I met Magdalen Nabb for the first time ten years ago when I became an Editorial Director at HarperCollins and she became one of my authors. Suddenly I needed her help. My daughter had gone to Florence to work as an au pair while studying Italian at the British Institute. I had phoned her there and she sounded terribly unhappy. The only person I knew who lived in Florence was Magda. Would she rush round at once and find out what was going on?
An hour later Catherine and her luggage were in Magda’s elegant flat in Piazza Piatellina with its view of the duomo, rescued from a family who had been cold and unpleasant. A year later, and by then a fluent Italian speaker, Catherine was still living with Magda in her safe haven. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I could not have prevailed upon a more heroic and ardent rescuer than Magdalen Nabb for whom the undefended child is the genesis of all her writing for children.
Ten years on I meet Magdalen Nabb in a London hotel room. She is here to promote her latest Josie Smith book. Magda is recovering from a stroke and the fingers of her left hand curl inwards. A stick is needed to help with walking but she tells me she is now able to ride again – one of her great passions. She has a beautiful horse, Quirino, named after the Roman god of war, Quirinus. Stylish in a crisply white designer shirt and with her long hair immaculate, the imperious Magda I remember well from my days as her editor is much in evidence as she checks the arrangements for the day with the HarperCollins Publicity Manager. Attention to every detail concerning her books matters intensely to Magda, whether it be who will attend the launch dinner for Josie Smith in Winter or whether I think the illustrations (by Karen Donnelly) interact well with the text. We agree they ‘trickle through’ very satisfactorily and Magda is full of praise for HarperCollins designer Mike Watts’s ‘care and thought’.
There are now eight Josie Smith books and three more planned. In the early books Josie is 5¾ but ‘she can’t not grow up as her experience accumulates’. In recent books she is six or seven. The books are set in the mill village of Ramsbottom where Magda herself grew up and Josie goes to the school that Magda attended: ‘I loved that school. They didn’t tread on children’s imaginations. You were a special person.’ At a reading there a few years ago Magda found the children were ‘the same, the same names, the grandchildren now’ of the children she remembered.
There is a timeless quality to Nabb’s depiction of Josie Smith. She has an astonishing ability to enter the world of a small child with its preoccupations, enthusiasms and anxieties. Nabb concerns herself above all with the inner emotional life of the child and the centrality of the parent-child relationship in the child’s development. Also explored are Josie’s tentative first forays into the outside world of school and village life and thereby into the world of independence and autonomy. These are major developmental themes for every child and they explain both the relevance and the enduring popularity of these titles with their seemingly ‘simple’ and everyday subject matter. Whether Josie is anxiously preoccupied with a lost glove and mum’s possible reaction to its loss or whether she is engrossed in a painting of a snow scene with mum’s presence in the background, Nabb communicates satisfyingly with her young readers at a profound level about very typical experiences of home, community and school life and the feelings they arouse. ‘ Josie Smith is not about stories,’ says Magda, ‘not made-up, silly stories. It is a record. A reaching out to children because I wish I had had such a book. Children are lonely. They panic. They think they are the only person in the world who lost a glove or wet their knickers.’
But the Josie Smith stories are also intensely atmospheric. When Magda was writing Josie Smith at School she needed to establish the opening scene. There were two possibilities and she asked Catherine, then her lodger, to see which she preferred. ‘The cabbage smell in this one reminds me most of school,’ said Catherine. ‘But there were no smells in the text,’ remembers Magda. ‘It is what is not written that should communicate itself. The cabbage smell that isn’t matters most.’ Nabb’s recreation of the world of childhood with its resonances and images and strong sense of place appears effortless. The stories are also amusingly understated with strongly drawn characters and some sharp observation.
‘I wish I had a dad,’ says Josie Smith in Josie Smith in Winter . ‘Children write and ask me why there is no dad,’ says Magda. ‘But I won’t say because that way anyone who has no dad can identify with Josie. One child wrote and asked me, was he dead or is he divorced.’ Not having a dad and feeling ‘undefended’ as Josie often does, is something that Magda knows a lot about. When she was seven her 32 year-old father died of rheumatic fever. ‘He was sick for the seven years that I knew him,’ says Magda. ‘He knew he was dying.’ He taught Magda to draw and paint and now she writes ‘in the way he taught me to draw. I don’t mess with things on the page. I think the story out and write it when it’s ready. The editing goes on in my head so I don’t need to rub out.’ I remember well my admiration at the minimal editing needed when a new manuscript arrived from Magda.
When she was 13 Magda’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly in the street when out shopping with her younger sister. ‘Our father died just before she was born and she was five when our mother dropped dead in front of her,’ says Magda. The sisters (there is also an older one) were sent to live with an aunt. Two weeks later their uncle died. ‘I was coping at 13 with dead people,’ says Magda. ‘And I was surrounded by bereaved people who were dependent on me. My aunt was crying all day.’ In a recurring dream Magda would return to her childhood home to find the pots left on the table and a mess that had been left for her to clean up. She would cry with exhaustion, feeling that her life blood was being sucked out. Relief eventually came in a dream where she remembered that it was her mother who had left her and she could at last feel angry. ‘It was a real turning point.’ Magda was later to explore the arbitrary nature of death in her adult crime fiction novels which are set in Florence, now her home town.
In her children’s books though, Magda writes ‘for the other Josie Smiths’. Through her books she reaches out gently to them, exploring Josie’s anxieties and the ways she eventually finds to think about things. ‘The stories are meant to be healing. We all have an Eileen in our lives.’ Eileen is the girl in Josie’s class who appears to have everything (a coveted new sledge in Josie Smith in Winter ) and whose friendship can never be relied on however hard Josie tries to please her or bargain with her. Exclusion and rejection are potent themes for this age as children establish relationships in their peer group.
Josie Smith is also intended to make parents feel ‘unguilty’: ‘The stories can help them talk to their children about things like not enough money,’ says Magda. But if Josie Smith and mum do not have many material things they do share an understanding about what is important. In ‘Josie Smith in the Snow’, one of the three stories in Josie Smith in Winter , Josie is engrossed in drawing a snow scene which is to feature her terrace house as well as children sledging on the hill behind. As she explores her place in the world and her longings and anxieties in paint, she is at the same time acutely aware of the different levels of her mother’s benign attention and interest in her and what she is doing. The levels of conscious and unconscious communication between parent and child have rarely been so penetratingly or empathically depicted as in this scene.
The Josie Smith books were prompted by an unexpected visit when Magda was living in the Browning house, Casa Guidi, in Florence as its curator. Mrs Chadwick, the owner of the Ramsbottom corner shop Magda had visited as a child, appeared one day. ‘She’d last seen me when I was 14 but it was as if she’d seen me yesterday. She was on a coach tour. She started talking about cream slices: “Your mother liked those; you preferred buns.” It inspired me to start Josie Smith . It was like I’d never been away.’
Nabb’s passion for horses found expression in her story The Enchanted Horse , a magical tale about a child, Irina, whose spirit feels crushed. She is eventually able to gain in confidence and inner strength through caring for a battered model of a horse which also, of course, comes alive. Irina’s preoccupied parents have no time to listen to her but the old blind man in the shop where she finds the horse can not only ‘really’ see her but he can listen too. That loving is not possession is the hard lesson that Irina must learn as her enchanted horse leaves her to run free with the wild horses. The Children’s Choice for the Smarties Book Prize, The Enchanted Horse is a testament to Magda’s belief that ‘there are very few adults who do not tread on children’s dreams’. She describes herself as a ‘childist, not a feminist. It is a fact that adults don’t live in the imaginative world of children.’ But some are able to, perhaps, and amongst them is Magdalen Nabb.
(published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, £3.99 each pbk)
Josie Smith , 0 00 673744 7
Josie Smith in Winter , 0 00 675407 4
Josie Smith at Christmas , 0 00 674537 7
Josie Smith at the Seaside , 0 00 674010 3
Josie Smith in Spring , 0 00 675408 2
Josie Smith at School , 0 00 674123 1
Josie Smith in Hospital , 0 00 674720 5, £3.99 (new edition April 2000)
Josie Smith at Market , 0 00 675064 8, £3.99 (new edition June 2000)
Josie Smith in Summer , 0 00 675409 0 (April 2000)
Josie Smith and Eileen , 0 00 674356 0 (April 2000)
Josie Smith in Autumn , 0 00 675410 4 (June 2000)
The Enchanted Horse , 0 00 674721 3