Obituary - Leila Berg 1917-2012

Kerra Maddern

In the days when children's books featured mainly "angerless, joyless, lifeless conversation", author and editor Leila Berg set out on a passionate quest to change young people's reading experience. She believed the books available for children were unsuitable for those from more deprived homes or non-standard families, and that this alienated them from reading for pleasure. They depicted scenes such as the whole family sitting down "to have breakfast at a snowy damask-clothed table, all properly dressed and calm", she said.

So Mrs Berg began to write her own books for young readers, featuring scenes she knew were typical in Britain at the time: having fish and chips for supper; rummaging at jumble sales; playing the pools. Her controversial but popular "Nippers" series led to her receiving the Eleanor Farjeon Award in 1974 for services to children's literature.

Born in 1917, Leila Goller was the child of Russian immigrants and grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood in Salford. She described Manchester as "full of books and concerts and theatre and films", and she loved "loitering" in record and book shops, unable to buy but sampling what was on offer.

It was, however, not a perfect time. She had a difficult relationship with her doctor father; she said he never spoke to her until her mother left home and he needed help. Refusing to go to university, she also walked out of teacher training, but was awarded a distinction when she switched to a journalism course. Her first newspaper job was at the communist Daily Worker at the time of the Spanish Civil War, an uprising that claimed the lives of two of her boyfriends.

She campaigned against fascism and organised aid to Spain. During the Second World War, she and her husband Harry Berg were bombed out of their house while she was pregnant with their first child, Jenny. They later had a son, Daniel.

Mrs Berg's first children's book, Fourteen What-Do-You-Know Stories, was published in 1948. She edited as well as authored the Nippers series, recruiting young writers such as Jacqueline Wilson to contribute tales.

In 1968, she wrote an account of the closure of Risinghill comprehensive in North London. Its headteacher, Michael Duane, controversially refused to use corporal punishment, but motivated children by allowing them to have a say in how their school was run. Mr Duane and other champions of alternative education such as A.S. Neill and John Holt became her friends and colleagues, and with their support and encouragement she compiled and edited a book on children's rights.

In 1974, Mrs Berg and her husband separated. She moved to Essex and in 1997 her unusual memoir, Flickerbook, was published. In it, she "re-experienced" her upbringing by capturing her inner voice at different ages.

This autumn, the Leila Berg Collection will be launched at Seven Stories, the national archive of modern British children's literature. Jacqueline Wilson will speak, among others, about Mrs Berg's contribution and influence.

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Kerra Maddern

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