Ian Serraillier, who died last week at the age of 82, was actively involved in children's literature and educational publishing for half a century. With his wife Anne, he founded the Heinemann New Windmill series, which since its inception in 1950 has grown to more than 350 titles. Under their editorship, the series has been international in outlook and has embraced modern classics, biography and travel as well as an imaginative range of current fiction for both children and adults. It reflects the breadth of Serraillier's own interests, but also his sure judgement of what English teachers need.
Himself a schoolteacher for 25 years until he retired to give all his time to writing, he wrote a number of prose and verse retellings of classical myth and legend, medieval romance and 19th-century children's classics which successive generations of teachers have found invaluable as introductions to the common stock of great stories.
Books such as Beowulf the Warrior and The Enchanted Island: Stories from Shakespeare have provided lively, modern, unpretentious points of entry to the world of literature and ancient history, and in his own original verses such as "The Ballad of Kon-Tiki", Serraillier similarly opened the door to the imaginative excitement of contemporary events. Yet in the midst of all this prolific activity, Serraillier's lasting achievement rests on a single book, The Silver Sword.
First published in 1956, The Silver Sword has proved enormously popular both in its original form as a part-documentary novel and in media adaptations. Based on real-life events, it tells the story of the Balicki family, who are separated during the Nazi occupation of Poland and, after heroic feats of sheer determination against all the odds, are reunited in post-war Switzerland. The power of the book lies in its combination of myth-like happenings with a sober, unsensational, documentary truthfulness. Apparent enemies turn into friends and allies, dangers are surmounted, and bizarre coincidences come to their aid. But the Balicki children are believeable and ordinary, bringing a down-to-earth practicality to the task of survival. The writing has the same steady, everyday convincingness, nowhere more so than in its portrait of wartime shading uneasily into peace. It is a timeless story, meticulously set in modern time and place.
The Silver Sword was perfectly suited to Serraillier's professional skills as a teacher and storyteller, and will survive him as a children's classic produced from a creative teaching life.