Book Club: Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This is not a review, but some thoughts I have about Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, and the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. Beware of spoilers.

I belong to a Fantasy Book Club that focuses on YA and children’s fantasy fiction and in July we started reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. Unfortunately, I did not have time to read the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, but this is one series which I’ve reread so often that I know it well, or well enough to join in a discussion without needing a fresh re-read.

Now, The Dark is Rising Sequence is one of my all-time favourite fantasy series and you know how it is with favourite books: They’re almost like your children in that you feel a little protective about them. Therefore, when the club met up on Google Meets to discuss OSUS and one of the group seemed less than enthusiastic about the book, I kinda bristled with indignation, but tried to cover it up with an understanding (and probably strained) smile. However, when she said the book was ‘kiddyish’, I was ready to throw hands.

See, OSUS is a children’s book, and I’m not against children’s books in the least (at the risk of sounding like a classic bigot, I’ll even say that some of my favourite books are children’s books). It’s just that ‘kiddyish’, to me, has a very distinct meaning. It’s not positive and usually implies that a work is simplistic and even bland. So, labelling a book ‘kiddyish’ seems to me like shorthand for not well written. Unfortunately, people who don’t read children’s books tend to think of children’s books as inferior to books written for adult readers. They’re wrong, of course. As far as I’m concerned, there are good books and bad books for readers of all ages. 

Anyway, at this point in the discussion I likened OSUS to a Famous Five mystery. My friend agreed and said yes, that was exactly it. Although I was the one who had made the comparison in the first place, I was not terribly pleased.  

OK, hear me out. I do think OSUS is like a Famous Five mystery and it’s one of the reasons I liked it so much when I first read it. I love the Famous Five and I still re-read the books, especially Five On a Hike Together, which I think would make a good film (with a villain called Dirty Dick, how could it not?). However, OSUS is like an FF mystery only up to a point. I know this, but does my friend? I don’t think so as she doesn’t still read the Famous Five and doesn’t even read any children’s books at all.

OSUS is like an FF book in that it has the same classic children’s adventure tropes of kids on holiday (by the sea, no less), mysterious old house, dastardly villains and a treasure map! Apart from the sea, that kinda describes Five On a Hike Together, although that book has something arguably better: a lake called Gloomy Water!

OSUS was written for a children’s book contest and Cooper was obviously ticking boxes: Supercilious older brother, check! Clever dog to go adventuring with, check! Delicious picnic food, check! However, Cooper is also a rather better different writer from Blyton so she took all the clichés and made them much more than that. OSUS is, for a start, much more detailed than the average Blyton mystery. Not only are the places and people in it better described and fleshed out, we also get inside the heads of Cooper’s characters. For example, when Simon and Barney go off on the Withers’s yacht, Jane is left to her own devices and we get to see more about how she operates than we ever do with Julian and gang.

Although Cooper, when she was writing OSUS, had no idea that it would become the first of a series, she wrote Jane as a complex person, not the two dimensional wet lettuce Anne Kirrin is in every single one of the twenty-one FF books. Jane is the most conservative and cautious of the children in TDIRS (I don’t count Will and Bran as children, but we’ll get to that in another post.), and it’s somewhat tedious that Cooper chose the girl to give these traits to, but then, when you think about it, with Simon busy being a bossy older sibling and Barney being the young, eager, impulsive one, it makes sense that it’s up to Jane to be the voice of reason. It’s part of who she is and we later see that Jane’s personality matches her role in the whole damned battle against the dark jig. Her prudence, her quiet patience and her kindness are the qualities that are needed to deal with some aspects of the struggle, and maybe, Anne has that kind of strength too. Maybe, if Blyton hadn’t just written the same story twenty-one times, but allowed her characters to grow, and spent some pages exploring their inner lives, we’d have got to see Anne as more than a little girl who doesn’t like adventures and wants to spent her time keeping house for her brothers.

Five On a Hike Together.
The famous five meet Dirty Dick and Maggie. Illustration by Betty Maxey, from Five on a Hike Together [Knight Books 1974]

The other thing that sets Cooper and OSUS apart from Blyton and her adventure and mystery books, is that Cooper’s writing is much more subtle. For example, it’s always obvious who Blyton’s villains are — they’re either badly behaved from the get-go and/or have dodgy appearances. In Hike, you have Maggie, who looks as ‘hard as nails’, and her surly partner-in-crime, the aforementioned Dirty Dick. There’s even a policeman with a ‘crooked smile’ who’s mean to the Five. On the other hand, Cooper’s villains in OSUS include a jolly village woman, a vicar and a glamorous pair of siblings (whom I think give off a slightly incestuous vibe). This is a more realistic portrayal of evil (or just plain unsporting behaviour) — you can’t always tell whom not to trust just by their looks or their demeanour.

Cooper is also effective in creating atmosphere with her descriptions of place: The creaky old house with its dark and dusty attic; the headland with the standing stones casting shadows in the moonlight; the harbour, bright in the sunshine and crowded with jostling, costumed people and bobbing carnival heads. Reading OSUS, I’m always part of the story, right there with Simon, Jane and Barney in a way I have never been with Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy. Blyton paints pictures of country lanes, quaint farmhouses and crumbling ruins, but to me they are just pictures I look at in my head and no more, whereas I walk right into Cooper’s scenes and live inside them when I’m reading her words.

Famous Five books are comforting for me because they’re predictable and easy reads. Even with those FF books I came to for the first time years after the ones from my childhood, I always knew exactly what to expect, every step of the way. OSUS is a comfort read too, but its familiarity comes from having been re-read so often. I first read it when I was an adult and I liked the similarities it had with Blyton’s adventure stories, but although familiar, it was never predictable and I could not tell what would happen and why or how they would, unlike I could/can with any FF book.

So, yeah, OSUS is a children’s book, but it’s not ‘kiddyish’. The Famous Five books are kiddyish. I like OSUS and I like the Famous Five. Apples and oranges.

When the discussion took place, my friend still hadn’t finished reading OSUS so I don’t know what her final verdict is. We’ll find out when we meet to discuss The Dark is Rising and, seriously, she can like or dislike the book and the whole series. It’s really OK, she’s entitled to her opinion. However, if ‘kiddyish’ comes up again, I can’t promise I’ll be able to restrain myself from breaking out the kung fu moves.



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