A Spoonful of Sugar

A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny's Story, by Brenda Ashford

I was seeing this book all over the blogs recently, and I promptly wanted to read it.  Happily for me, Bev at My Reader's Block had a giveaway and I got the lucky number!  So thank you to Bev and Doubleday.

Brenda Ashford is--as far as anyone can figure out--Britain's longest-serving professional nanny, with a career that spanned 62 years and a whole lot of children.  She trained at the eminent Norland Institute, which is the place for children's nurses (they didn't really like you to call them nannies) to train.  Norland nannies wore a particular uniform with a special cape, so everyone knew that you had the best possible nanny.

Nurse Brenda tells her story right from the start, describing a loving family home and especially the birth of her baby brother.  It was then that her love for small children really got started, though she was only nine herself.  By the time she was 18 and entered Norland, she knew that caring for children was her calling in life.  Her training was hard work--and very interesting to read about (I was particularly pleased to learn that she was taught to smock and embroider so she could sew nice children's clothing) and she graduated in 1939, just in time for the war to turn everything upside down.

From then on Brenda mainly talks about the different children she knew, the homes she went to, and all that she learned.  It's great stuff.  You can learn a lot about caring for little children here, and her story is fascinating anyway.  She met some very odd families!  After the war and several long stints with families, she made a change and for years and years, she traveled around to different families, doing the wonderful and beneficent job of helping exhausted new mothers cope with running a household, caring for older children, recovering from giving birth and caring for a newborn baby.

The really nice thing about the book is that Nurse Brenda has all the British virtues that one associates with British nannies.  It was a bit of an antidote to the sort of depressing feeling I got from Watching the English.  Brenda talks about what to do when misfortune strikes (get back up, brush yourself off and keep on going) and gives general advice about life, all of which is solid.  She is cheerful and firm and loving and understands children, and says things like "A happy mother makes a happy baby," and "Little children deserve a childhood that's full of fun."

The title, of course, compares Nurse Brenda to Mary Poppins, since everyone knows that Mary Poppins is the ideal British nanny.  This is inevitable, but I think a bit of a shame.  The book has no relation to Mary Poppins in any other way, and if you've ever actually read the books, you know that Mary Poppins is cross, vain, secretive, and generally a wonderful story character but not actually the sort of person you would actually want caring for your tots--which Nurse Brenda is.  She herself never says a word about Mary Poppins; it's all in the publisher's blurb, so don't expect any of that kind of thing.

A very good read if you're interested in social history or children.


  1. So glad to read your thoughts on this book! I've been on the fence about it, but now I want to read it.

  2. You find the most interesting books! I'll have to add this one to my tbr pile as well. Sigh. You are such a fast reader, while I am not. My tbr pile is about to fall over. . .


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