By Fiza Rashid
Sheffield Hallam student Fiza Rashid returns with a guest post about first reading Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.
I had never heard of Richmal Crompton nor the Just William series before I started this project so I had no idea what to expect. My very first thought when reading Just William was that it is very similar to Horrid Henry. They are both a collection of episodic stories about anarchic characters who are constantly looking for chaos and if they cannot find it, they will create it. While reading Just William, I noticed that secret societies are quite popular in children’s literature, for example The Famous Five and the Purple Hand Gang in the Horrid Henry series, which adults know nothing about. However, unlike Horrid Henry, William sometimes actually means well but his ill-conceived plans almost always end in disaster. For instance, in the very first story, William Goes to the Pictures, he attempts to re-enact the movie he watched, accidentally knocking his father into the bushes when imitating a crook escaping the police and lowering his voice to flirt with the girl next door which leads her to think William has a problem with his lungs.
These books offer a glimpse of middle class English family life in the 20th century which is something I’ll probably never understand. I was quite surprised by how complex the language was since these stories are mainly targeted towards children; it seems to me that only adults would understand some of the jokes in these stories and that these books are about children, not for them.
There are some blatantly racist and orientalist passages which I don’t see why Crompton thought it appropriate to include in a children’s book. For example, the ‘Red Indians’ game William and his friends love to play where they hunt and partake in cannibalism with their faces ‘smeared black with burnt cork’. This isn’t the only time he paints himself a different skin colour. He paints himself brown in The Native Protégé from William Again where he is mistaken for a Bornean child and mocks foreign languages, and in William the Money-maker from Still William, the Outlaws hold an exhibition where they each impersonate a different native.
The emotionally distant parents and the abuse that the children and the domestic staff endure is also very uncomfortable to read.
I suppose it’s all down to generational differences. Some of these books were published during the Second World War and therefore a lot of children used Just William with its stories about adventures in the countryside as a form of escapism. Peter Mason, one of the interviewees from Reading Sheffield, talks about how he loved the Just William books and how he can’t understand children’s literature of today. I don’t think there is a huge difference though; I think children still do love these trickster characters.
William reminds me of my youngest siblings as they always twist my parents’ words into something they want to hear. In A Question of Grammar from Just William, William asks his father if he could have a party to which he replies, ‘No, I did not’. Having learned about the concept of double negatives at school, William takes this as an agreement and organises a party which I thought was really funny.
William’s adventures and chaotic behaviour were fun to read. I loved the way Richmal Crompton effortlessly switched between the perspectives of a child and the adults and I loved the imagery of children playing in the woods and having their own adventures without the adults intervening. As a child who spent most of their time outdoors, I identify with this a lot. However, the narrative structure of the stories quickly became predictable and repetitive. I enjoyed how William always got himself involved in an adult’s business and tried to do the right thing but ended up in trouble instead. But I do think William was just unnecessarily cruel at times so I don’t sympathise with him at all. The mischievous, mean-spirited, ‘boys will be boys’ attitude of these stories annoyed me and so I quickly lost interest.
None of the other characters stood out to me except Dorita. I really liked her character; she reminds me of myself when I was younger as we both hate fancy wedding clothes. It is a shame that she only ever appears in the first book of the series.
Madeleine Doherty, another interviewee from Reading Sheffield, says her brother had the Just William books and she describes them as ‘boys’ books’ so I was curious to see if any girls actually did read these books. From an article on the newspaper database, I found that a lot of girls did read Just William and that they actually identified with his character and ‘not those drippy girls’. Another article suggests that many girls between the ages of 9 and 14 loved William and found him attractive because he’s so witty, but honestly, he doesn’t seem that way to me.
Crompton, R. 1990. Just William. UK: Pan MacMillan.
Crompton, R. 1995. William Again. London: Macmillan Children’s Books.
Crompton, R. 2006. Still William. London: Macmillan Children’s.
Roe, S. (2011). Peter Mason. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/peter-mason/
Cooper, T. (2011). Madeleine Doherty. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/madeleine-doherty/
Southworth, J., 1988. How to be a male chauvinist piglet at 11 and still make girls love you 66 years later. Daily Mail, May 2, 1988.
Telling tales on a naughty schoolboy, 1992. Daily Mail, Sept 12, 1992. 48.