10 December 1903 – 29 August 1992
On the one occasion I met Mary Norton, in a studio at Broadcasting House, shortly after the publication of The Borrowers Avenged, she was already almost 80. Behind her old-fashioned good manners, though, there was still an actressy twinkle – not to mention a tendency to chainsmoke on a scale that would have warmed Pod, Homily, Arrietty et al for an entire winter. I was completely enchanted. She reminded me of Aunt Sophy in her stories, who drank a decanter of Fine Old Pale Madeira every night and after the first three glasses didn’t believe anything she saw … so even the diffident Pod felt safe visiting her.
Unlike Aunt Sophy, Mary Norton did believe what she saw, at any rate enough to make us believe it, and what she saw was tiny people, six inches high, who live in the nooks and crannies of our lives and `borrow’ the bits and bobs we leave behind us. The Borrowers won her the Carnegie Medal in 1952 and was followed by The Borrowers Afield (1955), The Borrowers Afloat (1959), The Borrowers Aloft 1961 and, astonishingly after a 20-year gap, The Borrowers Avenged 1982).
Mary Norton’s childhood was spent in her family’s Georgian manor house in Bedfordshire, the setting for many of her books. After convent school, she joined the Old Vic Company before marriage took her to Portugal, America and back to England, by which time she was supporting herself and her four children with articles, translations, short stories, radio work and books – The Magic Bedknob (1943), Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947) and Are All the Giants Dead? (1975) as well as the tales about the Borrowers which made her famous. For the last two decades of her life she lived in County Cork.
The Borrowers, of course, lived wherever they could, in an endless search for permanence put continually at risk by the fear of being seen by humans. According to Mrs May, who first tells their story to Kate, it was this fear which had reduced them in size so that `each generation had become smaller and smaller and more and more hidden’ till, by the time Kate hears about them, they’ve vanished altogether.
Not that they ever will from children’s bookshelves. The humour, poignancy, inventiveness and sheer storytelling skill of Mary Norton’s fantasy surely guarantees their preservation. CP
The Borrowers on BBC1
Beginning on 8 November, a six-part dramatisation by Richard Carpenter of The Borrowers and The Borrowers Afield is shown on BBC1 this autumn. Directed by John Henderson and produced by Grainne Marmion, the adaptation stars Ian Holm as Pod, Penelope Wilton as Homily and Rebecca Callard as Arrietty, their young daughter who longs for knowledge of the world and, in particular, friendship with a Human Bean. The Borrowers is independently produced for BBC-TV by Working Title Television.
Books In Schools
Did you know that English primary schools currently spend about £9.00 per pupil per annum on books? And that secondary schools spend £13.50?
Compare this with the Book Trust’s recent estimate that £15.27 and £24.97, respectively, are needed to meet the minimum requirements of the National Curriculum and a new gloss is put on the Government’s continual gripes about the teaching of reading. According to Michael Marland, who chaired the committee which produced Books in Schools for the Book Trust, `the evidence shows that the initial stages of reading are generally well taught’, but it’s the later stages which should be causing concern. `Our study,’ he says `might irritate the Government by its stress on the shortage of funds for schools to buy books. And it might irritate the profession by its equal stress on the curriculum weakness of secondary schools.’
For the full report, write to Books in Schools, Book House, 45 East Hill, London SW18 2QZ, sending £4.95.
THE EARTHWORM AWARD
The award was set up in 1987 by Friends of the Earth to promote and reward environmental awareness and sensitivity in literature for children of all ages. This year’s winner is Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth by Jonathon Porritt, ill. Ellis Nadler, published by Dorling Kindersley (0 86318 703 X, £6.99).
Who better than Jonathon Porritt to write a powerful story for everyone who cares about the future of our planet?
THE NOTTINGHAMSHIRE CHILDREN’S BOOK AWARDS
The 1992 winners are:
Acorn Award: Mick Inkpen for Kipper (Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 54053 2, £5.99; 0 340 56564 0, £3.50 pbk)
Oak Tree Award: Jacqueline Wilson for The Story of Tracy Beaker (Doubleday, 0 385 40075 6, £7.99; Yearling, 0 440 86279 5, £2.50 pbk)
Both authors were presented with certificates and cheques for £250 from Dillons the Bookstore in an award ceremony at the Arnold Library.
As usual, the winning books were chosen by children themselves from a shortlist drawn up by Nottinghamshire children’s librarians. This year more than 2,000 votes were received in a promotion designed to encourage the reading of books in both schools and local libraries … and it seems to have done just that.
New Zealand Library Association’s Children’s Book Awards
Tessa Duder has won the prestigious Esther Glen Medal for the third time with her novel Alessandra: Alex in Rome (Oxford, 0 19 558230 6, £7.95). The Esther Glen is one of three medals for children’s books awarded annually by the New Zealand Library Association (NZLA).
[* Apologies, by the way, to Tessa Duder for the mistake in our review of Alex in Winter (BfK 74, May 92) where Val Randall wrote `Alex is 15 – a champion swimmer hoping to be selected to swim for Australia in the 1960 Olympic Games.’ She meant, of course, swimming for New Zealand, which is a very different place. Sorry.]
Once Upon a Time
Children’s Book Illustration
In Edinburgh, from 5 November to 27 December, a loan exhibition will be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland, devoted to `the most memorable images in the history of children’s books’. Presenting more than 70 watercolours, drawings and prints by British artists, the Exhibition will display a selection of outstanding illustrations published between the early nineteenth century and the present day, including work by Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, Harold Jones, Beatrix Potter and Edward Ardizzone. Also on offer will be examples of successful collaboration – between Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel, for instance, and E H Shepard and A A Milne – as well as comparison of differing artistic interpretations such as Mervyn Peake’s work for Treasure Island alongside Ralph Steadman’s.
Sounds irresistible, says BfK. Any chance of the Exhibition travelling to the rest of the British Isles?
For further information ‘phone Lindsey Callander or Emma Peto on 031 556 8921.
Ms Muffet Fights Back
The third, updated edition of Susan Adler’s well-known booklist is now available. Susan Adler’s central thesis is that children’s books often under-represent and misrepresent girls and women – with the complementary risk that boys, too, can be trapped by the stereotypes of conventional fiction. The booklist, from current Penguin titles, is clearly signposted with four sections (Picture Books; New Readers 5-8; Young Readers 8-12; Books for Teenage Readers) and is available free of charge.
Write Penguin Children’s Marketing, 27 Wrights Lane, Alison Marshall on London W8 5TZ or ‘phone 071486 3000, ext. 433.
Launched in Children’s Book Week, 3-10 October, were Safeway Superbooks, produced exclusively for Safeway by Julia MacRae who writes: `The chance to produce this list is a dream opportunity for a children’s publisher because it means we can present books of quality to a potentially enormous and growing market.’ The list includes boardbooks, colouring books and titles for beginning readers as well as storybooks and non-fiction … let’s hope the trollies can take the extra weight!
The Library That Doesn’t Exist …
As part of her prize for winning this year’s Library Association Carnegie Medal, Berlie Doherty is allowed to give £1,000 worth of books, donated by Birmingham-based Peters Library Service, to an organisation of her choice. Appropriately enough, perhaps, since her winning book was called Dear Nobody (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13056 5, £8.99), Berlie donated her gift to `a library that no longer exists. It used to be at the top of my street until the local council closed it down 18 months ago.’ Andrew Milroy, who oversees young people’s services in Sheffield, commented `It’s a challenge to the local council to re-open the library in Eccleshall, but whatever their decision the books will provide a valuable resource and will reach a great number of local schools through the schools library service.’