vintage canoe adventures

They tested the Minnow and tested their own skill and strength in her: they back-paddled, they forward-paddled; they sent her twirling in circles…Then they changed their methods altogether, and saw how stealthily they could go: they grudged the soft whisper of water against the prow of the canoe; they slid their paddles soundlessly into the water and, as they drew them slowly out at the end of each stroke, held them so that the drops from the paddles had only a finger’s breadth to fall before they were united to the river again. Their care was unexpectedly rewarded, for, as they stole round a bend of the river, they surprised a great grey bird that rose and wheeled with slowly flapping wings, its legs trailing behind it, still shining wet from the river.

As a Minnesota-girl who has spent many a rhythmical, tranquil hour approaching herons, loons, beavers, on northern lakes in a canoe, this description of two boys and their maiden voyage rings beautifully true.


Philippa Pearce was an English writer of children’s fiction who won the Carnegie medal for her most well-known novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden.

I recently read her very first novel, a classic adventure story my kids would have loved if I’d been aware of it earlier. If you’ve got a special spot in your heart for vintage canoes and stalwart, independent kids tracking down missing treasure — you’ll want to discover it, too.

minnow on the say cover image

Minnow on the Say, written by A. Philippa Pearce, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
first published by Oxford University Press in 1955; reissued by Greenwillow Books, 2000

David Moss lives an ordinary life in his home poised along the River Say in bucolic England. Ordinary, that is, until torrential rains swell the river and the swift current  deposits a keen canoe at the Moss’s riverside landing stage. Who could it belong to?

minnow on the say illustration3 ardizzone

The boat’s rightful owner is Adam Codling, an orphan living with his elderly aunt and grandfather on their old, crumbling family estate. That canoe, christened Minnow, not only launches a fast friendship between these two boys, but it fairly revolutionizes their lives as they use it to  hunt down a mysterious treasure.

minnow on the say illustration2 ardizzone

The Codlings are an old family, whose ancestors dating back to the 1500s lived on this property. Centuries ago some valuable family jewels were lost.  Adam is determined to find them in order to stave off the impending Codling financial disaster and avoid displacement from his beloved home.

As David and Adam puzzle out the obtuse clues left to them, voyaging upstream and down in the Minnow, questioning, ferreting, scavenging, scrambling, they’re in a race against time and, it turns out, against others seeking the same jewels.

Wild adventures, head-scratching clues to solve, a treacherous foe, and of course, a real canoe of their own!, create a zesty plot that doesn’t let up until the last page. This is classic British children’s lit and as such contains rich vocabulary, plenty of unrestricted escapades outdoors, and a couple of marvelously stout-hearted kids. Edward Ardizzone’s lovely pen-and-ink work graces the pages as well.

minnow on the say cover image2

There are so many cover images for this book, with varying kid-appeal. This one has quite a different vibe than the one above, which is in my library. You can always wrap a book in brown paper if you think the cover image alone will turn your kid off of a good story.

For advanced readers, this would make an excellent summer read, ages 9 and up, or try it as a read-aloud for seasoned listeners. Swallows and Amazons fans, you will thoroughly enjoy this! Readers unused to older literature may stumble a bit over vocabulary and syntax.

P.S. This edition has a fascinating Afterword from the author reflecting on the circumstances that led to her writing this book. It is well worth reading!