When is a children’s book not a children’s book? I might be risking pretentiousness to refer to Ezra Pound and his ‘news that stays news’, but writing for children is not far off that definition: some knowledge or insight into the world is handed down to the next generation, and if it really lives that book will endure. If, however, it’s too bound up in the interests of one particular audience, it will quickly become a curio at best. The difference is sometimes hard to articulate, and whilst this blog is meant to talk about books for young readers, there is something about a truly great writer that is capable of transcending their original audience and satisfy grown-up readers as well: that’s why I’m talking about Jan Mark today.
I never read her when I was young, but for most of my childhood she was a firm part of the landscape. She won the Carnegie Medal, not once but twice (and nobody has yet won it three times), appeared in anthologies and edited them too. When I first read her, the two-story collection Hairs in the Palm of the Hand (playing by its own rules, so typically of her), my partner remembered her work with real pleasure. Who could forget young Eileen’s blithe Chutzpah in the subversive and hilarious story of that name, invading another school and running rings around the teachers and kids there? Or the boys in Time and the Hour who play in such a serious fashion with losing or saving time?
For myself, I felt I had discovered something truly, rebelliously alive despite the intervening years. Now, those tales and four volumes of her short stories have been collected in The One That Got Away, edited by Jon Appleton (who also runs this wonderful site in celebration of her). All month, expertly led by teacher and Mark fan Ben Harris, we’ve celebrated #JanMARKuary on Twitter, discussing Jon’s collection of ghost stories, stories about dares, witty stories, school stories and more. I’ve never enjoyed January more! But is Mark, with hardly any of her huge output still in print, the great writer that got away – or could she be about to enter a new era of readership?
It seems rarely discussed these days, the crossover in readership. A very few books (The Wizard of Earthsea comes to mind) are published in two different editions. Very long-standing children’s classics like Alice and the Willows are probably read more by older readers than younger. I can only think of one writer whose work has been published originally for children but is now read by adults, and understood to be about children and not just for them: that’s A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam. I am absolutely certain that any fan of Gardam’s would relish Mark’s work; only this week, I have also seen her compared to Henry James. There is a trace of Saki in some of her stories, too, when she is at her most sardonic and her least reassuring.
In the 1970s, children’s literature was not always reassuring. It introduced young readers to sophisticated ideas about the world: loss, change, terror, the strangeness of time, the bitterness of history, the unfairness of the world. At one point in Thunder and Lightnings, still in Puffin (like an open secret), Andrew’s Mum tells him, ‘There’s no such thing as fairness. It’s a word made up to keep children quiet. When you discover it’s a fraud then you’re starting to grow up.’ But the heroic project of the great writers of this literature is that they ally with the child in this maddening world: they are on the side of hope, of underdogs, of alternate perspectives, of delight in the world for itself and not to an end. All this might be something worth rediscovering, particularly when it’s told with such Marked skill.
In many ways Thunder and Lightnings (1976), feels fixed in time (Mark said that later stories, including many of those in The One That Got Away, were set in the past so the story would have ‘had the chance to cool off’) – not just as a depiction of how cherished things are lost and of how we ‘start to grow up’, but also with glancing references to recession and the proximity of the Second World War, and an image of childhood as unmodern now as William Brown’s would have been then. It is told with such delicacy and such vibrancy, though, that it is criminal if (as I assume) it falls between two readerships. After all, the story of how we leave childhood is not just relevant to those who haven’t done so yet.
Mark is not only a writer should crossover in publishing terms, but someone who crosses over as a writer. I often think of children’s books as characterised by Michael Rosen (who, I think, should have a handle on the subject if anyone if anyone does!), as “not so much for children, but as the filling that goes between the child world and the adult world”. The news that stays news may well be about that relationship: author, audience, teacher, student. If you have ever been a child, or wondered about the strange responsibility of being grown up, you should not let Jan Mark be the writer who got away from you. Catch her while you can.
The One that Got Away is currently available exclusively from the Jan Mark is Here website. Thunder and Lightnings is published by Puffin, and you can get it from your local independent or here from Waterstones. It’s currently being discussed online via Christopher Edge’s Classic Children’s Book Club: @ClassicChBkClub The spirit of #JanMARKuary lives on!