Prolific and distinctive children's writer who found her voice with her first book, 'Thunder and Lightnings'
Wednesday 18 January 2006
Janet Marjorie Brisland, children's writer: born Welwyn, Hertfordshire 22 June 1943; married 1969 Neil Mark (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Oxford 16 January 2006.
One of the supreme stylists of modern children's literature and greatly admired by her peers, Jan Mark wrote over 50 books despite starting late at the age of 33. With several new titles still to appear and her enormous talent remaining as bright as ever, her sudden and unexpected death is a serious loss for all those who value quality of writing as opposed to mere quantity of pages in books for the young.
She was born Janet Brisland in Welwyn, and spent an unsettled childhood in and around London before moving to Ashford, Kent. Only starting school at the age of eight, she had already long learned to read and write. Determined to be an author, she got as far as winning second prize when she was 15 in a literary competition organised by the Daily Mirror.
Discouraged from reading English at university by a teacher who assured her that she did not possess "a scholar's brain", she went off instead to study design at Canterbury College of Art. Teaching followed, first art and later English at a secondary school before marriage to Neil Mark in 1969, a move to Norfolk and eventually two children.
Living in a house directly under a flight-path, with Lightning fighters from RAF Coltishall taking off 200 feet above the roof, had its disadvantages. On the other hand, it provided Jan Mark with the inspiration for her first and still one of her best books, Thunder and Lightnings (1976). A story involving the friendship between two outsider boys, one new to the area, the other much put upon at home and school, it won the Penguin/ Guardian competition for the best children's novel by an unpublished writer and then the even more prestigious Carnegie Medal for 1976. Written, as she said herself, "to meet the demands of myself as an adult, not those of the child I once was", it demonstrated the unadorned dialogue and minimal authorial intervention that were to become Mark's trademark. In later life she was grateful for having waited for years before producing her first novel, so giving her the time and confidence to develop the particular voice she was going to use for the rest of her writing life.
This initial critical success imposed on Mark what she felt as an obligation to produce work that would always be as good; a challenge she was happy to meet. Liking to make her audience work hard, she deliberately set out to discourage unsophisticated readers when it came to her longer novels. Not surprisingly, this policy never led to high sales, despite various television adaptations in the years to come. But by sheer hard work, sometimes writing for eight hours at a time, Mark - now supporting her household on her earnings alone - produced a continual flow of picture books, starter readers, plays and teenage novels all utterly individual and highly distinctive.
Her three science-fiction novels for young adults, The Ennead (1978), Divide and Rule (1979) and Aquarius (1982), offended some critics, who found their bleak message about a hopeless future where social manipulation and ultimate betrayal have become the norm too gloomy for a young audience. Handles (1983) was by contrast a happy, optimistic work, telling the story of a city girl, Erica Timperley, unwillingly transported to the countryside where she stays with some mean-minded relatives. Her discovery of an anarchic motorbike-repair outfit in the nearby town provides her with the company and interests she had always longed for. This book won the Carnegie Medal for 1983.
Mark maintained that she preferred writing short stories, where she also had considerable success in a genre that was otherwise steadily losing favour with readers. Hairs in the Palm of the Hand (1981) is made up of two stories loosely based on Southfields School where she had previously taught for six years in Gravesend. The teachers in this novel come over as real people rather than cardboard stereotypes, at times quite as unruly as some of their pupils.
Years later Mark was the natural choice of editor for The Oxford Book of Children's Stories (1993), wisely including one of her own in what was largely a historical survey.
Returning to her novels, Trouble Half-Way (1985) is a tender description of a girl's growing relationship with her stepfather lorry-driver. The story describes how they are for the first time forced into each other's exclusive company for a week's travel through England. Partly based on the experience of Mark's own lorry-driving brother, this novel invites readers to fear the worst before delighting them with how well everything finally works out.
From 1982 Mark spent two years as writer-in-residence at the School of Education in what was then the Oxford Polytechnic. A few years later, after the collapse of her marriage, she made Oxford her home. There she also developed an interest in the history of children's literature, writing well- received chapters in various edited volumes on this topic. There was also an excellent adult novel, Zeno was Here (1987), and a gardening book.
Some of her chilling futuristic novels, meanwhile, were beginning to find adult as well as younger readers. Her fine The Eclipse of the Century (1999) now has a website maintained by Mark's Flemish fans. More recently, Useful Idiots (2004) and Riding Tycho (2005) were both superb achievements. Closer to home, Heathrow Nights (2000) describes with typical bittersweet humour one boy's extended stay in the famous airport, a place that gradually turns more strange and dream-like as one day follows another.
Reading military history for a hobby, an inspired gardener and a self-confessed admirer of rats (she contributed Rats to the "real-life" Oxford Reds series, 2001), Jan Mark was an unusual but never an eccentric person. Inclined to look fierce, with famously unruly hair, she was a shy person who blossomed on acquaintance. Still very much at home in the classroom during her many school visits and devoted to her own children, she was an excellent speaker and a perceptive, at times stringent, critic.
As a writer able to produce a succession of brilliant, stand-alone novels, each one perfect in itself, she is irreplaceable.
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