Kidlit for the artist’s journey

Posted by Gay

Writers love to write about artists becoming artists. It’s their own journey, and they understand their heroes thoroughly. Which is a blessing for the artistically inclined child wrestling with the age-old question, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ who can revel in books about heroes and heroines discovering their vocations, overcoming setbacks and setting forth on the journey of self-creation through congenial work. 

My copies of Betty Bowen’s ‘Fly Away Home’ and Barbara Leonie Picard’s ‘One is One’, showing the superb line illustrations typical of chapter books published at this time.

Two books in this category which particularly appealed to me, and which I re-read many times growing up, were One is One by Barbara Leonie Picard (1965; shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal) and Fly Away Home by Betty Bowen (1957).  Both are books about boys coming to grips with their own sensitive natures and artistic talents in a world that admires physical strength, athletic skill, extraversion and toughness in boys and men.

Stephen de Beauville, the hero of One is One, is born in 1309 in Yorkshire, the son of an Earl and one of many children within an extended family whose chief interests are hunting and warfare.  Stephen starts life as a despised and bullied sissy, afraid of dogs and regarded by his father as useless for any occupation other than a monk’s.  Stephen himself longs to overcome his fears, become a knight and earn the respect and adulation of his family.  Despite redeeming himself partially by raising and forming a trusting bond with a dog, Stephen is packed off to a monastery where he alleviates boredom by drawing on his slate.  Recognising his talent, one of his teachers sends him to Brother Ernulf, the elderly monk in charge of illuminating manuscripts. 

There follows my favourite part of the book, a lengthy and lovingly detailed description of Stephen’s artistic training which is also a lesson in art history.  Stephen learns to collect materials for making paint, to prepare colours using eggwhite and metals and vinegar, to cut quills and apply gold leaf and draw drapery, and eventually to contribute to Ernulf’s illustrations.  This section of the book utterly fascinated me and left me forever bereft, mourning the life of collaborative and immersive art-making that Stephen is offered.  Alas!  Before Stephen can fully adjust his dreams to his new circumstances, he receives a visit from his brothers who mock him, re-firing his determination to become a knight and prove his family wrong.

The remaining sections of the book are dedicated to Stephen’s adventures after running away from the monastery.  Becoming first a squire to the dandyish, cheerful, noble and kind-hearted Sir Pagan Latourelle, and later a knight with his own squire, the surly and wayward Thomas, Stephen forms close friendships with both men.  He distinguishes himself as a knight, prompting his father to revise his views, and returns to his former home where he defeats his obnoxious bullying cousin in jousting.  Despite these triumphs, Stephen (now in his twenties) has experienced tragedy and is aware that he values friendship, beauty and creation above the ugliness of killing.  Remembering Sir Pagan’s words, ‘Be brave enough to be different’, he wonders why he has spent so long wasting his artistic talent.  Perhaps the truly courageous act would be to defy his family’s standards and pursue a course more fitted to his nature?

This book was the pinnacle of all the books I read during childhood.  The writing is beautiful, moving, evocative and clear.  All of the main characters are distinctive and vivid, and the plot structure is utterly satisfying.  Stephen remains one of my favourite fictional characters of all time.  His sexuality is never addressed in the book, and I never felt any interest in it – although as a growing girl, I had rather a crush on all the men – but the absence of female characters and the personality of Sir Pagan now appear to me as gently leaving the question open.  There is much wisdom and philosophy embedded in this story from a strong, unsentimental writer who nevertheless cherishes sensitivity and individuality.  If you look for it, try to get the version with Victor Ambrus’s line illustrations, which add depth and beauty.

Fly Away Home (perfectly illustrated by the author, Betty Bowen) tells the story of Gareth, a boy living with his grandfather on the Yorkshire moors.  Together they protect their flock of sheep, compose and play violin music.  Gareth’s mother is alive in New York, but married to a stepfather who detests the violin and wants Gareth to box and play football.  When Gareth’s grandfather dies suddenly, his friend Herr Egli finds a place for Gareth at the international Children’s Village in Switzerland, where music is valued.

Gareth is unused to the pecking order of large groups of children, and quickly falls to hero-worshipping Brad, the alpha male of his house:  ‘Brad was at least fifteen, he judged, self-possessed and handsome and superior-looking in every way, with flashing eyes and heavy brows and a body built, it seemed, solely of bone and muscle.’  Brad, an accomplished athlete, takes Gareth on, attempting to turn him into a skier.  Betrayed by his own lack of self-confidence, Gareth attempts to fit the mould and win Brad’s respect, neglecting his music.  Despite his best efforts he becomes an object of ridicule and a fight breaks out between the boys, resulting in Brad smashing Gareth’s grandfather’s violin.  Gareth, believing himself an utter failure, runs away from the Village.

Both the violin and Gareth are gradually mended in the final chapters, during which Gareth grows from the silent outsider to the organiser and star of a concert to raise money for a sick friend in the Village.  Gareth learns to stand up to Brad, with whom he is eventually reconciled.  This is a far simpler book than One is One, but the cast is a nicely balanced collection of believable characters of both sexes and all ages, the descriptions of music are enchanting, the setting is appealing and the resolution satisfying.

At the heart of both these books is the definition of courage.  Both Stephen and Gareth believe themselves to be cowards.  Both attempt to overcome this self-definition by conforming to the prevailing standards of masculinity, eventually learning to re-direct courage to the even more difficult project of being themselves in the face of disapproval and rejection.  I don’t know whether boys did, or would, enjoy the books as much as I did, but I hope so.  Both books were written by women, and offered balance to a market that had many books about boys growing up to be Vikings, Roman warriors, knights, chieftains and wizards.  Yes, long before Harry Potter, there was a fascinating Wizard of Earthsea … but that’s another post.

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