Obituary: Henrietta Branford

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The Independent Culture
HENRIETTA BRANFORD'S death represents a particularly cruel loss in this National Year of Reading. She was one of the bright new stars of contemporary children's literature and almost every one of her more recent titles either won a prize or was up there on the shortlist. Her writing career - which began only when she was 40 - seemed set fair for many more successes in the years to come.

Born in India in 1946, the daughter of an army officer, Branford first moved to Jordan and then settled with her parents and grandfather in a remote part of the New Forest. There she learned to ride as well as experiencing "gun dogs, blood sports and a selection of extremely good old books. My father taught me a great deal about animals from a shooting and fishing perspective. It was a wonderfully accurate and unsentimental way to learn." Although she was later to become what she described as a "born-again vegetarian", an element of this former toughness was never far away from her stories, giving them a hard edge not always found in literary descriptions of wildlife, especially those aimed at children.

Initially working as a community youth worker, Branford settled down with the photographer Paul Carter and had three children, Jack, Rose and Polly. She quickly became involved in local affairs in her home town of Southampton, in particular as a governor of her neighbouring comprehensive school. Once her children were past infancy she started writing, through a column in her local newspaper.

Her first great literary success, Dimanche Diller (1994), won the Smarties Book Prize for the 6-8 category. It describes the Roald- Dahlesque adventures of a much-put-upon orphan at the hands of an unscrupulous bogus aunt named Valburga Vilemile, given to statements like "What children want is squashing down! What children want is flattening out!" This good- humoured melodrama spawned two sequels, where the tough but saintly Dimanche unwillingly flirts with more danger from outsize adult villains. In a complete change of mood, Spacebaby (1996) is a lively science-fiction story involving a genius infant out to save the world from its impending loss of gravity.

In 1997 Branford wrote The Fated Sky, her first book for older children. Set in Iceland, this Viking saga was peopled by characters who were also recognisably modern in their emotions and attitudes. Vivid and at times violent, the story took the children's historical novel on from the more self-consciously literary model laid down by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Even more successful was Fire, Bed and Bone, the deserved winner of the 1998 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Written as if by an old hunting dog, with the author drawing heavily on her own childhood experiences, this is a compelling and deeply felt story about the injustices that led to the 14th-century Peasants' Revolt.

Earthy, plain-spoken and unflinching, it breathed new life into the talking animal story, as did her next novel White Wolf (1998), set in Canada and dedicated to the wolves that still remain there. It contains scenes that can stand comparison with Kipling, one of her childhood favourites, as well as with Jack London.

Two more books were written, and are still to be published. But the breast cancer Henrietta Branford had been suffering from took a more deadly grip. Working from home, where her desk overlooked her urban wildlife garden, she continued to defy the illness she raged against until the very last. A lifelong socialist and activist, she leaves behind a fine legacy of work that would surely have gone to even greater strengths had the fates been kinder.

Henrietta Diana Primrose Longstaff Branford, writer: born 12 January 1946; married Paul Carter (one son, two daughters); died Southampton, Hampshire 23 April 1999.