bookshops. And even now I receive letters from adult—even elderly –readers…

…if you are writing about children for children, you must be able to see the world around you as a child sees it. To “ write down” for children is an insult that a child is quick to perceive and resent. Children enjoy assimilating new facts and ideas, but only if the writer is willing to rediscover these facts and ideas with the children, not if he hands out information from the heights of adult superiority. I think the fact that the ‘William’ stories wer4e originally with no eye on a child-reading public has helped to make them popular with children…The plots are not specially devised for children, but I think that if there’s anything I the story that children don’t understand they just don’t worry about it. Children, too, seem to like a series of stories dealing with the same character—especially if it’s a character  with which the normal child can identify itself…

In those early days I saw myself as a budding novelist and wrote the William stories —rather carelessly and hurriedly—as pot-boilers. The history of the pot-boiler, by the way, is an interesting one. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Hans Andersen’s fairy tales, Stevenson’s Treasure Island were all written as pot-boilers…Stevenson would have been surprised to know that after his death the story that people connected most readily with his name would be Treasure Island…

Continue reading

Famous men and the books they read as children

Found in the Christmas 1930 issue of The Bookmanis the following account by Thurston Hopkins of some famous men’s responses to his questions about the books they recall reading in childhood. There is even a facsimile of a fragment of the letter Shaw sent to Hopkins dated 29th  December 1929.


In an introduction to his survey Hopkins regrets the passing of the ‘ mainstays ‘ of popular children’s literature—Robinson Crusoe and Hans Christian Anderson’s Tales—in favour of thrillers and mystery stories. Luckily, some of the old favourites do feature in the choices made by these eminent men.


Rudyard Kipling


Mr Kipling was probably born with a taste for curious and out-of-the-way books. At fourteen he was in the editor’s chair of the United Services College Chronicle, and was allowed the run of the head master’s study—-that ‘brown-bound, tobacco-scented library’ that he speaks of with such reverence in his chronicles of school boy life. Kipling stolidly read his way through the whole library. There were many of the ancient dramatists, a set of the ‘ Voyages of Hakluyt’, a literary treasure which do doubt supplied Kipling with much information that he makes us of in his later books; French translations of the Muscovite authors, Pushkin and Lermontoff; the ‘ Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, afterwards parodied by him in ‘Departmental Ditties ‘; there were volumes of Crashaw, Dryden, Alexander Smith, L.E.L., Lydia Sigourney, Fletcher’s Purple Island, Donne. Marlowe’s Faust, Ossian, ‘The Earthly Paradise’, ‘Atlanta in Calydon’ and Rossetti. Continue reading

The Case of the Wrong Carpenter

There were two 20th century children’s writers called Frances Carpenter.  On-line book sites rarely distinguish them.  The “right” Carpenter was the real name of a busy USA educator.  The “wrong” Carpenter was a pseudonym for one of the shadowy “men behind girl’s fiction” of the Thirties and beyond.

6790795Frances Carpenter (UK) wrote two children’s books, A Rebel Schoolgirl and the lesser-known Sally of the Circus, both reprinted in the 1950s.  Their author had been published earlier under his own name.

Horace Eli Boyten (21.8.1901 – 9.4.1986) was born in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, being noted there in the 1911 census, and later is said to have lived in Highgate.  In the 1920s he wrote some boy’s and girl’s fiction as H.E. Boyten, including the 1926 Chums serial Plot and Peril, an historical adventure published in book form the same year.  About this time Boyten began a long career with the Amalgamated Press in editorial and writing capacities for their girl’s weekly papers such as Girl’s Crystal and School Friend.  Most such Amalgamated writers were male and adopted female pseudonyms usually unrelated to their real names, although Boyten for some work became “Enid” Boyten just as Ernest McKeag became “Eileen”.

Boyten’s best-remembered characters were the “Silent Three” schoolgirls created with editor Stewart Pride.  The three heroines wore masks and hooded robes to fight crime and injustice throughout numerous text and picture stories, illustrated initially by the talented Evelyn Flinders, a veteran of the schoolgirl “hooded secret society” genre.  (A guide to the series, A Silent Three Companion, was privately published by Marion Waters in 1995, indicative of a continuing interest in the stories.)

In 1953 a feminine version of Boyten’s name came to the attention of solicitors acting for Enid Blyton.  Perhaps an “Enid Boyten” lead story in several School Friend annuals had been a step too far.  Horace Eli agreed to change his “Enid” to “Hilda Boyten”.  However he seems to have continued writing as “Helen Crawford” without incident.  In person he was described as “a very nice chap, quiet and modest”.

Continue reading

A Very Private Dinner, 1912

In the year of the Titanic and the Antarctic disasters here is the handwritten menu --found among the papers of Ernest B Rubinstein, of a special meal—possibly a marriage feast—held by members of the Rubinstein and Laurance families at 42, Boundary Road, South Hampstead.

Not that remarkable you would think, although on closer inspection some of the dishes are unusually named -- 'Sole distrait a Laurance,' 'sauce Agnes', 'poires matrimonial,' 'gelee avec raisin d’etre'. If the dinner was held to mark a marriage—and 'poires matrimonial' strongly suggests this-- then it was a marriage that produced one of the most original children’s writers of the twentieth century.

That writer was Patricia Rubinstein, aka Antonia Forest (1915 – 2003 ), who was born three years after the dinner, later attended South Hampstead High School, just a few minutes walk from 42, Boundary Road, and who learned her love of literature, and particularly drama, from her stage-struck father, Ernest B. Rubinstein, whose signature heads the list of diners that appears on the reverse of the menu.

Others signatures include that of Kate Rubinstein, an Irish Protestant whose marriage to Ernest introduced her into a Jewish circle in Hampstead whose members were to contribute their signatures and messages to Patricia’s autograph book of 1924—another item found among the Rubinstein papers. Two other Rubinstein signatures on the menu were probably those of Ernest’s siblings.

It could be said that Antonia Forest guarded her privacy every bit as jealously as J. D. Salinger did his own. For most of her life she lived quietly in Bournemouth. Even her devoted fans did not know her real name and in one of her very rare interviews she studiously omitted any meaningful details of her parentage and early life that might help a biographer. Because of this, the career of her father as a prominent theatre critic, versifier and amateur playwright, has remained shrouded in mystery---until now. But we can at least surmise that the much more prominent man of the theatre, Harold Rubinstein (1891 - 1975), who as a lawyer defended Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, was a relation-- possibly a nephew.[RR]

Literature dead (1870) says Katawampus

Found in an obscure short-lived journal  The Trifle of September 1912 (edited  by Ernest Hicks Oliver, a writer on yachting and history.) Oliver  quotes the writer and lawyer Sir Edward Abbott Parry ('Judge Parry') the  speaker at the annual ladies' night debate of the Hardwicke Society. It is amusing to see someone declaring reading dead over 100 years ago- in fact in the view of the diehard Parry since 1870 - when the Elementary Education Act set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales.

There were many objections at the time  to the concept of universal education, primarily it was felt by some that it would make the poor 'think' and become dissatisfied with their lives, it might even encourage them to revolt. Parry's objections are more on aesthetic and elitist lines...He was a fairly prolific dramatist and writer for children. At the time of this speech he was writing Katawampus - A Musical Play for Children of All Ages and Katawampus: its Treatment and Cure:

The demand for good literature ended about 1870, when the Education Act came in and literature went out. Since that date every citizen has been taught to read, but not to know what to do with his reading. Any rubbish for which he has a taste is constantly supplied to him, he is exercising enormous influence on the so called literature of today. Men's ideas are formed today, not by their fathers and mothers in their homes, but by codes shot  from education departments, and carried out by half educated people. Good taste in books and literature is born in the home, and it is impossible to get it in schools. Today the demand for literature is really in the hands of the feeble-minded, who are in the great majority, and rule the market. One piece of evidence as to that feeble-mindedness is to be found in problem plays and problem novels. There is nothing in literature more degrading than the vogue for such plays and novels. People are not assisted by them in understanding any great problems, they are only enabled to swagger around as those who know a little more than their neighbours.