“I had a lonely childhood and growing-up time” | Children’s book writer and historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff

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Books for Keeps Issue  64 (1990) Cover

Margaret Meek, an academic at The Institute of Education in London, wrote a monograph about Rosemary Sutcliff, and later, a tribute to her on her 70th birthday in Books for Keeps, in 1990.

Theres a revealing paragraph in the collection of stories which (Rosemary Sutcliff) edited with Monica Dickens, Is Anyone There?, where she says: `I had a lonely childhood and growing-up time. My parents loved me and I loved them, but I could never talk to them about the problems and fears and aching hopes inside me that I had most need to talk about to someone. And there was no one else.’

Writers cannot be convivial people in work time; their chosen craft is a solitary one. But to be cut off in childhood from the society of the school playground, where the gossipy tales are told, is a particular deprivation. Rosemary Sutcliff could never have been a chatty novelist. Yet her experience of being read to throughout her childhood by a sympathetic adult (her mother) bears out everything that has been researched or said about reading stories to children. If you want to understand where Rosemary Sutcliff, as a novelist, `comes from’, read The Jungle Books, Kim and The Just So Stories, preferably aloud.

… To read Rosemary Sutcliff is to discover what reading is good for. So this anniversary and this accomplishment make me ask what might be the contemporary appeal or, more simply, the enduring attraction of the historical novels for the young. After all, much has clearly changed in children’s books and reading since television became their more immediate storyteller, and novelists, now more matey and informal, adopted a more elliptical vernacular prose, in which the readers’ ease is more visible than the challenge to read … (Her) first page swings the characters into action in a situation as clear as a television image. The names of the people and places set the rules of belonging; the relations between the sexes are formally arrayed; the battles are long and fierce. Readers who are unaccustomed to the building up of suspense in poised sentences may need a helping hand …  the best way into a Sutcliff narrative, a kind of initiation, is to hear it read aloud. Then you know what the author means when she says she tells her tales `from the inside’.

Source: Books For Keeps, Issue 64.

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