fiction favorites…Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons, written and illustrated by Arthur Ransome

“Let’s have tea where we can see the island,” said Titty.
They carried their mugs and the kettle and the tin plate piled with thick slabs of brown bread and marmalade to the edge of the cliff.  The island lay about a mile away towards the lower, southern end of the lake, its trees reflected in the glassy water.  They had been looking at it for ten days…With an island like that within sight, who could be content to live on the mainland and sleep in a bed at night?
They …told their mother of their discovery, and begged that the whole family should leave the farmhouse the next day, and camp on the island for ever.  But there was little Vicky, a fat baby, like the pictures of Queen Victoria in old age, full of all sorts of needs.  Mother could not take Vicky and the nurse to camp even on the best of uninhabited islands…And though John and Susan were both well able to manage a sailing boat, Titty and Roger had only begun to learn how to sail when their father had been home on leave a year before…But with a lake as big as a small sea, a fourteen-foot dinghy with a brown sail waiting in the boathouse, and the little wooded island waiting for explorers, nothing but a sailing voyage  of discovery seemed worth thinking about.

The Walkers– John, Susan, Titty and Roger– and their little brown-sailed boat Swallow, along with their friends, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, and their boat Amazon, are some of the most classic characters in children’s literature.  Since their creation by Arthur Ransome in 1930, they have been as much a staple of British households as…well…tea and marmalade!  If you have not discovered them yourself, you are very much missing out!  This title is the first in a series of twelve delightful books.

Swallows and Amazons is set in the spectacularly beautiful Lake District of England.  The Walker children and their mother have taken a farmhouse on one of the lakes for their summer holidays.  Their father, a naval officer, is not in the picture aside from telegramming  his permission for the children to go sailing and camping on their own, his opinion being that unless they are complete duffers they won’t drown, and if they are, indeed, duffers, well then…  With that in hand, the “Swallows” sail off to Wildcat Island, as they dub it, and set up a crackin’ 1930s-era campsite.  Soon they are invaded by the “Amazons”, as the Blackett sisters call themselves, two energetic tomboys with plenty of feisty pirate blood in ’em.  The summer is filled with the adventures these six concoct, sailing, exploring, camping, and raiding the girls’ uncle Jim, better known as Captain Flint, who lives in a houseboat on the lake.  It is the stuff of childhood dreams.

I cannot tell you how much we have loved this series of books.  We have read the entire series aloud — twice!  My children, fortunate enough to have had grandparents on a lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, complete with a nearby, tiny, scrubby island, learned very early on to row, sail, build a campfire (supervised), and haul picnic-laden toboggans across the ice on their own so as to have their own set of  Swallows adventures.  While in England, we traveled to Lake Windermere, the setting for a number of these books and took a Swallows boat tour of the lake (yes, we are total nerds!)

 The books are lengthy — this first one is 350 pages long with very few illustrations.  They can easily be tackled, though, by voracious readers from the age of…10 or 11? As read-alouds, they are accessible to younger children, age 7 or 8 if they’re good listeners.

Here are glimpses of the plotlines of the other 11 books in the series, which are best read in order because of the introduction of other characters, but not utterly essential.

Swallowdale: The Amazons’ beastly Great Aunt tries to make young ladies out of the Blackett sisters, and a mishap with the Swallow means that sailing is mostly out; camping, hiking the moors, and escaping the Great Aunt provide plenty of adventure!

Peter Duck: A story invented by the Swallows and Amazons about a fantastical voyage  to the Caribbean with an old salt named Peter Duck, hunting for treasure  while being chased by the wicked Black Jake in his Viper. Shiver me timbers!

Winter Holiday: One of my favorites in the series.  During a particularly cold Christmas holiday, the Swallows and Amazons, and two new friends, Dorothea and Dick Callum, participate in numerous arctic adventures including a harrowing trek to the North Pole.

These hardcover jackets are lovely...but pricey to collect.


Coot Club: Follows Dick and Dorothea on their Easter holiday in the Norfolk Broads where they meet a whole host of  brave, adventuresome kids and some nasty Hullabaloos endangering the coot nesting sites which the kids are trying to protect.

Pigeon Post:  Another of my favorites.  Back in the Lake District, the Swallows, Amazons and Callums are on the track of a mysterious man in a squashy hat who may be trying to meddle with their secretive gold mining prospects. 

We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea: The Walkers are in a coastal community near Harwich awaiting the return of their father from abroad, when they are inadvertently cast adrift in a friend’s boat and find themselves sailing alone across the Channel at night.

Secret Water: My least favorite of the series due to a make-believe human sacrifice episode in the story, but it has plenty of charm as well.  The Swallows’ father maroons them on an island amid some labyrinthine tidal marshes to have some adventures exploring and mapping the area.  They are joined by the Amazons and meet some local friends with whom they agree to wage  war.

The Big Six: The Callums return to the Norfolk Broads to find some members of the old Coot Club gang are suspected by the

Arthur Ransome led a colorful life, including time as a journalist and a spy!

authorities of perpetrating some nasty boat shenanigans.  They must all work together to investigate the crimes and exonerate the Death and Glories. 

Missee LeeAnother invented story of some ripping sailing adventures in the China Seas where the crew are held prisoner by a well-educated Chinese pirate, Missee Lee.  However will they escape?!

The Picts and the Martyrs:  The Great Aunt is back making life miserable for all, so instead of having a holiday at the Blackett house, the Callums are forced to hide out in a small hut in the woods, living the life of the ancient Picts.  Can they evade detection long enough?

Great Northern?On a sailing trip in the Outer Hebrides, off Scotland, the Swallows, Amazons and Callums discover a rare Great Northern Diver (loon) nesting site, and have to outsmart an enemy threatening to steal its eggs.

Well, there you have it.  I heartily recommend the entire series.  A Swanson family five-star favorite!

Here are links to these books at Amazon:

 Swallows and Amazons (Godine Storyteller)
Swallowdale (Swallows and Amazons)
Peter Duck: A Treasure Hunt in the Caribbees
Winter Holiday (Godine Storyteller)
Coot Club (Godine Storyteller)
Pigeon Post (Godine Storyteller)
We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (Godine Storyteller)
Secret Water (Swallows and Amazons, No 8)
The Big Six: A Novel (Swallows and Amazons Series)
Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons in the China Seas (Godine Storyteller)
The Picts & the Martyrs (Swallows & Amazons)
Great Northern?: A Scottish Adventure of Swallows & Amazons