BOOK REVIEW / Family passions: Nicholas Tucker meets Nina Bawden, teller of secrets for adults and difficult children
Saturday 29 January 1994
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.
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