When I was nine years old my dad brought a present home from Jarir Bookstores. I will never forget that evening. It was a muggy, sultry Thursday night, the first day of the Jordanian weekend. My parents were going to a dinner party and they left me behind in the villa - with Arthur Ransome for company.
I felt very doubtful as I ploughed through the first page (how long does it take for a small boy to cross a field?!) but as the seconds ticked by I gradually slipped deeper and deeper into the world of the Swallows and the Amazons, a world of wild forests, lakes, snake-charming savages, robbery, warfare, piracy, and exploration. At one o'clock in the morning I was up to my waist in cold water with Titty, quietly scrambling into the enemy ship 'Amazon' with my heart thudding dizzily in my chest. "Quickly, quickly!" I urged her silently, my fingers gripping the pages just as tightly as her fingers gripped the oars. When my parents came home Mum was not pleased to discover me still curled up on the sofa at three a.m, eyes wide open, desperate to prolong my camping trip on Wild Cat Island. Dad just smiled; 'Swallows and Amazons' had been a childhood favourite of his, too.
I developed an obsession with the whole series, even going so far as to adopt the language and mannerisms of Captain Nancy Blackett. ("You tame galoot!" is still one of my favourite insults, and I'm now eighteen!) The synopsis for 'Swallows and Amazons' may sound boring in comparison to Rowlingesque fantasy - six kids go away to camp on an island - but Ransome's glorious imagination has turned this most ordinary of events into an exciting adventure story that is still capable of captivating children (and the odd university student...) sixty years further on. My copies still have houseroom on my overcrowded bookshelves, their faded covers and well-thumbed pages telling everyone who enters my room how much I love them. They rarely make 'em like this any more...
on 24 September 1999
Yes, I know it's sad, but this book changed my life.
"Swallows & Amazons" is now derided by many for being dated, dull and politically incorrect.
However it proved to this reader that books were A GOOD THING. To a seven year old, the book gathers you in and makes you care about and identify with the characters. This was the first proper book I ever read and understood.
Of course the writing is dated. Of course children can't roam as free as John, Susan, Titty and Roger do any more. Yes, there's no real story as such - but it DOESN'T MATTER.
I challenge anybody with open mind to read the first 50 or so pages of this book and not care about the participants and carry on entranced to the end. And the good news....there's plenty more in the series to read.
Last year, for the first time, I was ecstatic to be able to visit "the" Lake and actually landed on "the" Island. I was 34 years old at the time.
Swallows and Amazons has gripped this reader for nearly 30 years. Even now, every few months or so, I dust down a treasured copy of one of the series and read on.
on 6 May 2006
Simply one of the finest children's books; in fact make that just one of the finest books. Check out the opening pages and the last paragraph - more perfect prose you will not see. Add to that his genius at creating an almost timeless period with fantastic attention to detail (camping, firelighting, sailing, cooking, childrens' relationships with adults, the list goes on and on) - although as a child I was always perturb as to when and where they went to the loo!
My father introduced them to me when I was young and now at the age of 42 with 3 small chidren I am hoping to do the same for them (am also hoping that my eldest might as a result of reading it might fixate on a sailing dinghy rather than a pony...).
If you are like me and have precious little time, then buy the Gabriel Woolf narated version on CD. Almost brought me to tears with the beauty of the prose and Woolf's faultless interpretation.
But whatever you do buy the book for the children otherwise they will miss out on the fantastic illustrations and the simple joy of creating the world of the Swallows and the Amazons for themselves.
on 10 April 2001
Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" is the first in a classic series of children's stories that will appeal to readers of all ages. The book is set in the English Lake District in the period between the two World Wars, (where the author was living at the time). It tells of a time when a healthy imagination (and the freedom to take advantage of it) was enough to keep most youngsters both amused and out of mischief. The world was a safer and simpler place back then and this book does much to make us realise just how much has been irretrievably lost since.
Not that this was ever Ransome's intention, of course. He was simply drawing upon his own boyhood experiences (from a yet earlier time) as well as contemporary ones of the children of a family friend. He used these to weave an enchanting tale that would remind those same children (by then returned 'home' to the deserts of the Middle East) of a happy summer spent sailing in England.
The story's strong basis in reality (albeit several separate realities, as it were), tempered with Ransome's love of sailing (and his knowledge of Lake District life), imbue the book with a strong sense of authority. Both the text and the author's own pen-and-ink illustrations also have an endearing charm that comes across even now, some 70 years after the book was first published. One of the great things about this book (and indeed, the whole series of books that was to follow) is that Ransome avoids most of the stereotypical treatments of children's roles that his contemporaries (as well as later authors) continually espoused. He always manages to treat (nearly!) all of his characters as equal partners in their activities, whatever their age, gender or background. The children are also afforded a greater respect and rather more freedom by the adults than is common these days, too.
And while the children's 'adventures' are nothing fantastical or extra-ordinary when viewed from an absolute perspective, Ransome manages to convey so much of the children's own excitement at their activities that the reader can't help being drawn into their world and so come to share some of that same excitement. All in all, this a delightful book and should be on everybody's essential reading list, regardless of their age!
on 21 June 2003
This, and its sequels, were the formative books of my long-ago childhood, and I blame Arthur Ransome entirely for the fact that I have spent quite a few years now wandering across the globe.
Well, he taught me that the age of adventure never ends.
I'm glad to see that history has treated these books kindly; they're as relevant now as they ever were. And as for the (doubtless well-meaning) comments about sexism? Well I guess they refer to Susan - Nancy's rival for my childhood affections - and I'd just like to say that I prefer to think of her as the one who was sensible enough to make sure they didn't all starve to death!
on 25 February 2001
Imagine a world where children are left to explore without parents worrying about them, following them, supervising them. Imagine letting your children sail a boat on their own, camp on an island by themselves, skate across a frozen lake without an adult in sight. Think about them exploring old mines with nothing but a candle and a bit of string. Think about the Lake District between the Wars when the motor car was still was still a novelty, when charcoal burners still burnt fires in the hills and life was lived at a slower, saner pace. This is the world of Arthur Ransome's books, the series that starts with Swallows and Amazons and introduces the children; Nancy and Peggy, pirates, and John, Susan, Titty and Roger, explorers. They form their alliance, race their dinghies, camp on Wild Cat island, fight the dreadful Captain Flint, capture the houseboat and survive the storm: and all this in the first book. The series, some twelve books in all, covers a myriad of situations and adventures but every book speaks clearly to children of every generation. The stories are all daring deeds, perilous escapes, battles, disasters and triumphs. Our poor, over-indulged, over-protected children of today can only dream of childhoods such as these. Gameboys and micro scooters are surely a poor substitute.
A minor caveat:Swallows and Amazons Forever is a minor con trick, presumably originally inspired by a publisher. The stories therein are abridged versions of two other books: Coot Club and The Big Six which are far better read in their entirety. Every other book in the series is near perfect in both plot and characters. For children eight years old and up, these are books that will be read and reread even into adulthood.
on 21 November 2004
As you read Swallows and Amazons, you can almost smell the air of the lakes, and hear the waves on the rocks. Very few writers have so beautifully evoked a place, with so little apparent effort. A few people have called Ransome's style 'dated', but I think that's the wrong word, implying as it does that it is faded, and past its best. I'd say the opposite, that it's timeless. It is wonderfully clear, and has a rhythm and cadence all of its own. If only JK ... you-know-who ... paid half as much attention to hers!
('The wind blew away the clouds and the stars shone out high over Swallow and her sleeping crew. The deep blue of the sky began to pale over the eastern hills. The islands clustered about Rio Bay became dark masses on a background no longer as dark as themselves. The colour of the water changed. It had been as black as the hills and the sky, and as these paled so did the lake. The dark islands were dull green and grey, and the rippled water was the colour of a pewter teapot...')
There is also such beautiful tact in Ransome's depiction of his young sailors. Like Captain Flint, he takes them seriously, never patronises them, and always remembers that they are explorers, and not simply children on holiday. The word 'sexist' is often applied to these books, presumably in reference to Susan; but this too I think is rather wide of the mark. She is hardly the little woman in the kitchen, after all. John may be nominally in charge, but it is Susan who gives out most of the orders, keeps the show running, and brings a note of adult sense to their adventures. But she can also, we are told, handle a boat, swim, put up a tent etc, as well as her older brother. She's a strong-minded young woman, and she is indispensable. Anyway, to those who need their unalloyed grrrl superheroes, I can only say: Captain Nancy, the Terror of the High Seas -- Surely one of the most explosively enjoyable characters, male or female, in any book!
on 15 March 2002
This book is one of the best books in the world. It is one of the not so few boks that has the same person who wrote the book is the same person who made all of the illustrations (pictures). The book is adventurous, exiting, has lots of descriptions and action all at the same time. This is one of the books that I loved every second of it.
on 2 October 2008
My Dad had the whole series given to him in the original hardback editions, and they aroused my interest as a child, sitting as an imposing two-foot length of green spines sandwiched between other tomes. These were for serious readers, only readers of real passion and commitment would ever embark on such a long project.
And then one day I started Swallows and Amazons. And instantly I became a reader of real passion and commitment. I devoured them over and again, reading some too many times to count, in bed at night, or anywhere, anytime, reading other things in between, but always coming back for the holidays. Not just stories, but lives, friendships, adventures, imaginations exposed for me to share.
My older son is 7 on Sunday. My Dad is going to give him volume 1. I'd love to read them to him, I'd love to go back to Wildcat Island and Swallowdale, and take him with me, to my favourite places - the camp, the lights, the pigeon loft. But that would be selfish. Any day now he'll be old enough to go on his own, without me to hold his hand, to filter and control, to lead. As the telegram Roger collects on page 1 says, cryptically conveying his father's permission for the children to go solo, "Better drowned if duffers. If not duffers, won't drown."
on 1 November 2001
Ransome is a masterstoryteller, in touch with the fears and delights of real children. I was given this book on my fifth birthday and it has fed my imagination for the last 14 years. The characterisation is so realistic that those six are counted as childhood friends, I feel I know them so well. I cannot recommend Swallows and Amazons enough, and when i have kids, they will be receiving a copy on their fifth birthday too.