Philippa Pearce (1920 – 2006)
When born: Ann Philippa Pearce was born on the 23rd January 1920, just after the end of World War I, the last of four children (2 boys and 2 girls) born to a Cambridge flour-miller and his wife.
Where born: She was born in the little village of Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire, just four miles outside Cambridge in England. She grew up in her dad’s picturesque mill-house on the River Cam, and spent her childhood canoeing, fishing and swimming in the river, and even ice skating in really cold winters when the river froze over. The village, river and countryside where she lived became the settings for many of her wonderful children’s stories when she grew up.
School days: Philippa was very ill as a young girl with a kidney disease, so she stayed at home and didn’t start school until she was 8 years old. She whiled away her time reading and writing stories – her favourite story was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. But when she got to school, at the now famous Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, she worked very hard at her favourite subjects, especially English, and eventually won a scholarship to the equally famous Girton College at Cambridge University where she was awarded an honours degree in …English!
Why and when she began writing: When Philippa Pearce left University, World War II had broken out, so initially she worked for the Civil Service. But after the war, she joined the BBC in their schools broadcasting department. She had to write scripts for the children’s programs, which proved to be great training for writing her books later on. But then she fell seriously ill again, and had to spend a long time in hospital recovering. During that period, she passed the time thinking about a canoe trip that she had done on the River Cam just beside her home when she was a child. She used her memories of that trip to write a wonderful adventure story about two children who go on a canoe trip searching for treasure, The Minnow on the Say, which was published in 1955 and was runner-up for the famous Carnegie Medal – an amazing achievement for a first-time writer! Three years later her second and most famous book was published – Tom’s Midnight Garden – which quickly became a children’s classic, and this time won the Carnegie Medal. Philippa wrote over 30 books in her lifetime, and is regarded as one of the greatest English children’s writers of the twentieth century.
Why I love Philippa Pearce’s books: Philippa Pearce really loved talking to and listening to children, and when she wrote her books, she worked very hard to tell her stories through the eyes of a child. So she understood very clearly how old adults seem to be to children (though we’re not really that old – honest!) and the love children have for animals, and how important it is to get the name of a pet exactly right. So when children read her books, they feel a real connection with the kids in the stories. Also, she loved nature and the countryside, and all her books are set in beautiful countryside places, or rivers, or gardens, which are wonderful to imagine as you read her stories. When you read her books, you feel as if you too are skating down a frozen river, or sailing in a canoe under the willow trees, or exploring a beautiful old garden.
Although Philippa didn’t begin writing children’s books until she was 31, once she started she didn’t stop, and in fact she kept on going right up until just before her death at the ripe old age of 86. There was even a book published after she died!
But at the same time, she worked as a children’s editor for the famous publishers Oxford University Press and then Andre Deutsch, and was much-loved by the many children’s writers with whom she worked over the years.
Philippa Pearce didn’t get married until she was 42, but sadly her husband died less than two years later, just after their baby Sally was born.
For the last 33 years of her life, Philippa lived in the very same village of Great Shelford where she was born and grew up, living in a cottage with a lovely garden, including a goat, a pony, a cat, a dog and some hens! It also had a huge vegetable patch, just like the vegetable garden in my latest book The Tale of Rhonda Rabbit! I wonder if she had the same trouble with rabbits as the Emperor Qin Shi Huang did?
Her daughter Sally Christie grew up to become another well-known children’s book author, and she still lives in a cottage opposite her mum’s old cottage in Great Shelford.
“I’m as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth!”
“A great deal of childhood is strong stuff for adults, and totally unsuitable for children!”
“People think how carefree children are (but) children have different cares, and cares particularly which they don’t want to articulate”.
Philippa Pearce often preferred talking to kids than to adults, because “they always yawn when they are bored” which she thought was far more honest than adults, who would pretend to be interested in what she was saying, even if they weren’t.
Philippa Pearce never had an official website, but there are some excellent articles about her on www.walker.co.uk, www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/Jan/07/guardianobituaries.booksforchildrenandteenagers and especially www.telegraph.co.uk/new/obituaries/1537873/Philippa-Pearce.html