Jan Mark

Prolific and distinctive children's writer who found her voice with her first book, 'Thunder and Lightnings'


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other much put upon at home and school, it won the Penguin/ Guardian competition for the best children's novel by an unpublished writer and then the even more prestigious Carnegie Medal for 1976.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.

Nicholas Tucker

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape