Tuesday, September 13, 2022

We Didn't Mean to Start a School by Julia Blythe

Title: We Didn’t Mean to Start a School
Author: Julia Blythe
Publication: Gracewing, paperback, 1998
Genre: Children’s school story
Setting: Great Britain
Description: Just as Geraldine and Jeannie’s father gets a new job in Japan, their Aunt Win’s husband inherits a small, unoccupied hotel in the English countryside. The twins need a school and Aunt Win was going to take on private tutoring anyway while her husband was on a business trip to Africa, so it makes sense to combine these projects – the twins are the first students, along with their friend Amanda, and Amanda’s cousin is soon the head girl, Aunt Win’s students from Switzerland come to learn English, and the daughters of the new geography teacher . . . . Before much time has passed, the former hotel has been renamed Four Winds School and is full of girls wearing matching red berets and even competing at netball against other schools. Aunt Win might not have intended to start a school but she can’t stop now, can she?

My Impression: This is a modern school story inspired by the classics of the genre. Aunt Win’s plan is meant to be a temporary solution to her nieces’ need to be educated (the author doesn't seem to think there are any International Schools in Japan) but the school generates such strong word of mouth that new students keep arriving and it becomes clear it has a long-term future. As at the Chalet School, students are expected to learn some French and German and they also study Latin with the local minister:
Father Higgins’ Latin lessons, which many of the girls had been dreading because they thought the subject would be boring and difficult, turned out to be tremendous fun. He made the language interesting by showing how it could be used to say quite normal things, and by the end of the very first lesson the girls were greeting each other with ‘Salve’ and asking what was for lunch and what games would be played that afternoon, albeit in a halting way and with much use of the cheerful illustrated textbooks which he had brought with him. . . . The lesson proved hilarious.
It is interesting how dated this book feels when school stories that are much older seem suspended in time. This is largely because of the author’s descriptions of technology. The adults are stymied by the computers owned by the former hotel and now used for the school. It takes Elizabeth Hurry, a teen who would have preferred to continue at a conventional school with her friends, to figure out the computer system and show the adults how to print timetables (this, in turn, helps her feel valued and builds character). The girls send faxes to their families to stay in touch - email certainly existed by 1998 but was not common in schools then.
What provides the story with a certain amount of appeal is the pleasure the girls take in creating traditions for their new school. These include donning red berets, designing their own uniforms, wearing pinafores for cooking lessons, listening to Alison read The Prisoner of Zenda aloud at night, riding lessons, and playing Monopoly. The adventures at Four Winds School are bland but pleasant, although there is one suspenseful episode. Blythe might have intended to turn We Didn’t Mean to Start a School into a series but wrote just one book.

Source: Personal copy. I bought this book twenty years ago but had never got around to reading it.

1 comment:

Lark said...

I think this one sounds like fun. But then I do enjoy books with school settings, however unusual the school. :)