Tag Archives: Nina Bawden

Goodbye Nina Bawden

You know it has to happen, but you wish it won’t. I was sad to hear of the death of Nina Bawden yesterday. She was a real, old-fashioned children’s author. There are still a few of them left, but now I find myself worrying about the great writers born in the 1920s.

They lived through WWII, and their books about that period have a different feel to them than those built on research. Carrie’s War makes me think of the Grandmother’s time as an evacuee, because there were similarities. Probably also many differences.

Despite writing lots of excellent children’s books over many years, for me her masterpiece will remain the sad, but wonderful Dear Austen, written after her husband’s death in the Potters Bar train crash.

I don’t suppose I expected to meet Nina, but there is something so final when you hear that someone you admire has died.

Thank you for the books.

Guardian obituary

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Dear Austen

I have this urge to send my mother postcards. Mainly to warn her about the new roundabouts they have built on the road to her house in the years since her death. I don’t know why I think she will return by driving a car back to her house. I just do. She may as well suddenly just be back in her house. But there are an awful lot of unexpected roundabouts, not to mention the fact that the road goes a different way as well.

So to find that Nina Bawden tried her husband’s mobile phone after he died, strikes me as completely sane and logical. It didn’t work, so she wrote a very long letter to her husband Austen Kark instead. It’s been published as a book, and it is a very lovely book, if you can accept that a book on a subject like a train crash can ever be lovely.

If you’re like me, then you’ll be vaguely surprised to hear that it’s seven years since the Potter’s Bar crash, and four years since the book Dear Austen was published. I read an excerpt from it in the Guardian, and knew I simply had to have the book as soon as it was available.

Nina tells Austen about the crash, and she tells him what happened afterwards. She herself took a long while to recover from her injuries, so didn’t know immediately what had happened. But she found out, and she found that nothing is simple. Finding someone to blame, someone who might apologise and pay compensation wasn’t as easy as you’d think.

As a real cynic I wasn’t surprised by any of it. And I’m struck by the fact that if someone with a voice like Nina Bawden hadn’t been forcibly involved in the moral aftermath, we wouldn’t know much about it.

She tells of all the meetings the injured and the relatives went to, and how they never seemed to get anywhere. Nobody much wanted to help. The story of the foreign victims is particularly touching. The Taiwanese family said ‘We thought Britain was a cultured and civilised and democratic country where human rights were fully respected and social justice upheld. We have been proved wrong.’ It was at this point that the man Nina came to know only as Gruff-voice, cleared his throat and said ‘I apologise for my country.’

What can you say?

Being me, I felt compelled to write to Nina to say what a wonderful book she had written. It’s particularly hard to write when the reason for the book is so devastating. She wrote back. It was a proper hand written card, and she was lovely. I felt honoured, because to me Nina is one of the ‘old guard’ in children’s literature. She thought the postcard idea wasn’t a bad one.

How old should you be?

It seems we are to get age guidance on children’s books. The question is whether this is helpful or not.

Some quotes from yesterday’s Guardian Review; “which seven-year-old?” and “it’s not the age that’s important, but who the child is”. True. But if the book says age 7+ and you are buying for an exceedingly clever seven-year-old, you might decide to go for a 10+ instead. And some people are so out of touch with children’s reading, as well as with the child they are buying for, that any guide will be a help. Kind of the book equivalent of remembering that a two-month-old will neither resent the fact that her older brother gets chocolate for Christmas, nor that she won’t be able to make much use of the chocolate buttons offered as being more baby-ish.

Last week’s meeting with Derek Landy I was accompanied by a borrowed nine-year-old. Giggly, spontaneous and friendly, and so very mature. I wish they were all like that…

Some years ago I picked up a very tatty copy of Nina Bawden’s The Witch’s Daughter (how apt!) in the school fair. It was the original Puffin from the sixties, and the reading age was given as 8+. I thought it sounded a bit young, for me, but decided to push on with reading it anyway. Not only is it a good book, but it’s not that easy a read either. I came to the conclusion that an eight-year-old forty years ago was supposed to be more advanced in their reading.

Dumbing down. So, consider who gives the advice, and how many decades ago. Then adjust to what your needs are.