Perhaps my favorite book for children is Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. In it and its eleven sequels (a thirteenth volume was begun but incomplete at Ransome's death) we follow the adventures (real and imaginary) of several children in the north of England in the paranoid days between the wars. There are the Swallows (John, Susan, Titty, and Roger Walker, so-called because their little brown-sailed boat is named Swallow); the Amazons (Nancy and Peggy Blackett, pirates living in the Lake District whose Uncle Jim, mostly known to the protagonists as Captain Flint, gave them their sailing boat Amazon); and later the D's (Dick and Dorothea Callum, children of an anthropology professor who spends his vacations on digs and often sends the kids to the Lake District while he and his wife are away). These are the core characters, ranging in age from 7 (Roger) to 12 (John and Nancy) when we first meet them. They are joined later in the series by the Walkers' baby sister Bridget and various acquaintances made in the Broads by the Callums (Tom Dudgeon; Port and Starboard; and the Death and Glories, 3 young sons of boatbuilders who navigate the river and get into various kinds of non-lethal trouble). The child characters are joined by real adults like Mrs. Walker, who always has a story about her youth in Australia; Commander (later Captain) Walker; Mrs. Blackett; and Mrs. Barrable, who sails the houseboat on the Broads that provides the background for two of the Dick and Dorothea adventures with the Coots (members of the bird protection society that lends its name to Coot Club). There are also some imaginary characters who make their appearance (such as Peter Duck and Missy Lee, both of whom have books in the series named for them, ostensibly written by Titty and later, perhaps, Dorothea).
One of these (Great Northern!) has been described as "the perfect boat and bird book for children," and in my view that pretty much defines the series. The thing I like best is how the juvenile charactrers are delineated. Each is distinct, and each rendering is spot-on. Ransome either knew children extraordinarily well, or he remembered his own childhood extraordinarily well. I read the entire series every summer or two, although in recent years I have taken to reading only my favorites (Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea, Secret Water, Picts and Martyrs, and Great Northern!). The books have recently come out in beautifully rendered audiobook editions, and I have them all on my i-Pod. While we're on a trip, my wife can guess what I'm listening to by the goofy smile on my face.
Three of the novels (the first and the two about the Coots) have been made into movies. I was disappointed to learn that all were not available, but the problems of the cast growing up too fast must have been insurmountable, and these were not money machines like the Harry Potter series. On balance I would say they are better novels, but who can compete with Harry Potter?
I was moved to blog about this for two reasons. First, I only yesterday discovered that there was an unfinished novel, available in a posthumous Ransome collection. It is out of print and only available for an exorbitant amount of money. I've been reading these books for over 40 years and am amazed I only now found out about this. I'll undoubtedly give in and buy one; I am nothing if not anal retentive about stuff I like. But the other reason is that I also discovered yesterday a Swallows and Amazons fan fiction website. Today I read about 25 entries, all fiction using the characters and setting and extending the story in some way or other. Most projected the characters into the future, with various romantic pairings.
I had heard of such things before (like the Star Trek Kirk and Spock romances, and the Pride and Prejudice extensions, some of which have been published) but never imagined they might exist for something like this. It amazed me, and gave me a sense of relief at the same time. For I, too, had fantasized about what happened to the characters. What had they done during the war? What happened afterward? I guess I'm not as weird as I thought. Or at least, there are others who are just as weird as me.
One of my wife's favorite writers is Dorothy L. Sayers, and Carol loves the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Sayers gave it up late in her career, and Wimsy fans for years wondered how things turned out for Peter and Harriet Vane. Well, the Sayers estate gave permission to another writer to continue the series, and she produced three additional novels. At the end of what I believe is the last one, Peter becomes the Duke of Denver upon the death of his brother, since his brother's son died in the war, exactly as I (and probably millions of other readers) had speculated. The new writer obviously did her homework, making allusions to characters and events from the original novels and freely borrowing plot devices and themes.
But the writer who carried on Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane was a professional; those who carry on Swallows and Amazons are distinctly amateurs. It doesn't matter a bit, though; even the worst written of the fan fiction I read was wonderful, because it was written from the heart. These fans (mostly women, apparently) loved the series and the characters so much they were impelled to carry on the story. They could not live without knowing more, and when no more was forthcoming they made it up themselves! What greater testiment to the effectiveness of the series could there be?
Swallows and Amazons and D's and Coots and Eels and Natives Forever!