The Saturdays (And Other Free-Range Books From the Past)

Hi Readers — A note from a reader who’s a reader, Linda Wightman, who blogs at Lift Up Your Hearts:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I seem to be seeing everything through Free-Range eyes these days. I don’t know how old you are, but did you or your kids ever read Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, and other Melendy tales? I was recently re-reading them, on the grounds that any book good enough for children is good enough for an adult seeking distraction from the pain caused by imprudently descending from high altitude with a head cold.

To quote from my own review of the books (can’t I do anything without writing about it?):

What struck me most … was how very much [these books] are a Free-Range Kids manifesto. The kids are far less worldly-wise than today’s average children, but far more competent. They are entertained and even awed by things that would cause most modern American kids to yawn with boredom and make rude remarks. But they wander New York City on their own at 10 years old (with permission) and even six (without); they love Beethoven, and Shakespeare; they wander over hill and dale (in the country), sometimes gone all day and returning home after dark; they sew, and cook, and build things; they put on plays and arrange benefit concerts for the war effort (the books were written in the 1940’s); they get into scrapes and get out of them by a combination of their own ingenuity and knowing when to ask for help from the adults around them. They know the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, and more importantly they know its many exceptions.

Yes, I know this is fiction! But it’s a lot more true to what I knew when I was growing up than most of today’s “realistic” children’s fiction. The people over at Free-Range Kids are an eclectic lot, and I doubt they’d all enjoy Enright’s books, but to me the Melendys are a shining example of the “normal childhood” that many Free-Rangers are working hard to promote. Books like these can encourage both children and their parents in that endeavor, simultaneously promoting family love and loyalty, parental authority, and children’s competence and independence.

And now I’m reading another book on statistics with a (false) life of their own, and you know exactly what I though of….

Keep up the campaign! — Linda Wightman

Lenore here again: I remember  reading and re-reading The Saturdays and the rest of the series. And as for my age: I’m old enough to not remember much of anything about those books except that I LOVED them. (For the record, I was NOT reading them in the 40s!) — L.

44 Responses

  1. I love it when the six year old has his day out, and asks three different cops for directions, each of whom questions his ability to be out at his age:

    “Aren’t you a little young to be out?”
    “No, I don’t think so.”
    “Isn’t anybody with you?”
    “Are you all alone?”

    LOL, every time I read it I laugh!

  2. You know, it’s just occurred to me that the very concept behind the first Boxcar Children novel must drive some helicopter parents up the wall. 🙂

  3. What about “Swallows and Amazons” etal by Ranson or “the Secret Seven”, “Famous Five” by Enid Blyton….these kids where always out and about camping, boating, sailing, hiking, solving crimes and having grand adventures…Masterful.

  4. I’ve never commented here before and am only a sporadic reader, but I had to chime in to say that the books about the Melendy children were my absolute most favorite books ever, and I still vividly remember many details from them. My idea of heaven as a child would have been to go on an outing by myself in New York City at age ten!

  5. @My Paleo Life — Amen to the Swallows and Amazons books!

  6. I think it’s been mentioned here before but “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler” definitely makes the list.

    Actually, it’s more fantastic than Free Range — NO parents would let their kids go missing in NYC for a week without going absolutely out of their minds. But it’s still fun, as BPFH says about the Boxcar Children,” fun to think about helicopter parents when you read it.

  7. I think I’ve complained about this before here, but try being a kids and YA author in this day and age. People wonder why there’s an over-representation of awful &/or parents in YA, but you’ve got to get them out of the way somehow or nothing is going to ever happen. So your options are: benevolent but batty (probably with hioppie leanings), dead, so cruel that running away is preferable top staying, boarding school (with rules and adults, but enough kids for protective colouration), or going to stay with hip, irresponsible relations. The other option is to have them slip into an alternative universe or magical land or otherworld.

    So much easier in the old days when kids convalesced in the country, went to stay with adults they didn’t know, stayed at home with a busy, preoccupied servant when their parents went to the continent, or just roamed freely and had their own adventures away from the constant watchful gaze of their parents and the equally constant intervention and advice.

  8. Thanks for passing along information regarding books which we can read & have our kids read and will promote free-range ideas and make it seem normal, which it is. I think it’s super important that we be somewhat discerning about choosing books & materials which don’t promote the whole “did you ask your parents before you ventured out 10 inches from their death grip” mentality and make THAT seem normal.

    And yes, Lenore–I know you weren’t reading them in the 40’s, ha ha. You told me your real age once, so I know how “old” you are–but I will keep it to myself just like you asked me to, hee hee.

  9. I love the All-of-a -kind family books by Sydney Taylor. Her books have a passel full of children running around the lower eats side of NY all by themselves and having all sorts of adventures. I bought mine used on Amazon and have loved reading and rereading them.

    Also from the 40’s but written about the 20s.

  10. I used to Love The Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Little Women series (she also wrote Eight Cousins, which I adored) Just a few of the books I read back in the 60’s.

  11. You have to go back a century for what might be the ultimate free-range book: Two Little Savagesby Ernest Thompson Seton, published in 1903.

    It’s set in rural Ontario, but to my father, growing up in Oklahoma decades later, it was The Bible.

  12. So much easier in the old days when kids convalesced in the country, went to stay with adults they didn’t know, stayed at home with a busy, preoccupied servant when their parents went to the continent, or just roamed freely and had their own adventures away from the constant watchful gaze of their parents and the equally constant intervention and advice.

    Or went to the country (or overseas!) because of a massive war, went to boarding school at a very young age, had a wicked stepmother and dead or inept father, or constantly were slipping away from their nanny or governess who actually expected to keep a watch on her charges (how unreasonable of her!).

    That’s Narnia, any and every boarding school book ever, most fairy tales, and The Phoenix and the Carpet right there.

    Oh, there’s also “Unloved and uncared for”, aka “The Secret Garden”, dead parents AND boarding school (A Little Princess), orphaned and getting into constant trouble despite a firm hand (Anne of Green Gables), kept on a very strict schedule in absolute poverty (Ballet Shoes), and – if we want to enter real life – sent to work when you were still in your single digits.

    Life (and literature) in the past wasn’t so idyllic.

  13. How about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain? Such a great book with lots of free-ranging and so many multiple levels for interpretation.

    I read Huck Finn many times – on my own with a fairly superficial understanding as a grade schooler, in high school, and again in college. Might be time for a re-read, perhaps aloud to my 6th grader.

  14. How about Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It’s written as an example of how good Free-Range parenting is and how stifling to a child’s development that helicopter parenting is. The 9 year old girl is raised by a helicopter parent and ends up with with some cousins who are free range. It is set back in the early 1900s so this was even a concern then!

  15. Hi. I just wanted to say that I have read the Melendy books out loud to my children a couple of times, and the Swallows and Amazons series as well. They absolutely love them, but then we’ve always been free range and our oldest is 21 and he has survived. We have seven children and we encourage them to do all sorts of things that are frowned upon by social services and the police which is why we’ve had a few run-ins . . . However, I won’t go into that at the moment. The Girl Who Owned a City is another good one. Also, Stig of the Dump. And The Mad Scientists’ Club, My Brother Louis Measures Worms, and I’m sure there must be many others. I’ve been reading outloud for twenty-one years now, and we’ve read some fantastic stuff.

  16. Understood Betsy was written in part to be a model for Montessori education (as opposed to stifling) as well.

    The Girl Who Owned a City is another good one.

    Fun fact – this was actually written to introduce Ayn Rand to kids.

  17. I’m not familiar with the books mentioned, but I also see a parallel between the kind of childhood literature children read (and adults buy for them) and the kinds of childhoods that are proposed as the cultural norm.
    In the 1940s Astrid Lindgren wrote Pippi Longstocking, a wonderful book about a child being competent and capable of living on her own in a different way from adults.
    In 1981 the same author published Ronja the Robbers Daughter, an all-time favourite in Scandinavia (and the book my youngest daughter still identifies most strongly with of all the books she has read. And despite spending more than half her life in North-America, she still doesn’t “get” why her friends here don’t love it as much as she does).
    Both books have been considered “politically incorrect” and often “tamed” in adaptations for film outside Scandinavia. The really sad and “flat” American “Pippi”-cartoon has nothing to do with the spirit of the original Pippi.
    In the Scandinavian countries these books remain best-sellers, and it is hard not to see the connection between the wide-spread free-range model of parenting and the popularity of these books.

  18. I also adored the original Boxcar Children, not to mention A Little Princess and the Anne of Green Gables series.

    Other fabulous authors for free-range kids are Edward Eager, author of “Half Magic”, and E. Nesbit of “The Railway Children.”

  19. elizabeth enright also wrote “gone-away lake” and “return to gone-away,” which i loved as a kid (and one of which was a newberry or newberry honor book). same free-range philosophy and loads of humor and common sense.

  20. E. Nesbit wrote a book called “Five Children and It” that’s kind of the best of both worlds — kids have parents who are caring for them, but when they’re on vacation they go off on their own (with the older ones in charge of the toddler) and have an adventure every day.

    The Bobbsey Twins are like that, too — the parents are around, and they’re positive, but they give the kids a long leash.

    Uly, I don’t think Penni’s point was that life was better back then, just that for both positive reasons and not so wonderful ones, kids were generally accepted to have greater scope for independent action, without always having to contrive bad parents to create a reason for their independence.

  21. Let’s not forget Harriet The Spy!

  22. And in fairness, the adventures Anne of Green Gables had were not because she was a neglected orphan, because during the actual course of the story she was loved and cared for, if a bit looked down on by some (but not all) elements of the community. They were because kids in late 19th century PEI got to leave home without cellphones, regularly help in the kitchen, have non-parent-arranged friendships and activities, and so on.

    I also wouldn’t call “Huckleberry Finn” free-ranging. That’s a story about an abused, near-homeless, eventually orphaned kid who faked his own death and ran away from home. Free-Ranging is about parents giving their kids freedom and responsibility, not about kids running for their lives and freedom. If you mean the kind of book Free Rangers could give their kids and helicopters might fear, well that I can agree with.

  23. I liked The Moffats – by Eleanor Estes when I was a kid, lot of good free ranging with community involvement, including 5 year old Rufus and 7 year old Jane disappearing for hours and people getting worried and looking for them, but nobody ever filed charges 😉 The police chief would just give them a lecture…

  24. Uly, I don’t think Penni’s point was that life was better back then, just that for both positive reasons and not so wonderful ones, kids were generally accepted to have greater scope for independent action, without always having to contrive bad parents to create a reason for their independence.

    I wasn’t arguing that life was worse, or at least not better. I disagree with her entire premise, which is that books nowadays kill off parents (or just have BAD parents) with far more frequency than books in the past. Even if I agreed with that premise (which I don’t, and that’s why I listed several examples (including The Phoenix and the Carpet which is, I believe, the SECOND book in the Five Children and It series, the last being the one about the amulet whose title I can never recall) of venerable books where the parents are abusive or dead. After all, gotta get rid of them SOMEhow, right?

    Maybe right – but if so, it’s not a modern phenomenon at all.

  25. Wow, that comment got away from me. Clearly I forgot to close a parentheses, and I don’t even think that last sentence makes sense at all. I don’t know what just happened there.

    Let’s try this again:

    Even if I agreed with that premise (which I don’t), that doesn’t mean I’d agree that it’s modern or has to do with a change in parenting.

  26. The Moffats were set during the depression. There is no doubt life was hard back in the free-ranging heyday, but what does that mean to free ranging today? Doubtless our capacity for worry is greater because life is now easier and we have idle time to fill (worrying and obsessing) and similarly, if there are more “troubled people” in society today (note I said “if”) it might be because they don’t have to fill their time scrapping for food and shelter, and instead can indulge lesser occupations for their idle hands.

    Draw what lessons you will about government’s role in it all.

  27. I personally loved the genre of run away or otherwise lost children surviving on their own. They never inspired me to run away but they did make me appreciate the comfort I lived in (no running water or electricity for many years but there was always a roof and food) and they show that children can be resourceful and solve problems. Jean Craighead George and Gary Paulson come immediately to mind followed by Ruth Chew for more magical adventures. Just about any historical fiction is going to show independent children as will older fiction such as Where the Red Fern Grows and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Scott O’Dell is wonderful. I have not read it yet but The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater sounds like a great modern FRK book.

    Martha Speaks is a great example of a TV show where the kids have their own adventures and solve their own problems but the parents are positive role models. It is based on a series of books, but I have not read them yet, so I don’t know how true to the books the show is.

    Start them out early with Not a Box and Not a Stick!

  28. Anyone else here read Trixie Belden? A bit like Nancy Drew but SO much better.

  29. Well, no, it’s not a modern phenomenon– but what I took from Penni’s initial comment is not that books with neglectful/abusive or dead parents are unprecedented, but that modern sensibilities make it so that there’s no plausible way to depict kids with a lot of freedom UNLESS the parents are neglectful, abusive, dead, or otherwise wholly incapacitated from parenthood. Parents like the Bobbseys (have fun! don’t get hurt chasing the bad guys!) and Marilla Cuthbert (strict and yet letting Anne roam free as long as she was back for her chores) and a host of other similar examples don’t ring true enough to modern kids.

    An exception that comes to mind is Percy Jackson, but the setup there is purely fantastic — single parents who expect their children to be gone either for extended stretches each year, or permanently, because they and the rest of society just can’t cope with demigod kids and the dangers their presence creates. 😉

  30. Modern books with hands-off (but not abusive or neglectful) parents?

    Try The Joys of Spooking series. Or Dodger and Me, which *starts off* with a helicopter mom and *ends up* with what the kid describes as a normal mom – who seems normal to me too, hands-off but not neglectful. Golden and Grey – miserable school, normal parents. Owlboy. Ruby Lu. Mallory and Max. Judy Moody. The Fizzy Whiz Kid. And I have high hopes for Sunshine PickleLime, but I haven’t read it all yet.

    These are just a *few* of the books/series I’ve read, published within the last few years (most of them I picked up the advance reader’s copy from The Strand, actually) that are set in today’s world with children who go out and about and do things without hovering parents or conveniently excused parents. Few of these books are fantastical in any way.

    So we’ve got realistic books written today without hovering parents OR an obvious reason to get rid of them, we’ve got books from the past WITH hovering parents OR parents who were obviously offed so the kids could adventure without interference.

    Unless one of us is willing to do a complete statistical survey, I’m going to go with my gut and say that books aren’t removing parents any more obviously than they were a century ago.

    I read a lot of kidlit and YA. In fact, I’ll fess up, that’s most of what I read (and I pack away a book a day, minimum. It’s not unusual for me to blow $30 a week away at the used bookstore), and this isn’t a trend I’ve seen – except maybe in some of the recent fantasy, where I think it’s more about emulating the big success stories (people are still trying to be Harry Potter out there, I’ve got a book I just picked up about a school for teenaged monsters if you can believe it) rather than being realistic. But even then I’m not sure.

    (Of course, to really see what effect, if any, helicopter parenting has on books we have to see what THIS generation writes as books for the NEXT generation. That’d be interesting. Let’s start that long term study now!)

  31. Case well made, Uly!

  32. This reminds me- and I’m a little surprised you’re not weighing in on this- this week is banned books week in here in the States. I’m writing about it all week, and encouraging people to do the same on their blogs.

    I know you have such a huge following, and I know that this is a subject that is right up your alley. Would you consider shining the spotlight on this subject? I love everything you write, and all the stories you collect, and I think you could do it all some justice.

    Just an idea.

  33. I love the “Four Story Mistake”!! My grandma borrowed it this summer and I haven’t gotten it back yet. By the way I’m nineteen college student that does not text. Jumped the first time a refrigerated spit ice at me (after I pressed the button.) There are not many independent youth but there are some. Probably helps that I decided in the second grade that TV was useless, I mean really want could it do for me? Tell me the news? Uh… newspapers do that. And no one can beat my imagination so why bother with TV shows made by other people?

  34. OK, I am admittedly a bibliophile (my husband has more than once threatened to leave me if I bring home more books…hasn’t happened yet!)

    @Christy Ford: Yes, I loved Trixie Beldon, Nancy Drew, and the Meg books.

    I love The Saturdays, 4 Story Mistake, Then there were 5 and A Spiderweb for 2 (all about the Melendys), Gone Away Lake and Return to Gone Away. Anne of Green Gables and most of her other stories (even the short stories). Bobbsey Twins, all of Alcott. The OZ books. Some of the Boxcar Children (they got rather monotonous to me after a while), ditto Babysitter’s Club. They are all good for grade-middle school. Also the Little House books.

    For older kids, especially girls: Mercedes Lackey (especially her Arrow trilogy). Most of her characters are fairly young but very independent. Tamara Pierce.

    I still re-read most of the books, just for the enjoyment factor. The ones the kids outgrew and I was tired of, we got rid of. The others are still around and still get read.

  35. I adored Tamora Pierce as a kid! OMG. But you know, she has a touch of the Sue to all her characters. I’m more a fan of Diane Duane.

  36. @Dawn Oh, I the Meg books. I only have one of them, but it’s wonderful.

    Loved Bobbsey Twins (Wish they’d put them back in print!), Little House books (Farmer Boy being my favorite. The parents leave the kids home along for a week!)

  37. This one’s hard to find, but it’s the ultimate in Free-Ranging … “Invisible Island” by Dean Marshall. Four siblings, the oldest about 11, adore reading stories about shipwrecks, so when they move to a house on a good chunk of land and find a bit of it (probably an acre or two) with water all around it, they insist upon staging a shipwreck. Their loving, healthy family give them permission and insist only on enough communication, every few days, to assuage curiosity.

    It’s got a couple of sequels, for which I’m still searching. If you all start looking, too, maybe we can create enough demand that I can find them.

  38. I read Swallows and Amazons last spring for the first time at my brother’s suggestion. Great, great book. Man, camping and sailing and declaring “war” all on your own? THAT IS SO MUCH FUN! Hmm….come to think of it, both my brother and sister–in the 70’s, 14/15 years old–went on camping and canoeing trips down the Connecticut River just with a friend or two. Somehow I never got around to that family rite of passage and will always regret it. My children have about two years to get themselves ready! But will society be ready for them?

  39. A lot of the old books are like that. Not just the old chapter books, but the picture books as well. Think about The Cat in The Hat. Their mother was out, while they sat there on that cold, cold wet day. Of course come to think of it, all sorts of shenanigans went on while she was out…but no one thought to blame the mother! It was that naughty cat and thing one and thing two!

  40. As a writer of books for teenage boys, my greatest influences are the authors I read as a child – several of whom have already been mentioned in this thread (Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton, Elizabeth Enright, Edith Nesbit, Fae Hewston Stevens – to name a few).

    I had no idea I was writing books about “free-range kids” until I “discovered” Lenore and this site!

    The main characters of my Super-Twins series are considered quirky and weird by the current generation, but they would have fitted in perfectly in Elizabeth Enright’s day. They do lots of old-fashioned boyish things such as riding bikes, farm-work, boating, hiking and messing round with cars. But they also cook, perform in concerts and plays, read books, do their homework, listen to classical music, have hobbies and weekend jobs and are caring, compassionate and protective of eachother. They are respectful to their parents, teachers and other adults, but, nevertheless, free and independent thinkers.

    Hmm… Never realised how out of touch with reality I was until now!

    …or maybe it’s the helicopter parents who are out of touch.

    At least, I’m in good company, though, as the most successful children’s writer of all time, J.K. Rowling, is a dyed-in-the-wool free-ranger!

  41. I love all of Elizabeth Enright’s books! I gave my daughter the audio version of “The Saturdays” a few years ago and she really liked it. Even when I read those books as a kid in the 1960s and ’70s, though, they seemed like part of a distant free-range past. My mother grew up in New York City in the 1940s and ’50s, and she went all over the place by herself. But although I had plenty of freedom in the small town where I grew up, I was never allowed to walk around alone during visits to the city until I was in college.

    In any case, thanks for the shout-out. They’re wonderful books with outstanding characters, and I’d love to see more kids reading them.

  42. Late to the discussion; how about Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain? I’m also a big fan of the Melendy and Gone-Away series and my kids have enjoyed the audiobooks.

  43. I recommend that you recommend to the NY Review of Books any out-of-print books that strike you as fantastic, so that they can consider republishing them.

    They’ve published quite a few interesting older books including Esther Averill’s Jenny the Cat books (free range cats, as it were), John Masefield’s Midnight Folk and Box of Delights, T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, Eric Linklater’s Wind on the Moon, and Eilis Dillon’s Lost Island and Island of Horses. Palmer Brown’s Beyond the Pawpaw Trees is due out from them in the fall of 2011 (with Silver Nutmeg, apparently, to follow).

    I would love to see Dean Marshall’s Invisible Island republished — it really is a fantastic book.

    Here’s the link to NY Review of Books for suggestions:

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