When Jan Mark died suddenly at the age of 62, she left a hugely impressive body of work. She was one of very few people to win the Carnegie Medal twice (in 1976 for her first book, Thunder and Lightnings, and in 1983 for Handles); her more than seventy titles include science fiction and fantasy, picture books, illustrated non-fiction, plays, poetry and a travel book about Canada. Fans will all have their favourites – mine is Trouble Half-Way - and for many readers and reviewers, her short stories show a brilliance matching that of the novels.
This book brings together, for the first time, thirty stories, written over a period of thirty years. Some are familiar from the collections In Black and White and Nothing to Be Afraid Of; others are new to me, with four collected here for the first time. It’s a delight to re-encounter Jan Mark’s trademark wit, empathy and acute observation. The title story, The One That Got Away, is a masterpiece of economy, while several stories include a ghostly element, usually quirky or poignant rather than frightening. Typically, we’re invited into a domestic situation, siding with a viewpoint character and attempting to understand or navigate the unreasonableness of peers or adults.
In Who’s a Pretty Boy, Then? Rachel resists her father’s accusations of teaching his budgerigars to talk; but something odd is going on in that aviary. I loved The Choice is Yours, in which a hapless schoolgirl scuttles back and forth, caught between the incompatible demands of two imperious teachers. Nule has a marvellous ending in which Martin is trapped in a dilemma of his own making, arising from fear - real or imagined? - of a dressed-up newel post that seems to have taken on an unsettling personality.
In all Jan Mark’s writing, you’d struggle to find a cliché. Instead there’s a wealth of sharp observation and fancy: Libby in Nule imagines a bath with clawed feet “galloping out of the bathroom and tobogganing downstairs on its stomach, like a great white walrus plunging into the sea.” In The Choice is Yours, we meet the teachers in whose battle of wills Brenda will soon be caught: “In the Music Room Miss Helen Francis sat at the piano, head bent over the keyboard as her fingers titupped from note to note, and swaying back and forth like a snake charming itself. At the top of the Changing Room steps Miss Marion Taylor stood, sportively poised with one hand on the doorknob and a whistle dangling on a string from the other, quivering with eagerness to be out on the field and inhaling fresh air. They could see each other. Brenda, standing in the doorway of the Music Room, could see them both.”
Jan Mark is quoted on the back cover: “I write about children, but I don’t mind who reads the books.” I hope this new publication will bring renewed pleasure to her admirers, while bringing her work to a fresh generation. Although names like Brenda, Gordon and Anthea and numerous domestic details inevitably date the stories, the vigour of the writing is as fresh and appealing as ever.
Linda Newbery’s The Key to Flambards is published by David Fickling Books.