Mary Evelyn Atkinson was a prolific children’s writer, most active between the 1930s to 1950s. She is best known for her Locketts series, which is a camping-and-tramping series featuring the Lockett family. It ran to 14 titles. The much shorter Fricka series can just about be counted a pony series – it is certainly not as pony-orientated as most. Horseshoes and Handlebars, probably the easiest to find of her books, is more overtly pony-orientated.
M E Atkinson has not met with unqualified critical approval over the years. Alison Haymonds, who has written numerous scholarly articles about the pony book genre, says '[she] produced indifferent pony stories, lured, perhaps, by the deceptive simplicity of the genre.' (International Companion Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature, Pony Books). M E Atkinson’s stories mostly, as did the majority of books of the time, featured middle class children. Owen Dudley Edwards (British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War) said: 'Atkinson was openly anti-lower-class' (not it must be said, a trait she was alone in holding at the time.) Of her Nest of the Scarecrow he says: 'We are invited to sneer at the much more hard working girl, her education, and even her grasp of religious beliefs, while admiring the utterly self-centred groups of privileged factionists dominating the story!'
Her Lockett series obviously does nothing for him: perhaps rather unfairly, he castigates her for ignoring the war: '[the] slightly smug little Lockitts [qv] cycle their adventure-hungry way through England’s green lanes utterly indifferent either to wartime privations or to skyborne death.' Publishers were not necessarily eager to publish books which mentioned the war: Arthur Ransome said: 'The evacuee story won’t do. My publishers would have a fit. They say: "Steer clear of the war at all costs."' (quoted by Tig Thomas, A Rational Diet, Folly 53) and authors who may well have been immersed in it themselves, sometimes preferred to write about the world they hoped would exist after the World War. Josephine Pullein-Thompson, who was a telephone engineer during the war, wrote her first solo novel on the roof of the telephone exchange. '... I decided to leave the War out of the book. I was fifteen when it started, and after four years it began to look as though we would win and everything would change... So I tried to place Six Ponies in the future, but really it was set in the England of the 1930s.” (Interview, Jane Badger, 2007)
There is a glimmer of hope on the critical horizon: in Where Texts and Children Meet, Eve Bearne and Victor Watson, talking of the camping and tramping genre of children’s fiction, do give her a bit more credit: her Lockett family books 'rose above the limitations of the subject matter.'
I have only read two of her books (a Locketts and a Fricka) and must admit I was not gripped by either. In view of Owen Dudley Edward’s spitting loathing, I must try again, and see if I too can be driven to fury by her; or whether I will find her what I suspect she was aiming at: a comfortable escapist read.
Finding the books
Horseshoes and Handlebars, Riders and Raids and Unexpected Adventure are easy to find in their CBC printings; a bit less so in the original. Castaway Camp is very easy and cheap to find as a paperback: it’s expensive as a hardback. Hunter’s Moon is reasonably easy to find as a CBC, but pricey as the original printing. Where There’s a Will is expensive. The trickiest is The Barnstormers: very difficult to find, and very expensive.
Links and sources
Alison Haymonds, Pony Books, in International Companion Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature
Owen Dudley Edwards: British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War
Eve Bearne & Victor Watson: Where Texts and Children Meet
Thanks to Ivan Tammas for help with the photographs.