How the Voyage Began: Part 2

So often we discover new authors by way of recommendations. A review or a prize announcement, perhaps. Or maybe the word from a sibling or a teacher or a really good friend. Through reading Robin Klein, I got to know the British writer Jan Mark. I wrote about this for Magpies magazine, in their May 2020 issue …

My association with Jan Mark began in Australia over thirty years ago. Growing up, my favourite author was Robin Klein, author of Hating Alison Ashley, Thing, Came Back to Show You I Could Fly and other memorable classics. Robin was a frequent contributor of stories to The School Magazine, published by the NSW Department for School Education, which I devoured every month through primary school – it made me the reader I am today. My favourite feature was ‘Bookshelf’, which offered an extract from a recently published book, and I vividly remember the extract from Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr Henshaw in 1985, about a boy who began a lasting correspondence with his favourite author.

How lucky was Robin Klein, then, when I decided to write to my favourite author!

(We corresponded for over 10 years, right up until her illness which abruptly halted her writing career. I’m so grateful for that correspondence – and for the other wonderful authors who wrote to me and became friends – and for Belle Alderman at the NCACL who was willing to adopt my collection of letters into that astonishing archive.)

Robin’s favourite author was the British writer Jan Mark. So naturally, I was intrigued to discover her books myself. I didn’t get to meet her when she toured Australia in the summer of 1989, but I wrote to her soon after.

Like Robin, Jan was prolific and versatile, working across all age groups, writing comedy one moment and something serious the next. Their work was firmly grounded in reality (although both shared an interest in science fiction) and a desire to present children with an unblinkered view of the world in which they were growing up and would eventually be expected to operate in as adults. Robin’s work was more sympathetic to the underdog but they both celebrated children who were loners or isolated in some way from the rest of the crowd.

The two writers never met, but I know their admiration was mutual, and I was delighted to take with me on my first visit to England a gift to Jan from Robin of her own books, signed in gratitude and appreciation. I returned to Australia with a reciprocal parcel from Jan to Robin.

Happy memories – but oh so long ago. I moved to London permanently in 1996, after which Jan and I stopped writing to each other (apart from sending cards) and began regularly meeting for leisurely lunches at her home in Oxford. Her productivity accelerated – highly acclaimed (the winner of two prestigious Carnegie Medals, for her first book Thunder an Lightnings and for Handles, and a host of other nominations) she was also reliable – delivering quality work on time, for any audience on practically any topic, so was much in demand by publishers. At the time of her sudden death, in January 2006, she had completed the first handwritten draft of a novel, had another under contract, with two more books already at proof stage.

I missed her enormously – both her books and her company. I was appointed one of her literary executors, and over the next decade there was always something to sign off each year – a renewal of an educational or audio licence, a new cover for an updated edition of a book, terms for a new translation deal. So I knew she remained respected and relevant. Then, in early 2019, I noticed people starting to talk about Jan on social media. Mostly enthusiastic teachers and librarians, some of whom had read her as children, others who had spent time with her on one of the many workshops or school visits she conducted.

Before beginning her writing career when she was 30, Jan had been a teacher. (Much of the comedy in Thunder and Lightnings sends up the rituals of school, especially the death knell sounded to a child’s favourite topic once it becomes the subject of a project.) After writing full-time for 8 years, Jan applied for and was selected for a two-year post as Writer in Residence at what is now Oxford Brookes University. Her brief was to work with trainee teachers who would be expected to ‘teach’ children to write. Knowing many of her students had little experience of contemporary children’s literature to inspire them, let alone their future pupils, Jan devoted her tenure to sharing good literature as well as the skills to create it. She didn’t expect anyone to craft a short story in a one-hour session but she developed lessons that helped you to enjoy the writing process.

She is as renowned as much for this work as for her amazing books, which makes her unique among children’s writers of the late 20th century.

I wanted to draw all Jan’s fans together and provide a platform for them to talk about her. I also wanted to make available Jan’s own comments on the writing process and the genesis of certain books. Although she didn’t need to understand how she worked in order to do it, she was more than happy to indulge the interests of others. I soon realised there was a lot of material out there already from friends and fans that could be included. Who knew that the Stalham Historical Society had been planning a Jan Mark Walk, celebrating the real-life locations on which Thunder and Lightnings was based?

Rapidly grew and is still growing today. I wondered if the platform could be used in other ways – the obvious one being as a vehicle for making Jan’s writing available again. Inevitably, much of her work had gone out of print in the thirteen years since her death. Some of the novels exist as ebooks (I reissued The Ennead, Divide and Rule and Aquarius when I was in my last in-house publishing job) but I thought she deserved, as a lasting tribute, a new print edition of her work. People were buying up second-hand copies where they could and my own much-adored copies were foxed and falling apart. Knowing a new book could be sold through the website – and was unlikely to be stocked on the high street in large numbers – and since I was publishing it myself, I realised it could be anything I wanted it to be. How about a big, fat ‘collected stories’?

And that’s how The One That Got Away, which I published in January 2020, came into being. I worked closely with David Higham literary agency and with the printer Clays whose ‘indie hub’ specialise in short-run publishing, often for independent authors. The book contains four previously uncollected stories, all the stories from Jan’s first, best-known collection, Nothing to Be Afraid Of (Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal), the contents of In Black and White and Eyes Wide Open, plus the two long stories from Hairs in the Palm of the Hand. Long out of print, ‘Chutzpah’ and ‘Time and the Hour’ have proven to be the most popular stories in the collection.

The response has been thrilling: the book has been cited in presentations to teachers and librarians and will hopefully end up on reading lists. A wonderful teacher in Essex tweeted prompts for discussion of a different story every day in January using the hashtag #janMARKuary. I was asked to speak at Oxford Brookes University on a panel about favourite childhood reads. The popular writer Christopher Edge selected Thunder and Lightnings as the first title for discussion on his online Classic Children’s Book Club.

And so it goes on. I’ve reconnected with many old friends throughout this process. But another pleasure has been introducing people to Jan’s work for the first time. Just as the world was going into lockdown in March this year, I received a DM from a fellow fan across the Atlantic who ordered several copies of The One That Got Away for her and her friends. I snuck in a spare copy of another favourite title.

Jon, I am sitting in my favorite French pastry shop (in Tallahassee!) just starting Handles. What a lovely gift.

What a great memory. The work is the true gift, of course – and happily there’s so much of it to celebrate, with people getting in touch all the time. (Please join in if you’d like to!) Now I’m mulling over the next project I want to embark on; a world on the web for Robin Klein, because there’s so little recorded about her. I’m certain Jan Mark would approve. And I look forward to meeting readers of Magpies there one day.