Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Saffy's Angel

As a child, I read a lot of those children's books in which the parents have to be dead or missing in order to allow the children to have adventures. Reading Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay, made me think of those, especially the one (The Happy Hollisters, perhaps?) in which a girl says of another family's children that they weren't really BROUGHT up, they just struggled up any old how! Saffy's parents, who are abstracted because they're artists, made me think especially of the father in The Penderwicks, who is a professor, the mother in Half Magic, who is a journalist, and the mother in The Railway Children, who is a writer.

Saffron, called "Saffy," is unusual in having two parental figures, and the father is the subject of gentle ridicule for feeling entitled to leave the children with their mother, an artist who is revealed to be as good or better than he is but who nonetheless is the custodial parent for an active "pack" of four children.

Saffy's Angel is very British, and largely the story of how Saffy and her sister Caddy each learn to make a friend outside the family and thus define their roles as people, more than just sisters:
"She had never had a proper friend. There had been girls she got along with at school, but outside school they had never bothered about her much. Saffron had managed without being too lonely because at home she always had Caddy, who was friends with all the world, and Indigo, who cared for no one but his pack."
When they begin to see themselves just a little bit as others see them, they realize that the way they live is a bit unusual:
"Perhaps you would like to have supper with us?" Mrs. Warbeck was asking Saffron now. "After Sarah has finished her homework? You could telephone your mother from here, if you like. Or pop back home. Would she mind?"
Saffron shook her head. "We get our own supper," she said. "And anyway, it's no good telephoning. She'll be in the shed."
"In the shed?"
The face of Sarah's mother said as plainly as if she had spoken that Eve should not be in the shed. She should be cooking. This was the hour of the day when respectable mothers cooked for their respectable families, while supervising homework.
Saffron, feeling hopelessly unrespectable, looked around for a way of escape. Astonishingly, she found one. It was on the wall. A picture by her mother. Town Bridge on a Bright Evening. She said "My mother painted that!"
"Did she?" asked Mrs. Warbeck. "Did she really? Why, of course! It's an Eve Casson! How silly of me not to realize!" And she looked at Saffron in quite a different, much more friendly kind of way.
But gentle ridicule of the parents, as always, saves this kind of second-hand characterization from staying as simple and saccharine as earlier examples in fiction:
"You are working too hard," remarked Eve...."I never did any work at all when I was your age!"
"What did you do?" inquired Rose.
"I had a lovely time! I was a hippie!"
"I bet Dad wasn't!" said Rose.

The culmination of the story is a family road trip to Wales. Because the youngest sister, Rose, has no idea about how others see her and her family, she holds up hilarious signs to the drivers behind them on the road, the first of which says "BE NICE. DO NOT HONK." When the drivers oblige, she puts up another sign saying "THANK YOU." The signs get even more conversational and funnier, including a long one telling the story of a roadkill fox and one promising "WE'LL LET YOU PASS AT THE NEXT WIDE BIT."
Rose has her own blog at the author's website, in case you find you can't get enough of her.

Like everyone else who's enjoyed and recommended this book (Nymeth and Jenny were the ones who got me interested), I'm glad to see that there are sequels about other members of the Casson family. My kids, at almost 14 and 16-1/2, are a little older than the target audience, but I'm going to leave them around my house anyway, because it's always good to seed the place with easy-to-read paperbacks this time of year, when everyone has the end-of-winter doldrums. Do you leave books out, hoping to get your children to pick them up? It often works, around here. I've told my two that these books have guinea pigs, as an additional enticement.


Harriet said...

I do sometimes leave books out hoping AJ willl read them, but if I REALLY want him to read them, I get his grandmother to send them to him. It seems to be the most successful method. This sounds like my kind of book.

Amanda said...

Guinea pigs guinea pigs guinea pigs!

Jodie said...

I feel a McKay nostalgia binge coming on (I've never read this series though I read The Exiles books about a hundred times). And yay leave your books lying around, everyone should have a chance to read Mckay whatever age they are.

Anonymous said...

I did like this book, and it had the added benefit of having a girl on the cover who looked like M. I read the sequel, too, although I can't remember its name.

Anonymous said...

Here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Saffys-Angel-Thorndike-Juvenile-Hilary/dp/0786255005/ref=sr_1_16?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267562678&sr=8-16 is the cover with the girl that looked like Maddy. And the sequel I read was Indigo's Star.

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, when I followed your link, I got a UK cover with the back of a girl's head on it!

Harriet, you'd like the Britishness of it--maybe the grandmother would, too!

Amanda, I thought you weren't all that fond of animals--are the kitties winning you over?

Jodie, I think these books are getting better-known in the US.

Care said...

I love the idea of leaving books around the house, waiting and watching to see if anyone picks them up. but they MUST be on to you, aren't they? fun...

Jeanne said...

Care, well yeah, it's no surprise to anyone who knows me--either virtually or in real life--that I'm all about getting people to read!
And I don't really watch; I'm like Tom Lehrer's "Old Dope Peddler" who
"gives the kids free samples
because he knows full well
that today's young innocent faces
will be tomorrow's clientele"!

Nymeth said...

lol, I'm sitting here laughing just thinking of the road trip scene and Rose's signs :D I didn't know there was a Rose blog!

My cope of Indigo's Star arrived yesterday, so I'll be reading that soon. Hooray for the Cassons.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, thanks for introducing me to the Cassons! I'll be looking for Indigo's Star and all the other books about them.

Anonymous said...

Yes! It's like the back of Maddy's head when she was about, oh, 10. !!! (I am preemptively missing her by thinking about her littler self.)

Jenny said...

I'm glad you liked it! I love these books, all the relationships between the family members. And I totally identified with poor Caddy's driving nerves, when she said she couldn't do right turns. I used to go into mini-panics when I had to do left turns, so I would go out of my way and do three right turns instead.

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, oh, okay! Nice back of the head! There's a saying about pre-emptive missing, something about crossing bridges.

Jenny,yes, I laughed at the "can't do right turns" bit because I was remembering my father one spring break when I was 13 or 14 telling me and my younger brother that he couldn't turn into this or that fast food place because he didn't have a "left turn license."

Kristen said...

You've definitely intrigued me with this one. I will have to acquire it and then tell the kids they can't read it until I'm finished. That should encourage them to try and swipe it from me. ;-)

Oh, and I call the dead or missing parents thing "The Disney Dead Mom Scenario" since there are no Disney movies with a happy, living mother. Apparently, in order to have good adventures, your mother must be dead and your father ineffectual. So my kids are doomed to live a very dull life, for which I am sorry but I don't intend to sacrifice myself any time soon to add spice to their existence. ::grin::

Jeanne said...

Kristen, yeah my kids have been doomed to live a dull life, too. I like your term for the missing mother; it reminds me of one of my favorite YA book titles "One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies."