British author Philippa Pearce’s second novel was the time travel Carnegie award winning Tom’s Midnight Garden. This beloved novel was and is so popular that it was voted in 2007 one of the top ten Carnegie Medal winners of all time. Ms. Pearce’s debut novel in 1955 was the lesser known Minnow on the Say, not a fantasy or time travel book at all, but rather an adventure story about two boys, a canoe, and a hunt for hidden treasure.
David Moss can’t believe his good fortune when a canoe shows up, caught against the bank of the river Say behind his house. Of course, the canoe must belong to someone, and David soon finds the owner, a boy his age named Adam. Adam and David become friends and work together to varnish and repair the canoe so that they can use it to search the river bank for a long lost treasure. It’s a treasure that Adam and his aunt and grandfather need desperately so that Adam can continue to live with his aunt in rural England instead of with cousins in the city. If the treasure, hidden at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1585, can’t be found, all the boys’ adventures on the river, with the Minnow, their very own canoe, will be over.
Ms. Pearce wrote in the afterword to her first book:
“I didn’t bother much about the plot, except to make sure that it worked. It wasn’t at all original: an old family home in danger of being sold up; a long lost treasure, and the hunt for it; an ancient family likeness; and lots of tricky clues. (I rather enjoyed those clues.)
The plot was all right; but the pleasures of the river and the canoe were, of course, the important things—the real things. I put in other, lesser realities. For instance, I used some surnames that were common in the village then; and I managed to use all the names of my own family, in one way or another, as a kind of private joke.
I knew how to type, and so I typed out the whole story as I made it up, chapter by chapter. It took a long time, and sometimes I felt it was very good and sometimes I felt it was hopeless.”
I thought it was very good, not hopeless at all. Boys and girls who like books with puzzles and clues and the freedom of a summer spent canoeing on the river will surely enjoy this one. It reminds me a little of Swallows and Amazons or of the Hardy Boys, but better written than the latter and more mystery than the former. The boys themselves are well drawn characters, not at all wooden or perfect in their detective skills. They follow lots of red herring clues and spend the entire summer searching for the treasure without much success, but they exhibit persistence and ingenuity, while discouragement and even bad temper and greed all play a role in their character and growth.
I have one child who spent more than one spring and summer messing about with canoes, and I wish I had known about this book at the time. I think he would have liked it then, and although he’s grown now, maybe he still would. I found it absorbing, and it made me want to look for more books in which the children (or adults) spend time paddling canoes or rowing boats or sailing or the like.
Boating Adventure Books:
The afore-mentioned Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, and all of its sequels, which I may make a point of reading this summer. The children in these books sail about in a catboat, which is “a sailboat with a single mast placed well forward and carrying only one sail.”
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, of course. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Rat and Mole go up the river in a rowboat.
Robert Rows the River by Carolyn Haywood is about a nine year old boy who rows his boat across the river Thames to get to school each day and spends his holidays rowing and even drifting along the river.
Paddle-to-the-Sea is a 1941 children’s book by American author and illustrator Holling C. Holling. In the story a small carved wooden canoe with a wooden Indian passenger travels through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.
Downriver by Will Hobbs is a YA canoeing adventure that I just read a couple of weeks ago.
Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by Vera Williams is a lovely picture book adventure featuring a family canoe trip.
Boats on the River by Marjorie Flack and The Little Sailboat by Lois Lenski are two more picture books about boats that I have in my library for the preschool set.
The Island by Gary Paulsen tells the story of Wil, a teen who, with his parents, moves to a rural area of northern Wisconsin near a lake, Sucker Lake, with an unnamed island in the center of the lake. Wil sees the island while riding his bike, and he also finds a small rowboat conveniently abandoned on the shore so that he is able to row out to the island by himself.
N.D. Wilson’s Leepike Ridge has a boy traveling downriver on a styrofoam raft.
I just remembered Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, a summer classic for sure.
Any other suggestions for “messing about in boats” books this summer?