Barbara Leonie Picard (1917-2011)
Brian Alderson writes…
With the death of Barbara Leonie Picard (and, more recently, Leila Berg) few writers and illustrators of children’s books remain to us whose work dates back into the 1940s. Her first book, The Mermaid and the Simpleton, illustrated by Philip Gough, after the manner of Rex Whistler, was a set of Farjeonesque fairytales, some of which had been broadcast earlier on the BBC’s ‘Children’s Hour’. It was published in 1949 by a resurgent Oxford University Press and for some twenty years they were to remain her most regular publishers. Much of her work for them lay in the retelling of classic and popular stories, for instance The Odyssey in 1952, or French Legends, Tales and Fairy Stories in 1955 in the big Oxford Myths and Legends series, to which she would add a Persian volume in 1972. In 1956 however Oxford published the first in a number of historical stories, the very remarkable Ransom for a Knight which was (like the later Lost John) a runner-up for the Carnegie Medal – both of them more deservous of winning it than the books that did.
Picard, the daughter of somewhat dysfunctional parents who early separated, was herself an eccentric, her intellectual gifts in some measure unfulfilled through an unambitious career as a librarian. That said, it must be added that children’s librarianship made little appeal to her, for she did not care much for the young, her writing stemming from the challenge posed by the mythic or narrative material with which she was confronted. Not long before her death she was, as it were, rediscovered, living a reclusive life in a hideaway cottage in Sussex and this led to her donating remnants of her creative life to Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle upon Tyne.