Soldier and Me – one of the “top best children’s books ever written”

Although my main subject when teaching was English as a second or other language I also taught English in mainstream classes. This was in the days before a National Curriculum and so schools were more able to tailor their curricula to meet the needs of their particular students in their particular area. I’m sure there were negative aspects to this but having taught in schools which might be described as ‘difficult’ but in fact had great students and amazing staff, I think this more flexible approach served better than the rigid, controlled curricular taught now…

In the English department, lower down the school, the head of English could choose the books for the students and we had some excellent books, some traditional, some modern, some unusual… I don’t now remember them all but I do remember ‘Earthfasts’ by William Mayne (now a discredited author because of criminal activity) and ‘Soldier and Me’ by David Line.

I was trying to think of the David Line book yesterday at book club when we were discussing another children’s book. When I looked it up later I found that the British publication of this 1966 book was called ‘Run For Your Life’; however I remember it being called ‘Soldier and Me’ which is the American title… a little mystery! I shall write about it as the title I knew.

‘Soldier and Me’ is set in late 1950’s Britain when there were many Hungarian people in the country who had fled the reprisals of the state on the crushing of the 1956 Uprising.. Thousands of people were arrest, hundreds executed, and several hundred thousand people fled abroad.

In David Line’s book, a young Hungarian boy, Szolda, arrives at a school in England where he is saved from bullies by an English lad, Woolcott. Woolcott doesn’t want to be friends with Szolda who is nick-named Soldier, but the little lad tags after him. Soldier overhears a murder plot and the two boys goon the run. This might seem just a kids’ story, but in the light of international assassination attempts as has been seen recently in Salisbury, the plot seems more convincing.

The story, after much adventure, ends with rescue for the boys, the assassination prevented and all is well. However. reading this story with a class throws up much more than a gripping read; Woolcott doesn’t want to be friends with Soldier, he’s irritated by him and tries to avoid him. Even when they are on the run there is a tension between them. Woolcott seems a fairly gloomy and introspective boy, Soldier (from our adult point of view) is bravely cheerful and chipper and almost obstinately attached to Woolcott who clearly doesn’t like him very much and finds him extremely annoying. David Line has captured realistic, believable three-dimensional characters and yet writes from Woolcott’s point of view, that of a conventional and ordinary schoolboy.

I didn’t know that the book was made into a film and TV series, and I would imagine it was a good plot for adaptation, as long as they had this tension between the two boys and they weren’t actually friends.

David Line was a nom de plume for Lionel Davidson, who was born in Hull in 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants – so he would know what it was like to be in Szolda’s situation. He was a reporter who travelled widely in Europe after serving in the Royal Navy as a sub-mariner during the war. He wrote spy stories and thrillers many of which were international best-sellers and made into films. I haven’t read any of them – but I will remedy this!

Here is a link to a website about him, set up by his son – it mentions his children’s novels as rated ‘in the top best children’s books ever written’:

http://lioneldavidson.com/

 

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