Children’s literature needs authors who can be guaranteed to set the highest standards. This does not always make them hugely popular with young readers or put them in the market for lucrative film or television deals. But as beacons for aspiring writers they continue to show what is still achievable in a literary world where instant commercial success now seems more important than ever.
Jan Mark was indisputably one such writer. Her first novel, Thunder and Lightnings, was written as she put it herself ‘to meet the demands on myself as an adult, not those of the child I once was.’ Its unadorned language and minimal authorial intervention were to become her trademarks. Winning the Carnegie Medal for 1976, its success imposed on Jan what she late described as an obligation to produce further work that would be quite as good. But always liking to make her audiences work, she deliberately set out to discourage less sophisticated readers in her future novels.
Nor did she mind taking a darker tone before this became more fashionable in teenage novels. Early books like The Ennead, Divide and Rule and Aquarius offended some critics, with their bleak message about a hopeless future where social manipulation and ultimate betrayal have become the norm. But away from futurology, Jan’s novels set in the home were more upbeat. Handles was a particularly sunny story, about a city girl unwillingly transported to the countryside. She then discovers an anarchic motorbike repair outfit in the nearby town which quickly becomes her new spiritual home.
Drawing on her experience in the classroom, Jan’s Hairs in the Palm of the Hand in made up of two stories, both of which are funny and deadly accurate. Her teachers leave cardboard stereotypes well behind to come out as people quite as real and occasionally as quirky as their pupils. Other books take up controversial issues, but always without any note of social propaganda. Trouble Half-Way is a wonderfully tender description of a young girl’s growing relationship with her stepfather lorry driver. Forced into each other’s exclusive company for a week’s travel through England, this novel almost invites readers to fear the worst before delighting them with how well everything finally works out.
In Dream House, parents are shown as being lovingly severe with adolescent children who are continually trying things on. No one is patronised in this good-humoured survival course in family dynamics. Man in Motion, told largely in dialogue, also has a cast of tough-minded children. Strongly anti-racist, it makes its point powerfully but subtly. And throughout here and elsewhere there is always that special Jan Mark humour: salty, street-wise and verbally inventive. In Under the Autumn Garden, jokes take on a more erudite quality. One young character refers to a ‘cat’s cradle of conversation… He could tell it was meant to be funny from the smiles in their voices, but the jokes went over his head.’ Some children may not always spot them either, but they probably will should they return to these books at a later date. There is always much to re-read in any of Jan’s novels.
She continued to write brilliantly up till her untimely death. The Sighting is a return to the world of family politics, accompanied by a look into past history. Her extraordinary Eclipse of the Century links the millennium with a near-death experience in a way that only she could pull off. Heathrow Nights is a typically ironic description of some schoolboys deciding to camp out at the world’s largest airport for an indefinite period.
Two last novels testify to the sheer range of Jan’s achievement. Riding Tycho is set in the future at a bleak time where religious fundamentalism and brutal gender discrimination have once again become the norm. But Demetria, the child at the centre of this story, learns from a political prisoner that there is a better life somewhere else, and resolves to find it. Turbulence, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, returns to the domestic scene that Jan understood so well. Tall, bright and sensitive, Clay finds it easier watching old films with her dad than socialising with her fellow teenagers. But an odd couple, newly arrived in the neighbourhood, shake up everything, including Clay herself. Sometimes gauche, inclined to be suspicious but always fiercely intelligent and a firm friend to anyone who gets to know her, Clay in some ways resembles the greatly missed author who created her and so many other memorable characters. To encounter Clay again, it is only necessary to return to this story. To get a renewed sense of Jan, any of her fifty of so novels will soon reveal what a true original we have now lost.