Saturday, 4 January 2014

A Frit Suffolk Punch

Well, after all it's a new year, and it's nice to step aside from the usual blather for a moment and talk about a wonderful book. Nothing academic, and nothing to stoke your depression about matters deep or intellectually dubious. This is a children's book.

I like to think I recognise a good kids' book when I come across one, being of the "old school" that believes teachers of pre-teens should be sharing great stories with their charges on a daily basis. Over the years I've gathered a collection of tried and true tales which youngsters love, some of which have literally worn out with use. But it's always a delight to find something new to share. The essential key is that you, the adult who reads the book, have to have read and loved it first. Your enthusiasm is likely to be contagious. Even in this age of sophisticated entertainment, iPads and smartphones, it is still entirely possible to enthral a whole class of youngsters - up to eleven years and beyond - by catching them up in an imaginative narrative.

And if teachers can manage that, how much more parents and grandparents.

Which leads me to Michael Morpurgo's Not Bad For A Bad Lad. When a young fellow in post-World War II London gets a reputation for bad behaviour at school, he reacts by doing what many boys still do, living down to those expectations and getting himself in a great deal of strife. Leaving school at 14, he falls afoul of the law, and ends up detained in Borstal at Her Majesty's pleasure. But the Borstal stable manager decides to take a risk with the young troublemaker, and that's where the Suffolk Punch horses come in.

The story has a sound historical basis. Hollesley Bay Borstal did exist, and so did the stables and their Suffolk Punch horses. And the tale is told from the perspective of a grandfather (the 'bad lad' himself) writing to his grandson.
"This is the story of my life. I've written it so you'll know all the things about your grandpa that you've a right to know and that I never told you. There's no two ways about it: when I was young I was a bad lad. I'm not proud of it, not one bit. Grandma has been saying for quite a while now that it's about time I told you everything, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - before it's too late, she says. So here goes."
The illustrations by Michael Foreman are period pieces that add to the feel of a story set in decades past. Brilliant! Well under a hundred pages, so it's not likely to drag. As for 'frit', it's a colloquial term for frightened, and yes, I had to look it up.

(The American edition has a different cover from the one shown above, but is otherwise the same. Sadly it's not currently in print, but there's a Kindle edition available.

Highly recommended, and well worth the time - even if you haven't got a kid readily on hand to share it with.

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