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‘Swallows and Amazons’ Forever: Why a now-obscure children’s novel is great summer reading

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It’s the summer holidays in England’s Lake District, and the four Walker children have a plan to load a wooden dinghy with supplies, sail to a nearby island and camp out for a few weeks — by themselves. Mother has agreed, but only if their naval officer father gives his permission. Finally, the telegram from Malta arrives:

BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN

“What does it mean?” asked Susan.

“It means Yes,” said Titty.

“It means that Daddy thinks we shall none of us get drowned, and if we do get drowned, it’s a good riddance,” said John.

Today’s parents, wary of allowing kids to walk alone to school, may be startled by the hands-off approach of the adults in “Swallows and Amazons” (1930). But kids have always loved stories about peers enjoying themselves far from prying, protective grownups, and Arthur Ransome’s classic novel of summer adventure is one of the best in the genre. Enormously popular in its day, the book is now largely forgotten in the United States, except in boating circles and by older adults who read it as children. But this story of six kids, two boats and a summer of independence is ripe for discovery by a new generation of children.

Confident sailors, thanks to their parents, the Walker kids (ranging in age from 7-12) pack Swallow, their wooden boat, and chart a course for deserted Wild Cat Island. Soon after, a green-feathered arrow flies into their campfire. Enter the Blackett sisters (11 and 12), pirate crew of the Amazon, who have long considered the island their own. Enemies at first, the two crews eventually form an alliance, setting in motion a captivating series of adventures: a scheme to capture each other’s boats, a daring night sail and a run-in with an irascible old houseboat captain (could he be a retired pirate?).

At 7 and 10, my kids latched onto “Swallows and Amazons” with terrific enthusiasm, demanding that I read them all the sequels (there are 12 books altogether). “ ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forever!” my youngest used to shout, echoing the motto of the two crews, when he wanted me to read the next installment.

Although the novels were written more than 80 years ago, the appeal of unsupervised adventure hasn’t changed, and my boys relished the practical details Ransome depicts so vividly: building fires, constructing sleeping bags, setting up tents, blazing trails and cooking. (Food is never stinted in Ransome’s world: tea, milk, eggs, bread, canned meat, freshly caught fish, chocolate and a mysterious baked item called buncake make up the main diet of the Swallows and Amazons.)

Re-reading “Swallows and Amazons” as an adult, I was struck by its refreshing lack of sexism, and by the strength of the four girl characters, especially Nancy, the Amazon’s swashbuckling captain. The most skillful sailor of the six children, daring, decisive Nancy revels in nautical exclamations like “Jib-booms and bobstays!” and frequently takes the lead in plotting adventures. Yet Ransome draws equally compelling portraits of her quiet sister, mate Peggy; conscientious Captain John of the Swallow; mate Susan, who is practical and good with a frying pan; bookish, dreamy Titty, the Swallow’s treasure-seeking able-seaman; and the ship’s boy, Roger, who is burdened by his struggle to master swimming.

For kids, the most alluring aspect of the book is the freedom with which its resourceful protagonists roam the lake and islands, inhabiting a world they’ve made entirely their own, renamed after far-off lands they’ve only read about. Whether climbing “Mount Kachenjunga” (a local hill) or sailing past “Rio” (the nearest town), the crews of the Swallow and Amazon enjoy an independence unthinkable to the current scheduled generation of kids. (Citizens of the British empire, the Swallows and Amazons regard all adults as “natives,” to be avoided or approached with caution — terminology that requires explanation today.)

With a few exceptions, adventure in contemporary children’s literature is safely relegated to the past, or the realms of fantasy, facilitated by wizardry (Harry Potter) or demi-gods (Percy Jackson). “Swallows and Amazons” contains no sorcery; its plot is plausible, its characters ordinary children. Therein lies its enduring magic. A celebration of friendship, imagination, fair play, and exploration, “Swallows and Amazons” inspires even the most landlocked kid to dream of messing about in boats, building fires, camping out and navigating by the stars.

What more could one ask of a summer read-aloud?

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have recently appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, and Full Grown People. She lives in Portland, Ore.

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