BOOK REVIEW / Family passions: Nicholas Tucker meets Nina Bawden, teller of secrets for adults and difficult children

Nina Bawden is a successful adult novelist, shortlisted recently for the Booker Prize. She is also an excellent writer for children, and Hamish Hamilton has just produced her 17th book, The Real Plato Jones. She therefore follows authors from Dickens and Thackeray to Graham Greene and Ted Hughes, who have written separately for both children and adults. Who better, then, to discuss the essential difference between writing popular but intelligent books for older and for much younger readers?

Except that Nina Bawden would rather talk about something - anything - else. An elusive, infrequent presence at children's literature conferences, she is happiest writing or else chatting generally in her pretty house in north London (her publishers list her hobbies as 'reading and parties'). Unpompous herself, she is scornful of any signs of pretension in those following her craft. I have been friends with her for 25 years, but only now, when finally cornered, will she talk about her children's books at any length.

A typical Bawden novel has a vital secret rumbling away in the background which young characters must eventually understand for the sake of their peace of mind. This mystery often has to do with a child's family, but sometimes it stretches out into the community, as in The Real Plato Jones. Here, an unathletic but determined 14-yearold, half-Welsh and half-Greek, travels from suburban Britain to his grandfather's funeral in a remote mountain village. He cannot understand the hostility shown towards an old man who led a blameless life before his peaceful death.

The answer lies in the last war, and a tragic division of interests when the needs of domestic life clashed with the necessity for armed resistance. All this Plato Jones finds out for himself; what he and his readers are not told is who was finally right or wrong in the sides they took. There is no place for easy judgements in a story so expert at revealing the complexities of making the right moral decisions in desperate times.

Like Carrie's War, Nina Bawden's finest children's novel, this book would appeal to readers of all ages. So what makes it particularly a children's story? After a last, despairing look out of the window, Nina answers my question with all the dogged honesty of Plato Jones himself. Her brisk, no-nonsense tone nearly, but not quite, disguises the justifiable pride and affection she feels for her achievements over the years.

'Children know less than we do, so we have to tell them a bit more. Like which countries were fighting in the last war. But children also see some things more clearly than we do. They still have a moral view of life. Adults are often too wrapped up in dreary, daily concerns like jobs or mortgages. Life isn't so complicated for children. They have more time to think about the really important things. That's why I occasionally moralise in my children's books in a way I wouldn't dare when writing for adults.'

Yet some of her young characters are also quite disturbed, difficult children who occasionally cause a lot of trouble for others. Do they fit into this picture?

'Oh yes. Those are the ones that children most often write to me about, saying this is the first time they have found someone like themselves in a book. I wasn't always an easy child at that age either. In the evacuation my friend and I ended up in seven different billets. I can see now how disruptive we must have been to those looking after us.'

But these billets also included some fairly rum adults, to be described in more lurid detail in Nina's autobiography, now nearly completed. Was the evacuation a formative experience for the novelist-to-be?

'I was always writing stories anyhow. But seven different homes meant seven different sets of characters, localities plus the odd family secret too. It was all so stimulating, and also a good deal of fun. But at 13 I had to carry quite a lot while away from home. I don't think we always realise how much we put on children at a young age. I hope in my books I help children to see their strengths, and show them I have some idea of what they may occasionally be going through. Especially at tricky moments when it is easier to go back and evade things rather than go forwards and confront them.'

So how does she stay in touch with today's children, having first written for them as long ago as 1963? 'I see my grandchildren quite a lot. They refresh my memory for certain things, like those dreadful jokes about elephants and waiters (which actually I quite like). But I don't write about sex for today's teenagers. Or Doc Martens boots either. I'm more interested in exploring how exactly the world is run, which doesn't really change that much from one generation to another.'

What happens, then, to the bright, purposeful, gutsy children in her books? How do they and those like them turn into the more defeated characters of her adult novels?

'Adults get more confused by social worker jargon. Unlike children, they are also less likely to see two sides of an argument, and they no longer think they can make the world a better place. That can make them rather boring, I suppose. But there are still plenty of spirited, positive characters in my adult novels - you just haven't read them properly] Take this one, for example.'

And pressing a copy of Familiar Passions on me, first published in 1979 but now reissued by Virago, the interview terminates, leaving the books themselves - as they rightly should - with the last word.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent