Swallows and Amazons was as charming as I had hoped it would be. However I'm a 40-something bookseller and exactly the sort of person this book would charm. As I never read it as child it is hard to imagine whether this rather understated narrative keeps its appeal except as nostagia.
The four Walker children, on holiday in the Lake District, are awaiting a telegram from their father which will either grant or deny permission to sail on their own and camp on an island in the lake. The famous reply:
BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN
is a delight in a world of health and safty and babied children but I am really not sure an 11 year old today would get that, without a good deal of explanation.
The first half of the book is pretty much: "How we did things". The second half has a much pacier feel and will, if they've got this far, keep even quite exacting readers entertained. The characterisation is weak in the first half - there are few ways to tell either the children or the adults apart, other than Mother who is very understanding in the 'good sport' mould. By the second half though John and Susan are pattern card 'good sorts' of the era, and have well defined gender roles (though John's 'captain' is balanced by the marvellous Nancy Blackett, captain of the Amazons) while Titty comes into her own and stands out from both the page and the others quite marvellously. She moves away from being a 'girl' and a little sister, to becoming a really brave and admirable adventurer. She minds the island on her own, including in the dark, is responsible for the lights, she takes the Amazon and wins the war, she spends the night alone on a strange ship, and eventually she carries the day over the missing treasure. Throughout, her drawing is subtle and she emerges gradually, the character on the page developing as her character on the island does. All in all she is a delightful, believable creation.
The final part of the book is dominated not only by the emergent character of Titty but by the lovely 'Captain Flint'. Like Mother, he is a truly good sport, and part of the great pleasure of reading the book. And despite my caveats on plot and characterisation I thought the sum of the whole far greater than its parts, but then I'm 41, and so well I might. Whether your children will find it so too is another matter.
Peril: mild, such as when they are sailing in the dark, or on the island in the dark, or during a large storm.
No violence or bad langauge or relationships or religion or death!
Titty, God Bless her unfortunate nomenclature. I once had a Y8 boy, who was writing a story set in WWII, name every character in this manner: Fanny, Titty, etc. My advice to a young teacher dealing with the inevitable outbreak of hilarity is to smirk with them the first time, admit it is mildly funny, explain language changes over time, and then just ignore them and let them deal with the more unfortunate historical names how they like!
Swallows and Amazons is utterly charming and I loved it. Not all children will however. The main challenge lies in the distance leant by history to the narrative and setting, and in its length. In a sense, its benefit for our defined group lies in that it is a major piece of the children's canon that no well-read 14 year old should not have in their literary armoury of allusion detectors.
Other reviews and useful sites:
Writer Julia Jones owns Ransome's boat Peter Duck which features in a later story in the series: you can read more here. She has also written a sailing novel for children which might be of interest: The Salt-Stained Book
Also of interest is Marcus Sedgwick's wonderful Blood Red, Snow White which is a fictionalised account of the time the author Arthur Ransome spent in Russia where he falls in love with Trotsky's secretary. Aimed at a YA audience and probably for the older end of our age group. I will do a proper review of this soon.
As to reviews: there is a fabulous list of contemporary reviews with links and extracts on All Things Ransome and this wonderful site also has a very useful page with a compilation of guides, sources, articles, reviews, booklists and trivia about Arthur Ransome and his works which you can see here. The home page is here.
There are dozens of recent blog reviews of course. I think the one on The Bookshelf of Emily J. to be one of the most useful for you as it is written by a mother and teacher.