IF YOU had ventured into the garden at Ashton Manor, near Northampton, a year or so ago you might have met a smiling, bespectacled country woman marshalling her geese or digging over her vegetable patch; and if she had invited you, as she surely would have, into her kitchen, you could have been forgiven for thinking you had wandered into the village post office: for stacked on every available flat surface you would have seen piles of parcels waiting to be undone - and piles, too, of books sorted out into subject matter awaiting reading, re- reading, review.
For way back in the 1950s Margery Fisher, married to the naturalist James Fisher and mother of a growing horde of young children, had chosen - she could have been a musician, a novelist, a biographer, a teacher - to spend her working life writing about children's books so that parents and teachers should have guidance in helping the young to find pleasure in reading.
Fortuitously, the reading life of her six children coincided with the renaissance of excellence after the Second World War in writing for the young: Margery Fisher, who had read avidly throughout her own childhood (in Britain until the age of eight, then in New Zealand), found herself intrigued by, then intellectually absorbed in, this literature and its readers. In the introduction to her first critical book, Intent upon Reading (1961), she wrote of her family, 'Between them and at different times they have shown an astonishing variety of tastes. I have pursued books which I have felt they might like and have read every book that they have read. Our collection has grown to such an extent that we can supply children also from our village with reading matter and we keep open house for any who like to browse and borrow.' That was 30 years ago, but the boundless energy, the thoroughness, the generosity of spirit evident then were to illuminate all that followed.
Margery Fisher began her career as a reviewer for Housewife in the 1950s; for over a decade she was Children's Books Editor for the Sunday Times; but there was more to be said than review articles could encompass. So, encouraged by Antony Kamm of Brockhampton Press, she embarked upon critical studies in book form. Intent Upon Reading, an appraisal of every genre of children's fiction, reads as freshly today as when it was published in 1961; this was followed by a rigorous and highly critical look at information books, Matters of Fact (1972); and in The Bright Face of Danger (1986) she published 'an exploration' of the adventure story, one of her great passions. Her compendium Who's Who in Children's Books is much more than its sub- title , 'a treasury of the familiar characters of childhood', might suggest, because Fisher is ever alert to the writer who creates the 'mystery of personality'. In Classics for Children and Young People (1986), she once again demonstrates her ability to assemble material and present it readably and attractively to an audience not necessarily familiar with the subject matter.
But the truly extraordinary contribution Fisher made to the study of children's literature was her magazine Growing Point. For 30 years, from 1962 until she decided to cease publication in March of last year, she wrote, prepared for press, published and dispatched in hand-addressed envelopes to her subscribers, her 'regular review of books for the growing families of the English reading world'. Throughout this mammoth enterprise the high standard of her writing and the perspicacity with which she chose books for special mention never faltered. 'He writes actively,' she said of James Roose-Evans in 1988, 'never clogging sentences with adjectives and taking an energetic way with verbs.'
Herself a novelist manque (her only novel, Field Day, was published in 1951), she had an intuitive grasp of the writer's craft which informed her own voracious, yet selective, reading. She once described to me, when I met her at Euston after she had made the short journey from Northampton, the agony - 'panic' was the word she used, I think - of getting on to the train and realising she was without whatever paperback she thought she had slipped into her handbag. An hour with nothing to read]
But during her final illness she could no longer read and her life became, as she wrote in a note to a colleague, 'infinitely tedious'. Not only did Margery Fisher help millions of children worldwide to share her pleasure in the written word, but her own wise words on the subject of children's literature written consistently over a period of huge upheaval will prove (since children's books accurately reflect contemporary adult concerns) a goldmine for sociologists in the future.
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