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Rosemary Sutcliff spent a limited time in formal school education, but it did not hinder her  in becoming what The Guardian newspaper called on her death ‘a writer of genius’.

I didn’t go to school for a very long time because of traipsing around so much. My mother used to educate me herself, chiefly by just reading to me the books that she liked. (But I did go to school, and I’ve always been very thankful that I went to an ordinary school, I never got incarcerated with other disabled children).

(But) chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day. I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old. Me and Kipling, we were both nine before we could read: I think in my case  this was because my mother read aloud to me so much, and this I loved very very much.

I left school, which one could do at fourteen in those days, and put in three years at art school. I did the general art course—painting in oils and water-colours and making charcoal drawings of the Apollo Belvedere from the north, south, east, and west!

I had not written as a child, I had not written stories. I wasn’t at all writing-minded at school.

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Julia Eccleshare, expert on children’s and young adult’s fiction and literature (and Book Doctor at The Guardian), recently wrote a piece for theguardian.com with recommendations for historical fiction for children and teenagers which is not about the world wars. Of Rosemary Sutcliff she said:

In her many novels, Rosemary Sutcliff charted the making of Britain from the simple living of the upland shepherds of the Bronze Age in Warrior Scarlet to Elizabethan England in The Queen Elizabeth Story. She concentrated particularly on Roman Britain reflecting the many attitudes and experiences around the coming together of different cultures as the Romans and the indigenous population learned to live together and to blend their two very different ways of life.

In a loose series of titles which includes The Eagle of the Ninth and Dawn Wind Rosemary Sutcliff writes of Romano-British occupation and skirmish but she also details the home life of both sides describing the cooking, weaving and celebrations of the British tribes and the more advanced home comforts of the Roman invaders such as the installation of central heating in their villas.

Other authors she recommended were: Geoffrey TreaseLeon Garfield, Jill Paton Walsh, Berlie Doherty, Sally Nicholls, Adele Geras, John Rowe Townsend, and Melvin Burgess .

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My schooling began late, owing to a childhood illness, and ended when I was only fourteen, owing to my entire lack of interest in being educated. But I showed signs of being able to paint, and so from school I went to art school, trained hard, and eventually became a professional miniature painter.

I did not start to write until the end of the War, but now I have switched completely from one medium to the other, and it is several years since I last touched paint.

Source: Rosemary Sutcliff’s monograph on Rudyard Kipling.

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Rosemary Sutcliff could not read until she was ten or eleven years old. Certainly aged nine she saw no point!

My mother in her own splendidly unorthodox fashion, taught me at home, chiefly by reading to me. King Arthur and Robin Hood, myths and legends of the classical world, The Wind in the Willows, The Tailor of Gloucester, Treasure Island, Nicholas Nickleby, Kim, Puck of Pook’s Hill, and Little Women, all at more or less the same time. The result was that at the age of nine I was happily at home with a rich and somewhat indigestible stir about of literature, but was not yet able to read to myself. Why, after all, read to yourself when you can get somebody else to read to you?

Historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff's mother Nessie Lawton 

Source: Donald R. Gallo (1990) Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults. National Council of Teachers of English.

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The Times newspaper published in mid-2013 a list of the top 50 ‘books that all children should read’, which included Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (at 27). Of course all such lists reflect the preferred reading of the selection panel and it is good, indeed essential, to know who was on the panel. In this case it was: Amanda Craig (then Times children’s books critic), Lucy Coats (author), Wendy Cooling (founder of Bookstart), Tom Gatti (Times Saturday Review editor), Katherine Langrish (blogger and author), Anthony McGowan (author), and  Nicholas Tucker (children’s literature specialist). Their list:

  1. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  3. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  4. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  5. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
  6. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
  7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  8. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
  9. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
  10. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
  11. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  12. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  13. The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
  14. Just William by Richmal Crompton
  15. Matilda by Roald Dahl
  16. The Midnight Folk by John Masefield
  17. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  18. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  19. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  20. Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde
  21. Hellbent by Anthony McGowan
  22. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
  23. Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
  24. The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones
  25.  The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
  26. The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
  27. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
  28. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  29. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
  30. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  31. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  32. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  33. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
  34.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  35. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  36. One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson
  37. The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
  38. The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate by Margaret Mahy
  39. Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
  40. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
  41. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin
  42. The Borrowers by Mary Norton
  43. The Snow-walker’s Son by Catherine Fisher
  44. Holes by Louis Sachar
  45. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
  46. Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond
  47. Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
  48. Vice Versa by F. Anstey
  49. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  50. Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

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Rosemary Sutcliff relished the imagination and creativity of children, as well as the responses of readers (young and old)  to her novels and stories. Brian Alderson, former Children’s Books Editor of The Times, once recalled in an article in Books for Keeps an anecdote which dates from some time after the publication of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954. Rosemary recounted to a ‘bevy of librarians’:

‘That’s not a sand-castle,’ said the busy child on the beach, ‘I’m building a temple to Mithras’!  (more…)

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Year 5 in Hannah School in Örebro in Sweden use the web to post homework and assignments. Max has been reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Chronicles of Robin Hood.   (more…)

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“Teaching history without the facts? That’s just sociology” argues Brian Viner today.  The great historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff certainly thought that dates and facts mattered, although she wrote fiction. Thus for example the dates and periods of her Roman Novels:

The Eagle of the Ninth – 129 AD
The Silver Branch – 284 AD
Frontier Wolf – 343 AD
The Lantern Bearers – 410+ AD
Sword At Sunset – 5th century
Dawn Wind – mid-late 6th century
Sword Song – early 10th century
The Shield Ring – 11th century

And the dates of publication matter, for those who would explore Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing more critically, thus: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954)The Shield Ring (1956)The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959)Dawn Wind (1961)Sword At Sunset (1963)Frontier Wolf (1980).

Frustrated to learn that his 16-year-old son, a student of  History A-Level, “… knew neither the year, nor even the century, in which the Spanish Armada set sail”, Brian Viner is provoking and amusing at The Guardian comment-is-free pages about “chronological teaching of history”. He is for some dates, despite recalling that 1066 And All That, was subtitled  A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates.  (more…)

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All of which set me thinking about poems and songs in Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels. Such as the snatches of a legionnaires’ song in The Eagle of the Ninth.

Oh when I joined the Eagles
(As it might be yesterday)
I kissed a girl at Clusium
Before I marched away
A long march, a long march
And twenty years in store
When I left my girl at Clusium
Beside the threshing-floor

The girls of Spain were honey-sweet,
And the golden girls of Gaul:
And the Thracian maids were soft as birds
To hold the heart in thrall.
But the girl I kissed at Clusium
Kissed and left at Clusium,
The girl I kissed at Clusium
I remember best of all

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Michael RosenOne of the best-known figures in the children’s book world, the excellent Michael Rosen has a “serious question” to ask at his blog this week about “classroom discussion”:

How many hours a week is it possible to have a discussion with a class or within a class where ideas are discussed – not as a debate with ‘sides’ but simply discussing ideas? And parallel with that: how many hours or minutes a week is it possible to talk about feelings? Or both at the same time? This kind of discussion might arise out of a book, a poem, a song, a piece of art – or just stimulated by something that has happened or that someone has seen. Or indeed from eg Philosophy lesson or Circle Time.

Answers please on a postcard – no – on facebook or twitter please. Just curious to know how much room there is for this sort of thing now. Any Key Stage.
Source: Michael Rosen.

… and I would add, I am interested in anyone using Rosemary Sutcliff‘s work or life to prompt such discussion in classrooms. I recently posted a quote from Margaret Meek in Books for Keeps which points to just the sort of discussion I take Michael Rosen to value. But that was many years ago.

… I remember, with gratitude and some pain, a class of girls in a London secondary school in the early seventies. The parents of most of them had come from the Caribbean; I guess their own children are now in school. Then they were the first of their kind to speak out their awareness of the complications we now call `multi-cultural’. They were reading with their gifted teacher, Joan Goody, The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff). On this particular day they ignored the dashing young Roman hero, recovering from a battle wound in his uncle’s house in Bath, and concentrated on the girl next door, Cottia, a Briton. Cottia’s uncle and aunt were taking her to the games, and in their hankering after Roman ways had tried to insist that she wear Roman clothes and speak Latin. Cottia protested, and so did the readers, on her behalf. I’ve never heard a more spirited discussion than that one, when those girls spoke indirectly of their nearest concerns in arguing on behalf of Cottia, who existed only in a book.
Source: Article by Margaret Meek | Books for Keeps Issue 64

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