Linda Newbery’s writing career to date begins and ends with animal rights. In between is a diverse selection of topics, themes and genres for a wide-ranging audience.
Animal welfare is something Linda has been passionate about for many years. A vegetarian since her twenties, she has become increasingly involved in campaigning and educating on the subject. Over many years her thinking has firmed up and has been influenced and developed by her campaigning on environmental issues. Naturally she has continued to read around these issues and her knowledge has deepened. Her forthcoming book, This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us, due to be published by Pavilion in June, is a first foray into non-fiction and comes from the heart.
I discovered Linda’s books as a young school librarian. Recently qualified and newly chartered, I had just been transferred from one Lanarkshire secondary school to another. I spent the summer holiday going through my new stock, weeding and re-organising it, and pulling random fiction off the shelves to read at home. The library didn’t have a copy of Linda’s first book, Run with the Hare, but we did have Some Other War and that was how I met Linda and her work.
It was only partially a random choice from my new shelves however. It had immediately recommended itself to me because of its First World War setting. Having enjoyed reading it, I was delighted to discover that it was part of a trilogy (The Kind Ghosts and The Wearing of the Green are the others) and read them which took me up to date with Linda’s books. I was in the fortunate position of being able to read these three books together and I had always unconsciously assumed that they were planned as a trilogy but, speaking to Linda recently, I discovered that was not the case.
The first of the three books focuses on twins Jack and Alice as they do their bit in the Great War. Leaving behind their lives as servants, they both end up on the Western Front, Jack fighting and Alice nursing, alongside some of those they had served. Needless to say they are changed utterly by their experiences and Linda says that she knew that there was too much story for one book as she was writing the first one and so The Kind Ghosts materialised. By this time she also knew that she wanted to write a third book which would focus on Patrick, one of the minor characters. His book, The Wearing of the Green, backtracks in time and features the complex situation in Ireland and the conflicting emotions of an Irishman brought up in England. Wounded at Gallipoli, Patrick goes to Ireland to convalesce with his cousins. As Easter 1916 moves ever closer, he has to decide where his loyalties lie.
These books are some of my favourites of Linda’s and I was delighted when Some Other War was re-issued by Catnip to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Linda stayed in Ireland for her next book, Riddle Me This, set in the uneasy years between the end of the Great War and the beginning of the Irish Civil War. Teenage Catherine is home in Ireland for the summer from her English boarding school and looking forward to long lazy days in the country. But the rumbling national divisions display themselves in miniature at Mullaghcleevaun House. Her army officer brother Andrew, shell-shocked cousin Martin and childhood friend Conor are all there in conflicting proximity. Catherine’s summer turns out to be tumultuous and painful, marking the end of the world she has always known and heralding an uncertain new one.
There are some threads running through Linda’s books and one of them is exploring how far a person might go in pursuit of a cause, whether that might be animal rights, political equality or, as here, national identity. And in some of her books Linda draws loosely or otherwise on her own family heritage and background. The Wearing of the Green and Riddle Me This came at least in part from an interest in her distant (although close enough to help her obtain a passport should she ever want one) Irish connections. Moving on, she moved closer to home for the inspiration for the first book in her next trilogy.
The Shouting Wind draws on her Dad’s memories of the Second World War. He was a navigator on Lancaster bombers and Kay, Linda’s main character, finds herself on an operational airfield on joining the WAAF in 1943. Unlike her earlier trilogy, this one was meticulously planned and The Shouting Wind actually opens with a prologue featuring Kay’s granddaughter Tamsin. It also, excitingly for me as a reader, reaches back to Some Other War and its companions. I love little connections like that between books that I’ve loved and have never lost the desire to know what happens next. More of that later.
The three generations of women in this trilogy lead lives that are very different from each other but similar in that they all make choices that could be seen as rebelling against their backgrounds and upbringing. Kay’s mother, Alice, is a longtime pacifist and would have preferred to see her daughter drive an ambulance or become a Land Girl. Seventies girl Abigail throws up the quiet conventionality of her parents, running away from home and breaking off contact. Her daughter Tamsin, shy and responsible, in no way resembling her mother as a teenager, leaves home too but to go to university where her horizons are opened in ways she never expected.
I think this trilogy is amongst the best of Linda’s work. Like the back catalogue of the work of so many excellent writers, these books have got lost in the maelstrom of the publishing world and really deserve to be reprinted and shared with another generation. In their varying ways, succeeding generations do have a tendency to rebel against previous ones and so the concept continues to resonate.
There’s a real-time break after this trilogy in my reading of Linda’s books. There are two reasons for this. One is that I changed jobs around then and was no longer working in librarianship. I still read teenage novels but fewer of them. The other reason I don’t think I really appreciated until I was speaking with Linda a few weeks ago. In the latter part of the 1990s there were a lot of editorial changes at HarperCollins meaning that each book in this trilogy had a different editor. As is the way with publishing, everything changes and her next few books were published by a number of different houses. Back in those days when information wasn’t all available at the click of a keyboard it was harder for someone outwith the profession to keep up to date with all that was going on.
Alongside the junior and teenage fiction, Linda was also writing for younger children. Being, like Linda, a cat person, her collections of Cat Tales are my favourite of these books for new readers. But don’t despair, dog-lovers! Barney the Boat Dog is waiting for you. Not to mention a donkey, a mermaid, a pony and some more dogs. Plenty of choice for young animals lovers everywhere. However, one animal has won more of my heart than any other.
And she is Posy. Adorable, irresistible, cheeky, lovable – Posy the kitten, Linda’s only picture book. And what an artist to be working with: Catherine Rayner, who was about to win the Kate Greenaway Medal. Some of Linda’s earliest experiments in writing were with poetry. She says that she has always written to a greater or lesser degree but in her twenties she felt that poetry might be her metier and medium. She has included some of her own poetry in her novels but it is in Posy that she has given us a warmly expressive standalone piece.
Long before this I had reconnected with the world of librarianship and was reading more young people’s fiction than ever. My re-introduction to Linda’s books came with The Shell House. I remember clearly the occasion. I was at a meeting of YLG (Youth Libraries Group) Scotland convened to consider the books we, as a group, would nominate for the Carnegie Medal. For those who don’t know, this award is made annually by YLG, a special interest group of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Any member of CILIP may nominate a book and the judging panel is comprised purely of librarians, representing local YLG committees. At that time (I’m not sure of the current rules) each local YLG group could also nominate titles and that was what we met to do that day in Edinburgh.
YLG Scotland members had suggested titles to be considered and a specialist children’s bookshop had kindly donated a copy of each. What I remember of the day is the end when each of us was gifted one of the books. The Shell House, which at that point I hadn’t read, was one of the books and I was desperate to get it. Instead it went to Morag, my colleague from Falkirk. Seeing my disappointment, she promised that, once she had read it, she’d give to me. And she did. And I still have it. It went on to be short-leeted for the Carnegie Medal, losing out in the end to Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech.
The Shell House is a superb book, an outstanding example of Linda’s ability to evoke memorable settings and create living, breathing characters. The fictional building, Graveney Hall, is based on Copped Hall in Essex, a place Linda has known since her childhood. It was a ruin, having burned down in 1917 and for many years Linda had only ever walked past it. When she first visited it (as an adult) it was still a shell although it has now been partially restored. It seems to me that as much as the house inspired the novel, The Shell House increased her interest in Copped Hall and its history.
The starting point for the book was a photograph taken by Linda’s mother, a Friend of Copped Hall, of a caryatid on a garden building. The novel contains two discrete stories linked by the one building. One looks back to the First World War and the other is contemporary. Like the characters in Some Other War, the leads here live in Essex, Linda’s own home county. She was concerned that the two books should not be too similar and she has certainly avoided that.
We meet first Edmund Pearson, son of the house, home on leave from the Western Front, nervous, irritable, exhausted and disillusioned with all he has been brought up to believe in. And holding close to himself a secret more devastating to his family than mere war could ever be.
In the present, Greg is our initial point of contact. A sixth former with an interest in photography, he is trespassing in the grounds of Graveney Hall when he bumps into Faith whose parents are Friends of the house. Unsure what to make of her, Greg is nevertheless drawn into the group working on the restoration.
These two stories run in parallel without ever really converging. But they do have themes and issues in common. Some of them are clear and worked through in different ways. I’d rather not pre-empt discovery of these for those who haven’t read the book. However perhaps the biggest issue of all is a philosophical question. Linda wanted to consider if it’s possible to believe in God. I think you’ll agree that that’s a pretty huge question. Not, you note, whether the character individually might or might not believe but if belief is a genuine option. It’s an interesting (some might say vital) question but not one I had ever asked. For me, the question has always been whether it is possible not to believe in God so I was interested in the debate presented here. And, naturally, there is no clear-cut answer as Faith, the female lead, comes to understand.
When I spoke to Linda recently she said that she felt The Shell House was a big leap forward in her writing career, having a greater intensity than her previous books. And its association with a real place strengthened that. As well as the Carnegie Medal, The Shell House was also short-leeted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, suggesting that others too saw this book as a significant development in her writing. I wondered if these acknowledgements by judging panels have much affect on their recipients? Linda agrees that there is certainly a short-term career boost but the real impact is the realisation that others appreciate your work.
By the time The Shell House was published, Linda was writing full time. Previously she had taught English and it was whilst studying for her BEd that she discovered contemporary novels for young people. One of these was Flambards by KM Peyton, of which more later, but she also mentions Jean Ure’s books as having an impact on her. I was reading these books around the same time and I can see, in hindsight, how well Linda’s books fit with them. As in them, her characters are fully realised people who struggle with difficult situations and questions and have moments of intense joy, happy one minute, perplexed, dismayed or miserable the next.
Linda says she was fortunate in that when she started teaching in Bromley in the mid 1980s, the English Advisor there not only encouraged teachers to write but also organised workshops and seminars. She received encouragement from tutors and met authors. She also went on an Arvon residential writing course where the tutor was Michelle Magorian and Aidan Chambers was the guest author. This cemented in her a real desire to be published and she realised that meant she’d have to finish something!
Given that she was teaching teenagers, it is perhaps not surprising that she focused on writing fiction for them. Also not surprising is that some books did better than others. I have many theories about why some books make more impact than others (don’t worry; I’m not going to air them here) and few of these are anything to do with the quality of an individual book. Inevitably some books simply appeal to individuals more than others and the one of Linda’s that I would hold on to after I’d let all others go is perhaps not the one I’d say, wearing my critic’s hat, is her best book. But it is her best book for me. (And it’s pretty good objectively too.)
It’s Sisterland which followed on from The Shell House and was also published by David Fickling Books. It also followed in its predecessor’s footsteps by being short-leeted for the Carnegie Medal. Unexpectedly I found myself on the judging panel that year and that played its part in making Sisterland probably the young adult novel I have read most often. I read it on publication and re-read it because I enjoyed it so much. I nominated it for the Medal as was my right as a member of CILIP and then read it again before the longlist appeared. After that I read it three times wearing my judging hat (as I did for all the short-leeted titles). And I still enjoy reading it now. Linda says that I know it better than she does and that might actually be true!
It’s a novel about identity in many forms and what it is that makes us who we are. It’s also a story of prejudice and intolerance and how those outrages affect identity. That all sounds very high-flown and worthy so I should also say that it’s a page-turning read. The main character Hilly is flawed enough to be real and genuine enough to be likable. I care what happens to her and I’m willing her on to overcome her difficulties and be the best version of herself. And, as Linda will tell you, I want to know what happens next in her life. It’s a great sadness in my life that Linda has said she will NEVER write a sequel!
Unfortunately Sisterland emulated The Shell House in not winning the Carnegie Medal. In spite of my impassioned promotion of it, it was pipped to the post by A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, a novel that impressed me more each time I read it but has never had the same emotional pull on me. However, one good thing to come out the award ceremony for that year’s Medal was that I finally met Linda in person, rather than through her books. She attended the ceremony bringing with her as her guest KM Peyton. Never before or since have I been as star struck as I was then – and I have met many brilliant and famous authors. I regret that all I said to Kathy Peyton was something along the lines of ‘I really love your books’ and before I could pull myself together, she and Linda had moved along.
Looking back, I could see that day’s meeting as a foreshadowing of something to come. Something good, I’m happy to say. On a visit to Moray more than ten years later, Linda confided in me regarding the book she was then working on. I was sworn to secrecy, a secret I hugged to myself, but Linda was writing a story of Flambards, using Kathy Peyton’s famous country house setting and Russell family. It wasn’t until 2018, though, that The Key to Flambards arrived. Just as well I’m good at keeping secrets!
The Key to Flambards is not a sequel to the KM Peyton quartet. It’s a contemporary story featuring a modern Grace Russell who knows little of her family history. By this point, Flambards has become an educational residential centre and Grace and her mother Polly, who has a temporary job there, are staying for a summer. Mostly this is Grace’s story, Grace who, like the long-ago Christina, arrives in Flambards with her own issues. And, like Christina, Grace also meets two very different boys. Jamie and Marcus both have their own problems that affect their friendship with each other and with Grace. There are parallels between the two novels but The Key to Flambards can very easily be read as a standalone novel. However for those who have read KM Peyton’s books it has the added delight of bringing Christina’s story up to date.
For me, it was KM Peyton’s characters that had the greatest impact. In fact my favourite one of the quartet is The Edge of the Cloud which is not set at the house. But for Linda it was the setting. She says:
As I grew up in Essex, it was lovely to read the KM Peyton novels that showed the countryside in such an attractive light! Essex is so regularly maligned, as if Tilbury and Basildon are the only places that define it – but there’s glorious countryside elsewhere, and lovely villages and market towns, and Epping Forest, close to my childhood home.
And she makes a fair point. As a teenager living in the north east of Scotland, Essex suggested to me brashness and industrial boldness. It was only when I spent a week at a conference near Epping Forest that I realised how wrong I was. Setting, as I’ve said many times, is something Linda does particularly well and in many of her books it’s a significant factor. And nowhere is that more true than in Set in Stone.
It came along after The Shell House and Sisterland. Unlike those novels it was (unaccountably) not short-leeted for the Carnegie Medal. It did, however, win the Costa Children’s Book Award which caused something of a controversy. Not because of the quality of the book but because of its content, much of which is fairly adult. But it was eligible, having been published on a children’s list, and it is brilliant and so deserved its prize. There have been many debates about what should be eligible for various prizes which is fair enough. But once the rules have been set, the judges must be allowed to follow them. I say this as someone who was caught up in the same debate when A Gathering Light was awarded the Carnegie Medal. Both of these books went on to be described as crossover novels and were published in different editions for the YA and adult markets.
Set in Stone started life at a creative writing workshop Linda was giving. Having asked the class to describe a character, she decided to do the same and that is how Samuel Godwin, one of the central characters, was born. However the book owes one of its main strands to Linda’s developing interest in stone carving. The caryatids at Copped Hall fascinated her and she was intrigued by the anonymity of the stone mason. Fourwinds, the house at the centre of Set in Stone, is adorned with beautiful carvings but one is mysteriously missing and never to be discussed. It is by no means the only secret the house is hiding.
Long-term secrecy also forms the basis for the one definitively adult novel Linda has had published so far. I say so far because I know that she is working on another and I very much hope the day is not too far off when I add it to my bookshelves. Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon (for some reason retitled Missing Rose in paperback) was published in 2014 and is Anna’s story. Twenty years before the plot begins, her older sister Rose vanishes. No-one knows what happened. Did she leave of her own volition? Was she compelled to do so? Or is this an unsolved murder? Until she knows the truth, Anna is emotionally unable to make the decisions necessary for her to live life on her own terms. It’s a fascinating character study and the denouement took me by surprise. Clearly, you’ll have to read it to find out why!
Buildings and the secrets they hold feature in other books too. In The Treasure House it is Second-Hand Rose, a shop belonging to Nina’s aunts. Without explanation, Nina’s mother has gone away for a time but then her possessions start turning up for sale in the shop… Nevermore features the lonely isolated house of Roven Mere. Tizzie arrives there with her Mum expecting to find Lord Rupert and his daughter. She’s looking forward to meeting Greta but she and her father are both away from home and the staff don’t seem to be sure exactly when they will return. Both these books have distinctive settings showing Linda’s appreciation of the built environment As well as in these three books, we see that in her beautiful descriptions of Flambards, Fourwinds and Graveney Hall.
But the natural environment is also important to Linda. In Lob and The Brockenspectre, both illustrated by Pam Smy and both with an element of otherness, Linda charms her readers into believing they are living in two very different natural worlds. Lucy has always loved visiting Grandpa Will and helping him in the garden. His stories of Lob have intrigued her and she is delighted when one day she catches sight of the little green man. But what will happen to Lob now that Grandpa Will is dead? And where will Lucy find another garden? I enjoyed Lob. But I thought The Brockenspectre was brilliant. Tomas lives with his family in the Alps where his father is a mountain guide. There is no one quite like Pappi, Tomas thinks. He is the bravest, most fearless and experienced guide in the area and Tomas wants to be just like him. But one day Pappi disappears and Tomas goes to look for him, learning some difficult lessons along the way. I was utterly captivated by the story but also by Linda’s descriptions of the mountain scenery.
Campaigning on environmental and animal issues has taught Linda a lot. She says she has had to learn to protect herself as the scale of cruelty could grind her down and the range of issues is so vast that it’s impossible to safely engage in everything. Change tends to be slow and things will not simply alter because an individual wants them to. These realisations informed Run with the Hare and the character of Elaine and have also permeated other books, most notably when the question of women’s suffrage is raised. That figures in a number of Linda’s books but, for personal reasons, I’d like to leave you with just one of them.
Until We Win is Lizzy’s story, set in the run-up to the First World War but detailing a different conflict. The fight for women’s right to vote is at its height with the Suffragettes, led by the redoubtable Emmeline Pankhurst, prepared to do and risk anything to win. By chance Lizzy meets Julia and Elsie and is drawn into the campaign. This was the second book that Linda was commissioned to write for Barrington Stoke, the Edinburgh based publishers. Their books are designed to appeal to young people who struggle with reading for whatever reason. I struggle to speak highly enough of all they have achieved. I’m also impressed by the wonderful books authors write for them given the restrictions placed upon them. Linda enjoyed writing for them, finding the people delightful to work with and revelling in the challenge and discipline of producing the books. Until We Win may be a short novel but it is engrossing, compelling and entirely satisfying.
And like all of Linda’s books, it is perfectly able to be enjoyed by the teenagers for whom it was written or by adults. That, I think, has only a little to do with the story or its length and much to do with the attitude of the writer. Linda Newbery clearly believes that only her best will ever do. Her research is always rigorous and her prose polished. Her books have emotional depth and believable characters, settings and scenarios, giving her readers a perfectly formed world to inhabit whilst they are reading and to ponder afterwards.
A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.CS Lewis