When Robert Leeson was a young lad in Cheshire, he must have figured in a big way in the County Library borrowing returns. He was a truly committed customer, reading everything and probably exceeding the number of tickets he was really allowed. Now, his own children grown up, he is still committed to books, and in the intervening years has made a major contribution to the children’s book world as author, reviewer and commentator.
His book of related short stories, Harold and Bella, Jammy and Me, reflects those early years. They are the account of the Saturday afternoon ‘doings’ of a pre-war, northern childhood. With his brothers and sisters, he lived in a home where reading was encouraged. All four children eventually went to grammar school, something which could not have been easy for his parents. He remembers his mother as a worker. She had been in service before her marriage and continued to work hard after, sometimes doing a fourteen hour day, washing and cooking for others. It taught him early to link work with self-respect and certainly influences the way he sees his female characters. His father, after being a regular soldier, worked in a chemical factory and in both jobs suffered the frustrations of an intelligent man limited by his background. It was for this reason that his parents encouraged the children to stay on at school, seeing education as an escape from these limitations.
At home, there were comics but not books so the young Robert relied on the library and school. He recalls the influence that one or two adults had on him. They were the dedicated teachers who read to him, the interested librarian who made tactful suggestions and did not count the tickets, the English teacher who showed him that his writing was valued although it did not always fit into the form of the conventional grammar school essay. The existence of people like that were important to him and he hopes adults will not underestimate the influence they can have. He read all kinds of books, mainly historical adventures. A real favourite was Treasure Island, a pleasure now extended and shared with the rest of us in the form of his sequel, Silver’s Revenge. At school, he enjoyed Winnie the Pooh though he and his mates derided the Milne poetry. It seems reasonable that the universal concerns of Pooh and Piglet – friendship, courage which comes and goes, food – should have seemed perfectly reasonable while the poems alienated by their very particular middle class background. Similarly, he liked the William books, despite the Browns’ family life because William was always undermining it anyway. What price afternoon tea on lace cloths if William is also served up with it? He says that Richmal Crompton understood that children are so often in the position of the underdogs and gives them the chance to revolt. He read school stories, too, and remembers in particular a book called The Boys of Slings Lane which seems to have been a rare example at that time of a school story set in a council school. He was able to identify with that, and believes that children do notice different backgrounds. They do not necessarily complain about finding nothing to identify with but may believe that the backgrounds and values presented in the books are the right ones and that they themselves are excluded. Which brings us back to Harold and Bella, Jammy and Me. He wrote it to show children that they have the stuff of stories in their own lives, that their experiences are also valuable.
Robert Leeson spends about one third of his time talking to children and encouraging them to write, which is a generous commitment, and another one third answering letters. He must have visited between 500 and 600 schools, meeting many hundreds of children. He sees himself as part of a movement composed of many authors who work to bring children and books together but he also sees it as a two-way process. He has three sources for his writing. Firstly, recollections of his own childhood. If you want to know how it feels to be 12 years old, you have only yourself and your remembered feelings. Secondly, the childhood of his own children. Thirdly, his contact with the children, aged between 8 and 18 years, whom he meets in schools. He encourages them to write because he wants every child to dignify his or her own experiences by setting them down. He sums up his intentions in working with the children by saying he wants every child to get as much from the enjoyment of reading as he did and he wants them also to ‘have the confidence to shape their dreams’.
He recommends the discussion of dreams to any teacher as a prelude to creative writing in view of the rich vein of material which it taps. It makes a link with his own early story making. He had made up his mind at 10 or 11 to be a writer. From 7 or 8, he had been making up stories just before sleeping, often continuations of the books he was reading with himself introduced as a major character. He has discovered that this is a very common practice among children. At 14, he wrote to a publisher, assuming that authors were ‘taken on’ as in other jobs, but they explained that to be an author it is usual to write a book first. On leaving school, he began writing as a junior reporter and continued to write for newspapers through the ’sixties, becoming Children’s Editor of the Morning Star in 1969. It was in 1973 that he wrote his first children’s book, Beyond the Dragon Prow. Historical novels were riding high at the time and they had been his own favoured reading. He went on to write the trilogy, ’Maroon Boy, Bess and The White Horse, set in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but he also felt the need to widen his approach and he moved to a story which is a modern school story, spiced with fantasy and domestic humour. This was The Third Class Genie which started life as a newspaper serial. The story continues with the sequel, Genie on the Loose. His age range is wide. One of his very recent books, Candy for King, is a strongly written teenage book about a young soldier, while The Demon Bike Rider and Challenge in the Dark are two adventures for younger readers. He was not just writing children’s books, he was writing for children, with a very specific audience in mind.
Robert Leeson has, in fact, very well formed ideas on children’s literature in all its aspects, and he has set them out in his latest book, Reading and Righting, subtitled ‘The past, present and future in fiction for the young’. His ideas demand our attention because he does not adopt the exclusive ‘I write for myself’ approach which makes the reader an observer. Rather, he sees children’s fiction as being inclusive, part of the social fabric, and in one sense, created by all of us. It is the authors who give it back to us in its particular form but he points out that the greatest changes in the last few years have been due to pressures from the outside. Children’s literature, for him, is not a junior branch of adult literature but an entity in its own right. It has its own reasons for its existence. By looking back, his book illuminates the future. He explains how, just as much as in the past, every book has a message and there is little point in pretending that it does not. There is a differential in age and experience between the author and the reader which results in a transfer of information. The aim may not be heavily didactic but children do learn from books. He believes that it is impossible to write a story free of all ethical and moral considerations which puts a certain burden of responsibility on the author – and, surely, on those of us who choose books for children. Reading and Righting not only deals with the past and present, however, as he is equally thoughtful about the future.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of talking to Robert Leeson is that he does believe that the book has a future. As the author of many of the Grange Hill stories in book form, he does not see television as a threat. No new medium, he argues, has to prove its worth by wiping out the existing ones. He points out that the first ‘tie-in’ was created in 1828 when an author and a publisher sneaked down to Covent Garden, witnessed the new Punch and Judy, and smartly brought out the book. Many books start as something else and there is no reason why books and television should not live in a state of competitive coexistence. He objects to what he calls ‘assessment by category’, the kind of criticism which says it must be rubbish because it is on television. In his view, the greatest risk to the future of the book is the kind of person who regards books as possessing a special moral stature and retreats to the ivory tower with them. He illustrates this kind of shortsightedness with the story of the conference delegate who disapproved of presentations on television of Shakespeare, urging that the plays should be returned to the book, ‘where they belong’.
One comes away from an interview with Robert Leeson feeling that he is ‘one of us’. He is clearly but quietly deeply concerned with children and their reading, and extends a hand to teachers and librarians, hoping that we will all work together. He sees children’s books as being crucial. The child readers are the book’s future. He thinks particularly that the most important kind of book is that for the reluctant or unwilling reader. We must go on, trying to widen the base, widen the appeal. To do this he would like to see the class reader rehabilitated. After all, it may be some children’s only experience of books. He has already been successful with one of his own books, It’s My Life, which after being read in class is being bought in the school bookshop and taken home. He is hoping to do it again with his new time travel book, due at the end of the year in the Longman Knockout format. It is called Time Rope and presents the reader with three statements: ‘know who you were’, ‘understand who you are’, ‘decide what you will be’. It will be in four parts so if part one goes well there are three more for the class to look forward to. They probably will look forward to them, for it is certain that their author is someone who has thought long and to good purpose about books for children and always writes with his young readers’ needs firmly in mind.
(available in hardback from Collins and in paperback from Fontana unless otherwise stated)
The Adventures of Baxter & Co., 0 00 184124 6, £4.95
Bess, 0 00 672218 0, £1.25 pbk
Candy for King, 0 00 184136 X, £6.95; 0 00 672467 1, £1.50 pbk
Challenge in the Dark, 0 00 671648 2, £1.00 pbk
The Demon Bike Rider, 0 00 671320 3, £1.00 pbk
Forty Days of Tucker J., 0 00 672176 1, £1.00 pbk
Genie on the Loose, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11177 3, £5.95; 0 00 672294 6, £1.25 pbk
Grange Hill Rules – OK?, 0 00 671658 X, £1.25 pbk
Grange Hill Goes Wild, 0 00 671812 4, £1.25 pbk
Grange Hill For Sale, 0 00 671813 2, £1.25 pbk
Grange Hill Home and Away, 0 00 672091 9, £1.25 pbk
Harold and Bella, Jammy and Me, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10722 9, £5.25; 0 00 671606 7, £1.25 pbk
It’s My Life, 0 00 184248 X, £4.95; Collins Cascades, 0 00 330008 0, £1.75; 0 00 671783 7, £1.25 pbk
’Maroon Boy, 0 00 672097 8, £1.25 pbk
Reading and Righting, 0 00 184413 X, £6.95; 0 00 184415 6, £4.95 pbk
Silver’s Revenge, 0 00 184783 X, £4.95; 0 00 672466 3, £1.75 pbk
The Third Class Genie, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10623 0, £5.50; 0 00 671633 4, £1.25 pbk
The White Horse, 0 00 184925 5; £4.95; 0 00 672252 0, £1.50 pbk