Top 100 Children’s Novels #58: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
“Nearly everything about this book is perfect. I love the descriptions of the water, the sailing terminology, the faux rivalry between sailors and pirates, the uncle-turned-enemy, Captain Flint, the sense of adventure coupled with the comfort and security of knowing the world is safe enough to travel alone. The writing is flawless, and the characters so well-crafted they become practically real people, with fully developed personalities and voices. This is the kind of book you don’t outgrow, no matter how old you get. “ – Katie Ahearn
I wanted a boat! I wanted English lakes! I wanted long holidays with very little adult supervision! – Anne Nesbet
Maybe some of you are surprised to see the appearance of Arthur Ransome on this list. Honestly the thing I knew him best for was his marriage to Trotsky’s secretary (and the fact he was almost prosecuted for treason, but that’s neither here nor there). Yet he was considered, according to The Guardian, “the 1930s equivalent of JK Rowling.” Prolific and fun all at once.
The description from (sorry) Wikipedia reads: “The story follows the Walker children (John, Susan, Titty and Roger), who sail a borrowed dinghy named Swallow, and the Blackett children (Nancy and Peggy), who sail a dinghy named Amazon. The Walkers are staying at a farm near a lake during the school holidays and want to camp on an island in the lake; the Blacketts live in a house nearby. The children meet on the island which they call Wild Cat Island, and have a series of adventures, involving sailing, camping, fishing, exploration and piracy.”
In these books (Swallows and Amazons was one of twelve altogether) Ransome took his memories of the English Lake District and used those recollections to conjure up, in Silvey’s words, “endless summer vacation.” Eventually he would settle in that same Lake District, finding time to grumble at tiny tot and future author Diana Wynne Jones (but that is a story for another day, my children).
Fans of this book are found far and wide. In Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anthony Lewis selected this book as the one that had the greatest impact on his life. Says he, “How I got into Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books I cannot imagine . . . But the books had a charm and fascination that captured me despite my lack of acquaintance with many of the subjects.”
- Read some of the book here.
- Boat crazy? Find out what the boats from the books would have looked like.
- Gotta say, though. It’s odd how folks make money off of this book. Would you believe that there’s a Swallows and Amazons River and Jungle Tour Company?
The Guardian said of it, “Mr. Ransome has the same magical power that Lewis Carroll had of being the child in terms of himself. He never talks down; never finds it necessary to be patronising or sentimental. And sentimentality is the most terrible pitfall that besets those who venture into the world of play.”
A couple of the covers it has seen over the years (I think it’s in desperate need of a cover revival, myself):
A television program version (1963) and a movie version of the book (1974) did both indeed appear in England. A taste:
And . . . omigod omigod omigod!!!! This is so exciting! Between the last poll and today there was a BIG BIG production of Swallows and Amazons at the National Theatre in London which is now touring England (lucky Brits). But most exciting to me was the fact that Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy (a group I adore) did the music. Woo-hah! This, if nothing else, will make you want to read the book. As for me, I’m off to locate the soundtrack . . .
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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