Children's literature takes wing
Pigeon Summer is the first book to be dramatised in Channel 4's laudable new primary English series, Book Box, which begins this week. Unlike Talk, Write and Read, which it replaces, the new series focuses on literature, rather than the whole of the upper primary English curriculum.
The idea behind Book Box is to provide primary schools with the type of resource that secondary English departments have long enjoyed quality adaptations of texts to support their use in the classroom. If Pigeon Summer is anything to go by, they have succeeded in their aim.
Part of the skill in making a programme like this is picking the right book in the first place it needs to be accessible and yet demanding enough to warrant closer attention.
Pigeon Summer, by Ann Turnbull, is a wonderful children's book. Evocatively written, it tells the story of Mary Dyer, an 11-year-old girl living through the Depression of the Thirties. The events of the novel take place when Mary's father is away from home looking for work, leaving her to take care of his racing pigeons. The story follows her attempts to race the birds and support her family by winning races, helped by her job as a delivery girl, a position usually reserved for boys.
Like the birds she so adores, Mary trusts her own sense of direction, a course which often brings her into conflict with her hard-pressed mother. The story explores the growing tension in their relationship as well as the flowering of her friendship with Arnold, a boy isolated at school.
The adaptation captures the feel of the Thirties and the period detail is of a very high standard, though the poverty is a little glossy.
The historical detail is also sharply pointed, with a suggestion that her father cannot get work because of his leading role in the General Strike. Mary's mother's encounter with the Assistance Board also shows the system at its patronising worst.
Given the time constraints, 15 minutes per episode, the adaptation is remarkable, even if the message is on occasion spelt out less subtly than in the book.
My only criticism is of the ending, which seems to have been changed needlessly. The novel climaxes on Mary's birthday, with the family re-united and her mother promising to sing at the party. As they get ready, Mary's favourite pigeon, thought to be lost, returns, representing a symbol of hope that's more like a dove than a pigeon. Yet the last episode tinkers with these events and in effect provides two rival closing scenes and the accumulative effect of the novel is lost. But alterations of this kind will provide an excellent source of discussion in the class.
The programme notes encourage pupils to consider the way in which the characters develop, the central themes and events of the book and the way in which the programme has been constructed. There are also suggestions as to how the programmes might be linked to other curriculum areas, such as history.
What is important about this series is that it uses literature as a starting point for all the subsequent writing and discussion that it hopes to provoke. Even its title, Book Box, marks out the territory that no other subject area can provide in such a powerful way the world of fiction. Pigeon Summer will provide a valuable place to start.