Gene Kemp (1926 – 2015) was a writer who took the reality of children’s lives to create inspirational stories for real children to read. She wrote around 30 books, including the acclaimed sequence of school stories set in Cricklepit Combined. The first and most celebrated of these, The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (1977) won both the Carnegie Medal and the Other Award and was deservedly reissued on 1st January 2015 as a Faber Classic.
Gene Kemp (née Rushton) was born in 1926 near Tamworth. Her own childhood years were later to inspire The Well (1988) and the name of the central character in her first book for children, The Pride of Tamworth Pig (1972). She won a scholarship to Exeter University (who in turn acknowledged Gene’s own contribution as a children’s writer by awarding her an Honorary MA in 1984) before training to become a teacher. She taught at St. Sidwell’s School, Exeter, for 16 years and believed children should be holding a book ‘from day one’, keeping a stash of Beano and Marvel comics in her classroom to win over more reluctant readers. When she left teaching for writing she continued as a governor at St Sidwell’s and left a bequest of £1,000 to the school library on her death.
Gene’s children’s books hold a particular mirror up to school and family life and her dialogue and descriptions are often delightfully idiosyncratic. However, she was not alone in the context of her time in looking to the ordinary world for inspiration. When I started at Puffin in 1987 her work was being published alongside Anne Fine, Nina Bawden and Robert Westall in fiction and Allan Ahlberg and Michael Rosen in poetry but Gene very much had her own individual approach. ‘What I most enjoy when writing are unusual people going about their lives as best they can and, most of all, I care for the inadequate, the rebels, the fearful, the bullies and the bullied, the deprived and the underdogs and the strange.’ She always looked beneath the surface, fully understanding how children learned ‘to camouflage and hide themselves’. Gene also had also an irrepressible sense of fun which is perhaps why ghosts, ghouls and other things a little bit frightening also make appearances in her work. She understood that children enjoy being scared.
Unpretentious, direct, conscientious and totally committed, Gene’s approach to writing was always grounded: ‘characters, plot, description and dialogue make a book’ she’d say. She’d deliver her manuscripts in clean, neat physical typescript form when others had long abandoned the form for digital. She’d deliver on time without fuss. Or just ring when she wanted to talk – she was never one to waste time on email.
Faber always remained Gene’s principle publisher and though there were aspects of twenty-first century publishing she found frustrating, she valued the friendship of her editors and their hard work. She was a loyal author. And if ever a writer remained young at heart to the end, it was Gene Kemp.
Philippa Milnes-Smith, January 2015 Managing Director, LAW Writers’ and Artists’ Agents