Once upon a time

Philippa Pearce

Filed under: Fiction

'Tom's Midnight Garden' has enchanted generations of young readers. Almost 50 years after writing it, Philippa Pearce reflects on her career and the changes she has seen in children's fiction

The things I wanted to do as I began growing up were, in time order: to drive a pedal car; to live in a London flat (I had never even visited London); and, of course, to write a novel. Of course.

Then, adult, I saw sense. To write novels for a living, you obviously had to be very clever. (I didn’t know any writers personally.) I gave up the idea and gratefully accepted a job in the BBC, writing radio scripts to be broadcast to schools. The scripts were mainly historical reconstructions and literary adaptations. I became quite good at these, learning more in those years – and being well paid for it, too – than I could have done on dozens of creative-writing courses.

Radio relies exclusively on sound (and silence – blessed silence!); and arguably the most important sound is that of the human voice – words. Most of our programmes were only twenty minutes long, some as short as ten. So words must never be wasted: surely good basic training for a writer for any readership. And radio offered the chance and challenge of experimenting with unique flexibilities in narrative and dialogue.

We wrote for speaking at a microphone – in those days everything had to be scripted beforehand. And for children upwards from the Listen with Mother age, the speech (scripted) of story-telling was a natural form. Then came the book adaptations, corresponding roughly to readings aloud by, say, a benevolent teacher on a Friday afternoon or at home at bedtime. When, years later, I heard of the ‘literacy hour’ in schools, 1 really thought that it would be devoted simply, delightfully and nobly to the reading aloud to children of the best, the most appealing of children’s literature.

I exactly remember adapting a Rosemary Sutcliff novel for radio. Analysing structure, assessing characters, abridging and also bridging, I was suddenly illuminated by the idea that I could possibly write a story of my own. So I did.

In those days, publishers often referred to children’s books as (at worst) ‘kiddy books’ or (at best) ‘juvenile fiction’. On the other hand, children’s book editors – and there were some brilliant ones – were allowed the time and the heart to write disarming letters. My first book for children – yes, a novel – was decisively turned down by an editor who added, ‘It is very nice of you to let us see it. But I was astounded, all the same, at the rejection of my creation – my child…Outrageously (as I now shiver to remember), I wrote demanding an explanation. I wish I had that letter, or a copy; but I was economical with carbon paper and ‘flimsies’, and had never heard of archives – or literary agents. The editor patiently replied, and the correspondence ceased. (As it happened, the book was published elsewhere.)

That was half a century and several publishers ago. Meanwhile, I went on writing for radio, and learning. Our broadcasts were used mainly in State schools, and scriptwriters were encouraged to visit class-rooms to see how pre-recorded programmes succeeded (or didn’t). Audiences were captive, but not necessarily docile. I learnt more about educational systems and conditions than I had ever expected.

Some of what I had learnt I later learnt to conceal. I had learnt about age-ranges (in schools nowadays, ‘key stages’) and the interests and abilities that are supposed to go with them. But, in fact, children often enjoy reading below their actual ability as well as – sometimes – managing even to read above it. Of course, I know privately the ages of any fictional child-characters of mine, but I never tell. I allow readers the freedom to imagine whatever age they find congenial.

From radio I went into children’s book publishing as an editor, part-time and only for a short time. I learnt some surprising, sad things. Many aspiring writers thought that stories for children were the easy alternative to real writing for adults. And, when word-processors and computers became commonplace more people, thrilled by the technology, sent in long, absolutely immaculate typescripts of unspeakable stuff. Slush piles were soon unmanageable.

At last I felt secure enough to become a full time freelance writer for children. That meant I could live anywhere. I went back to the village where I had been born and brought up – and found that, as a writer, I had never left it had written stories set in London and familiar places elsewhere, but the landscapes of my childhood had haunted me. I could remember childhood; extrapolate from that into realistic fiction, fantasy and the furthest reaches of my imagination.

Nowadays and looking back, I see some of the dangers in writing for children. Although we have all been children, many adults are surprisingly dismissive or dishonest about the experience. The Victorian writers for children, on the whole, tried to persuade their readers of the importance – and rewards – of obedience (to adults) and self-sacrifice (to adults), both almost unquestioning. What a breath of fresh air must have been Alice, with her obstinate rationality, and (later) the children of E. Nesbit’s novels.

There may be an adult conspiracy today, and maybe I am unaware of only because I am part of it. There are now certainly different temptations a distortions. For instance, it sometimes seems impossibly hard not to grant a happy ending to a story which may have deeply involved the sympathy of child’ readers. At least the story must have an honest resolution Then one can hope that children, whose earliest cry has been: ‘It’s not fair!’, will be able to acknowledge, however sorrowfully: ‘Fair enough.’

There are obviously varied responsibilities in writing for children: the negatives, if you like. For me, they are far outweighed by the excitement of writing for a readership so fresh and so deep. I mean that even in the youngest children lie the springs of some of the most basic human emotions – love, hate jealousy, fear, as well as curiosity and the joys of scatology. In all this, actual individual children are not necessarily much help to the literary imagination need myself.

Books for children during half a century have changed in kind and nowadays in quantity – so many more. I find myself cultivating a modest garden on the foothills of what seem mountain ranges thrown up almost night: epic fantasies of writers such as Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling. Here are international best sellers, and ‘cross-overs’, too – that is, books for children which are bought and read by adults. Children’s books have become frighteningly big business. There has been no phenomenon quite like it history of English literature.

I still write; but my readership doesn’t compare with – well, I won’t go into all that. However, Leon Garfield once pointed out that the Ancient Mariner himself, bent upon telling one of the best stories there has ever and meeting the hurrying Wedding Guests, only ‘stoppeth one of three’. If the Mariner was content with a third of the possible audience, who am I to complain?

RSL Review 2006