‘…Nina Bawden, who died this week…’ Sometimes it’s the most throwaway of lines that have the most impact. I was skimming over a page in the Saturday paper when I read this, and it made me gasp. For a moment I couldn’t believe that such a thing had happened without me knowing. A week’s holiday meant I’d seen very little news this week, and besides, this would hardly have knocked Lance Armstrong off the front page.
For Nina Bawden was one of my favourite childhood authors (and a respectable one for adults too), and many of her books still sit on my bookshelves. She was part of the so-called golden age of children’s literature that happened in the late 60s and 70s and that I was lucky enough to experience while the books were still relatively current or newly-published, rather than reading them as classics.
Part of my sadness, I suppose, is because my childhood image of Nina Bawden is of a white-haired lady, and to a child, white hair means old. So if she was already old when I was a child, surely she’d always be old? It’s a bit like losing a grandparent – you assume because they’ve always been there that they always will be.
Carrie’s War is her most famous book, but my personal favourite was actually The Witch’s Daughter. Perdita (how I loved the sound of that name, even if I wasn’t completely sure how to pronounce it) lives on a remote Scottish island and is shunned by local children for being a witch, because she is different to them. She longs to have friends, and finds them in Janey and Tom who are visiting the island with their father, a naturalist. Janey is blind, so also different, but unlike Perdita she doesn’t allow her blindness to set her apart. Together the children get embroiled in an adventure involving diamond smugglers, but Nina Bawden wasn’t as predictable a writer as that – in this book the adventure isn’t exciting or straightforwardly solvable (as it would have been with Enid Blyton), but sinister, and frightening, and involves the enduring loss of innocence that comes when a trusted adult lets a child down. The baddies aren’t two-dimensional – they can be cruel, but show kindness and understanding of a child who feels removed from a normal life.
I loved Nina Bawden partly because she introduced me to characters that helped me understand people better. Many of her characters are different, unusual, even – in the case of Mr Johnny in Carrie’s War – learning disabled, which in the early 70s surely must have been ground-breaking in children’s literature.
I think I read every book by Nina Bawden I could get my hands on, and then when I grew up was delighted to discover that she wrote adult books too. Later on I was shocked to read her moving account of the Potter’s Bar train crash in 2002, in which her husband died. I can still recall the opening images of that article today. I always felt sad and angry that someone to whom I had such affection should have had such a dreadful experience.
I wish now that I’d written to her to tell her how much her books meant to me when I was young. I watch my daughter now, devouring books and discovering those that will help her make sense of her world, and I realise that Nina Bawden was part of me making sense of mine.
Update on 24th December 2012: this lovely article by Nina Bawden’s son was in the Guardian today, remembering his mother.