Her interest in children and education began when she was about 17, sparked off by Susan Isaac’s books about the social development of children at Maltinghouse, a nursery school where children were given a free rein to read, learn and explore. At this time she was living in Salford, the northern industrial town where she was born and brought up. Her parents were both teachers who separated when she was on the point of leaving school. “My father felt he had a duty to set me up in a safe job. I agreed to go to teachers training college – for one term only”. It was 1937, the Spanish Civil War, and she had friends in the International Brigade. She spent her term organising college aid to Spain, which upset the staff, and she left just before they had the chance to expel her.
She could have gone to Oxford but chose to go to London University to take an Arts Course which involved a lot of journalism. Since the age of 6 (when her first poem was published in a comic) she had wanted to be a writer. Newspapers gave her the chance to get across her strong ideas on social, political and educational issues, subjects she was “passionate about”. When writing her first articles, many of them for The Manchester Guardian, she felt compelled to alter their form “to get people to listen. In my mind all of them started as poems. Always the subjects were things I felt very intensely about. I used to get an enormous amount of correspondence, people used to write to me in a very intense way”. She believes that this great impact was directly due to the fact that the articles “weren’t really prose as we used to see prose in papers then, but translated from poetry”.
It was after the war that she made what she calls her “large scale switch”. She was a mother of two, and looking for good books for her children found only what she calls “junk” children’s books on the market. She started writing her own children’s stories and sent them off simultaneously to 2 different publishers. Both made her immediate offers. She accepted the first and told the second she’d write another collection “very quickly” (The Nightingale and Other Stories, “funny stories, not too twee” for 4-7 year olds). But she soon became concerned at the high prices of her books: The Adventures of Chunky, written in the early 40’s, was selling for 16 shillings. She began writing for Hodder’s Brockhampton Press, who had started a series of cheaply produced books at 5 shillings hardback, books most families could afford.
She wrote the Nippers series in the sixties. Macmillan suggested she did some supplementary reading books for primary schools and she saw her chance to put her ideas about “books which fit the child, fit his experience” into practice. “For middle class kids the book has always reflected them; they can identify with things in the pictures. I’m not saying this in a hostile way at all; it’s marvellous that they feel `books are for me, part of my heritage’. Other kids who haven’t had books in the home are coming to them quite cold and not finding themselves in the book at all. The speech and everything is absolutely alien”.
Macmillan saw her proposals for Nippers and were excited but apprehensive. They sent out proof copies to schools and authorities. The initial response was one of outrage. The books were branded as “immoral, nonsense. They said `No houses are without hot and cold water, there are no places where children play on dump heaps; they’ve all been turned into parks. No family has ever seen a tin bath”‘.
Very soon after came the Milner Holland report and a spate of housing reports, discussing exactly these issues. The working classes were news. The Nippers critics began to soften their blows, admitting that such social conditions might exist but still saying that poverty shouldn’t be emphasised in books. It would make children ashamed of their homes. Macmillan decided to go ahead anyway.
Her own experience of reading typescripts of Nippers to an East End class was “quite riveting. I found I was having to read through laughter all the time, continuous, constant laughter, not ordinary laughter. The children were hugging themselves and jumping up and down, hugging their neighbours in this warm, physical, clutching way. As I watched them they were getting loose and limp in front of me. I was quite shaken.”
She recalls a similar scene watching the play Billy Liar. The language included “bloody this, bloody that” and the adult audience became loud and uncontrolled. “It suddenly clicked, the adults were seeing for the very first time their own situations, their own talk in a place where there’d only been middle class things before, and those kids were recognising themselves in a place where there’d only been other kinds of families”.
It was at this time that Risinghill, the story of the troubled comprehensive school in Islington, was being vetted by lawyers before Penguin could publish it. Legal problems were not the only obstacles she faced writing this book. Much of the information was statistics which she tried to present in the most interesting and digestible way. “When I got bored with the figures I’d pick up a copy of Rex Stout and read a few chapters. I think it’s very important to hook the readers so they can’t put the book down; it’s like a cliffhanger all the way through. Reading Rex Stout I’d get a feeling of clifthangerness then go back to the book and get that feeling of tension.”
Leila Berg identified with the fight for working class children to gain respect and “validity” being fought by Michael Duane, Headmaster of Risinghill. The school became a test case and battleground for those in favour of new-style comprehensive education, and those who supported established methods. Leila thinks that the significant difference of Risinghill was “its attitude. It didn’t shape kids to fit the role we decided they should play, but according to their own individuality, believing that each family outlook is valid and accepting that validity. It was the only school that put comprehensive education into practise in a way we’d talked about it before, where every child felt cherished, thought about, provided for.” She recalls the startling “inner grace” of two teenagers at the school who treated her, while she was waiting to see Michael Duane, as if they were “host and hostess”, with a spontaneous friendliness she hadn’t experienced in children at other schools. The attitude of the school affected parents, too. There was less physical punishment at home when teachers stopped using the cane, and some parents were taking an interest in their children’s education for the first time. “There was much bitterness when it was closed down after only 4 years by a socialist government and socialist council. It had represented people’s hopes: it was a sort of symbol.”
The hostile reaction to the `liberal’ aims of Risinghill by some of its own staff were, she says, by no means untypical of the rigid, disciplinarian teaching attitudes elsewhere. Once when setting up a temporary bookshop in a school, the Deputy Headmaster asked her where to put the barricades. When she replied that barricades wouldn’t be needed, he said “But the children will get at the books won’t they? There will be a riot”. He needn’t have worried – no child at that school could conceive of the idea of buying a book for pleasure. The sole visitor to the bookshop was a boy who came each day to see if the paperback he was saving for was still there, and, Leila says, “it was worth keeping the shop open just for him”.
The Nippers series were not the only books to cause alarm, to anger people. The Little Pete stories, based on her own son, were read aloud on the new radio programme `Listen with Mother’, “a programme of tremendous exciting promise”. The music and rhythm in Leila Berg’s books make them ideal for reading aloud, and for radio. Yet some listeners wrote to the BBC saying that the stories were a “corrupting influence”. They thought that Little Pete was too naughty.
When embarking on new projects, she never makes assumptions about children’s reactions to books, a lesson reinforced by her granddaughter. Leila chose what she thought was a book of “innocent charm” to look at with the child, who had just learned to read. But the little girl’s face grew more and more downcast as the story progressed. “This child not yet 4 had become a literary critic: the story was really patronising and I hadn’t seen it. What I had taken for innocent charm was quite false and manipulative.”
Her approach is empirical, open, and she always works closely with the artist. Making the Methuen Chatterbooks series with photographer John Walmsley, they showed’ slides of his photographs to mothers and babies to see which pictures the children responded to most strongly before making the final selection. “The quality of excitement is very important, a silent, inner excitement, not this awful blandness that creeps into books for the under 5s.” In the new Methuen series with artist Lisa Kopper, she tries to present facts in a different way, looking at things from a child’s point of view. “How is it that a child knows a Great Dane and a Pekinese are both dogs? And why should we tell children that bees give honey, cows are for milk and sheep for meat? It makes me cringe to hear that said – it’s the sort of thing that would puzzle a child very much. In these books I build on the child’s curiosity and wonder which are so often wiped out by a barrage of facts.”
Respect for a child’s “curiosity and wonder” and books which fit the child and his experience are the best books, she says, just as the best schools are “creative, losing places” where there is no dislocation of experience. Only then can the feeling of “inner grace” rather than pent up, destructive anger, prevail.
In Look at Kids (Penguin) Leila attempts to focus adults’ attention on children through short, evocative text and black and white photographs. It is a collection of observations of children, written in words that are full of movement, poetry and feeling. She is simply looking at children with an adult’s wonder and delight, and asking us to do the same: to look and listen to the poetry and potential of our children.
Leila Berg’s Books
Tales for Telling, Methuen, 0 416 25080 7, £3.95
The Little Car, Methuen, 0 416 20250 0, £3.50 and Young Puffin, 0 14 03.0682 X, 95p
Little Pete Stories, Methuen, 0 416 11760 0, £3.50 and Young Puffin, 0 14 03.0124 0, 90p
My Dog Sunday, Young Puffin, 0 14 03.1083 5, 95p
A Box for Benny, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 03207 3, £4.50. (Magnet paperback later this year.)
Methuen Chatterbooks (with John Walmsley)
A Tickle, 0 416 88780 5, £1.50
The Hot, Hot Day, 0 416 88790 2, £1.50
Our Walk, 0 416 88810 0, £1.50
In a House I Know, 0 416 88800 3, £1.50
Methuen Small World (to be published in September 1983)
Dogs, 0 416 44020 7, £1.50
Bees, 0 416 44050 9, £1.50
Worms, 0 416 44040 1, £1.50
Blood and Plasters, 0 416 44030 4, £1.50
Nippers series, Macmillan Education, 75 titles, Groups 1-5, 60p-95p each
Little Nippers, Macmillan Education, First set, 8 titles, £3.95 and Second set, 12 titles, £5.95
Look at Kids, Penguin Education, 0 14 08.0661 X, £1.75
Reading and Loving, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 0 7100 8475 7, £5.95 hbk and 0 7100 8476 5, £3.50 pbk