Retro Reads: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

In this British children’s classic, the brave Swallows (four siblings) are at war with the piratical Amazons (two sisters) in one glorious summer of sailing, camping, and treasure hunting.

RR_Swallows and amazons

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. David R. Godine, 2010 (reprint; orig. 1930). 315 pages.

Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 10-12

Recommended For: All ages (read aloud); ages 8 and up (independent read)

The Walker family is spending the summer in the Lake District while Mr. Walker is off at sea. The four oldest children (John, Susan, Titty, and Roger) gain both parents’ permission to sail off in their boat (the Swallow) to an island in the middle of the lake and camp by themselves for about a week. What a glorious adventure it is to set up camp all by yourselves on Wild Cat Island. Alas, they are not the only intrepid explorers of the lake. The Amazon with its mates (Nancy and Peggy) is an enemy ship, and the two boat crews declare war: whoever manages to capture the others’ boat first wins.

Full of sailing terminology, mucking about in boats, independence, and cheerful natives (the parents and other adults on shore), the Swallows and Amazons sustain fierce competition only to join forces against a suspicious pirate in the houseboat (Nancy and Peggy’s uncle). The narrative is very British and will remind readers of other titles (both British and American) from the first half of the 20th century that feature groups of boy/girl siblings engaged in adventures, both real and fantastic (NarniaFive Children and It, Half Magic, and The Magic Summer all come to mind). Boys and girls are heroes, siblings unify in solidarity against the grown-ups (not in rebellion, but in classic childlike independence), fears are faced, problems are solved, and all’s well that ends well. A fantastic multi-age read aloud, this is also the beginning of a series that the voracious readers out there will enjoy!

Cautions: Language (mild: “shut up” and similar a few times)

Overall Rating: 4.5

  • Worldview: 4.5
  • Artistic: 4.5

Categories: Middle grades, adventure, retro reads, historical fiction

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Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Northwest.


  1. Kae on June 24, 2016 at 6:06 am

    These books are fantastic. We own the entire series (12 books?) and have read most of them aloud multiple times. The maps of the Lake District and other settings make the books come alive. I learned lots of things about sailing, raising messenger pigeons, mining, secret codes, and about England in the 1930s. I am so glad to see you recommending Swallows and Amazons.
    Kae (a librarian)

  2. charlotte on June 25, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    I’m a fan too! My favorite, especially for reading on a hot summer day, is Winter Holiday….

  3. Betsy on June 28, 2016 at 11:12 am

    I’m new to the Swallows and Amazons series myself (despite my voracious reading of all things British throughout my life!). I’m looking forward to the others in the series!

  4. MDore on June 17, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    I love this series! If you’re looking for a good audio version, check out the version read by Gabriel Woolf. They are lightly and expertly abridged is the story moves along a bit faster (I normally hate the idea of abridging books in any way but I didn’t even notice in this case) and the narration is excellent!

    • Janie on June 18, 2019 at 6:23 am

      Thanks–we love recommendations!

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