Obsessed with Anne and Amsterdam

14th July 2000 at 01:00
Aidan Chambers entered the mind of an adolescent to bring off his prize winning novel for teenagers, 'Postcards from No Man's Land'. He talks to Geraldine Brennan.

AIDAN Chambers allows himself a Hitchcock cameo in Postcards from No Man's Land - his novel for teenagers which won the Carnegie Medal last week. The adolescent hero, Jacob, notices the author ("English, middle-aged, a bit like my dad") among a crowd of visitors at Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam.

Postcards opens just after this scene but Jacob's account of his visit to the hiding place at 253 Prinsengracht (the culmination of an obsession with Anne and her diary) is saved for the end.

This is typical of the architecturally-neat construction of a modern rite-of passage fairytale for mature teenagers. Chambers weaves in strands that include the case for euthanasia (which is legal in Holland), the legacy of World War Two, and the ability of youth to transform the experience of the past. It is a novel with one foot in Europe which has at its heart a determination not to underestimate the young reader emotionally or intellectually.

This determination is central to Chambers' crusade on behalf of children and their books - first as an English and drama teacher in the 1960s (he was an Anglican monk during this time), later as a lecturer, critic and editor of series fiction for children and a writer of novels and plays.

He credits Jim Osborne, his English teacher at Queen Elizabeth I grammar school in Darlington, with turning him into a writer by first making him a serious critical reader. "He showed me that living with literature was the most important thing you could do. He was a vigorous teacher." Before that he was brought up through wartime in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, where his father was a joiner. "I hated being a kid. I wanted to be grown up."

He writes for young readers about preoccupations that they might share with adults. His model, he says, is Mark Twain, "who gives Huckleberry Finn the wisdom of a 50-year-old but does it in such a way that you believe in Huck's voice".

And, like Jacob, he has absorbed lessons from Anne Frank, as a writer as well as a symbol of the potential of youth under dire circumstances. "She's my benchmark of how a young person can think and write, very mature but with a wonderful sense of still being a girl. Whenever I wonder if I'm getting it right, I re-read her diry."

Jacob's relationship with Anne is typical of the tension between fact and fiction in the book. Chambers has sprinkled it with real names and places. The character, Alma, a wise older woman who rescues Jacob when he gets lost in Amsterdam, is based on the Dutch children's book illustrator Nance Post. You can follow the book's directions to Rembrandt's painting in the Rijksmuseum of his son Titus, whom Jacob resembles.

"See, here he is," Chambers says, pulling a postcard out of his briefcase. He has also kept the napkin on which he jotted down the title of Postcards during dinner with Dutch friends in 1990 - when the daughter of the family referred to adolescence as "the no one's land".

It is set in 1995, a year after the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem in which the British tried in vain to liberate Holland. Jacob uncovers his family history in the margins of official accounts of the war.

He is named after his grand- father, a British soldier who was wounded at Arnhem. He had a wife in England, but fell in love with Geertrui, a young Dutch woman who nursed him and helped him into hiding. Geertrui survived the war, but her lover died before liberation. Geertrui's sexually frank account of her war years is one story; survivors' memoirs and Jacob's point of view supply others. Jacob is an engaging hero: a literate boy who delights in wordplay.

Chambers' novels for teenagers (Breaktime, Dance on My Grave, Now I Know and The Toll Bridge) are probably those of his books currently best-known in schools in the UK. Like another much talked-about book this week, Postcards is part of a sequence, with one more novel to come. Chambers also co-founded the children's literature journal Signal, which his wife Nancy edits.

He is widely read in the Low Countries and Scandinavia and the Dutch have given him two prized Silver Pencil awards. A trip to collect one led him to him meeting Joke van Leuvwens, the Dutch writer whose daughter gave him his new title. In life, as in the novel, it all adds up.

Postcards From No Man's Land is published by The Bodley Head, pound;10.99. The Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals were awarded by the Library Association. The Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration went to Helen Oxenbury, who is interviewed in Friday magazine (page 7) Harry Potter, Friday magazine, 23 'Anne Frank is my benchmark of how a young person can think and write'

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