Wednesday 1 May 2019

Charlotte Sometimes - practically perfect

If anyone ever asks me what my favourite book is, I have an answer for them straight away. It’s Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. No question. That’s my desert island book, the one I’d keep if you took all other books away from me. It’s a children’s book, ‘middle grade’ they’d call it if it was published now, but to me it’s just what I think of as sitting on the shelves with all the other children’s books, thick enough and with small enough writing that you know you’re going to get a story you can really lose yourself in, but with pictures here and there just to help you along a bit.

When I walked into my new boarding school dorms for the first time in 1975, it looked exactly like this.               (Illustration by Chris Clark)

Charlotte Sometimes is the story of Charlotte who is sent to boarding school and finds that overnight she had slipped back through time and taken the place of Clare, a pupil at the same school fifty years before in the midst of the First World War. No one notices that Charlotte is there rather than Clare (although Clare’s sister has her suspicions), and no one notices that Clare has replaced Charlotte in the 1960s. Night after night, the girls swap places and eventually they work out how to leave messages for one another.

I read this book first when I was about twelve, but it didn’t go straight to the top of my list. Certainly I enjoyed it and the story stayed with me, but I read so much in those days, it was hard to have a favourite. For a long time Alice in Wonderland was the book I would claim as my favourite if anyone asked. I did love Alice, but I think I was choosing this above anything else as a way of being superior to all the people who didn’t think that much about books and would just pick the last book they’d read or the one before that. I knew better, I’d considered all the books I’d read.

But though Charlotte Sometimes didn’t immediately leap to the top of my list, it ticked all the right boxes for me. I loved school books and historical novels, I loved time-slips and magic and inexplicable things. Oh, and I loved melancholy. Charlotte Sometimes made me cry. 

And then, when I’d just about forgotten about Charlotte Sometimes, when I’d begun to read more adult books than children’s ones because I didn’t yet realise that children’s books were my vocation, someone played me The Cure’s haunting song Charlotte Sometimes and that beautiful sadness that is so well-earned by the story came back to me. 

Jacket illustration by Emma Chichester-Clark
I found I was desperate to find a copy of the book. I read it again, nervous that my memory might have mis-served me. But no. It’s every bit as good as I remembered. Haunting, yes, but also exciting and realistic. Charlotte is a very human heroine, full of flaws and worries. I would go so far as to say that Charlotte Sometimes is very nearly a perfect children’s book. It deserves to be up there on the shelves with the classics.

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