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)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own