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This week is Children’s Book Week, which celebrates books, and Australian authors and illustrators. This gave me the idea of writing about some of the books I loved when I was young, though all of them were by English, rather than Australian writers. When I grew up and left home, I threw out all my old children’s books. But it wasn’t many years before I started missing them, and I have spent many happy hours since searching out my favourites in second hand book sales. Most are now, of course, available online.

One of my favourite writers was Monica Edwards. She was born in 1912 and lived all her life in rural southern England. The daughter of the local vicar, much of her childhood and youth was spent in the fishing village of Rye Harbour, and her Romney marsh stories are set there. After she married she moved to a farm in south west Surrey and this is the setting of her second series of books about Punchbowl Farm. The first of the Romney Marsh stories was published in 1947, the last in 1969. The one I am writing about, The White Riders, was published in 1950. The stories centre on the adventures of Tamzin Grey, her pony Cascade, and her three friends Rissa, Meryon and Dick. This may sound like another version of the Famous Five, but it isn’t. Apart from being better written than Enid Blyton, Edwards deals with important themes such as what we would today call ecology, heritage and animal rights.

In The White Riders, the friends are battling to save a ruined castle out in the marshes from development as a holiday camp. They dress up in white sheets daubed with phosphorescent paint and ride out at night to scare off the superstitious Irish workers who have been hired for the project – though it is actually nature that finally defeats the developer. Edwards clearly loves the marshes, and writes with sympathy and feeling about the landscape and the fishermen and farmers who live there. Tamzin’s crusade to save the castle is also Edwards’s crusade to save the way of life of these people, perhaps futile in retrospect, but deeply felt and convincing in the story.

It’s true that all of the friends have middle class backgrounds and attitudes. Tamzin, like her creator, is the daughter of the local vicar. She and her friend Rissa both have ponies, though they have had to work hard to get them. All the friends have both independence from and support by their parents – they are not the rebellious or traumatized teenagers of much modern fiction.

But however idealized their lives, the values expressed in the stories are what I found important, and these are the values of friendship, loyalty and steadfastness in causes that really matter.

It’s probably true that I look back on the tiny bit of English social life that Monica Edwards draws on as something of a golden age. But I hope that the values she espouses aren’t also seen as old fashioned and unconnected with modern life. Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic. But even if I am, I’m not sure that nostalgia should be so easily dismissed. Looking back at children’s books that have been important to us is a way of understanding who we are and what we believe today. They say we are what we eat – but we are also what we read, and have read throughout our lives.

There is of course a terribly English Monica Edwards Appreciation Society, which can be found here.

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