Nina Bawden, one of the rare authors who could write equally well for both children and adults, died August 22 in London. She was 87.
Bawden was born on January 19, 1925, in Ilford, England. Many of her experiences as a child growing up in Essex would serve as inspiration for her novels. Much like the protagonists’ parents of her later novels, Bawden’s father was often absent, and like the title character of Carrie’s War, her best-known novel (Gollancz, 1973), Bawden was evacuated to Wales during World War II. She attended Somerville College, Oxford, and began her career as a writer after marrying Harry Bawden. She would go on to write more than 40 books for both adults and children.
Bawden wrote several books aimed at grown-ups before publishing her first children’s novel, The Secret Passage (Gollancz), originally titled The House of Secrets, in 1963.
Bawden’s unflinchingly honest depictions of children and her willingness to address realistic topics and situations have resonated with readers for years. Carrie’s War addressed themes of guilt, responsibility, and grief from a child’s perspective, and the novel earned Bawden a Phoenix award and a Carnegie commendation. In The Peppermint Pig (Lippincott, 1975), for which Bawden won the Guardian Award for Children’s Fiction, four children reeling from their father’s sudden departure raise a pig, only to confront their pet’s eventual death.
A motif of family conflict ran through Bawden’s work. In her hilarious but poignant novel Granny the Pag (Clarion, 1996), a 12-year-old girl’s life with her eccentric but loving grandmother is disrupted when her previously neglectful parents decide to get involved with her life. The novel was shortlisted for a Carnegie medal, and School Library Journal described it as “a thoughtful, tender look at family values.”
Bawden often drew upon her own personal experiences in her novels. In her twenties, she learned that she had a half-sister who had been sent away to live with cousins. This discovery inspired The Outside Child (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1989), that tale of a 13-year-old girl who, upon realizing that her long-absent father has remarried and had children, sets out to complete her family by finding her younger half siblings.
Similarly, Bawden’s son, Niki, who suffered from schizophrenia and drug abuse until his death at age 33, served as the basis for one of the characters in the Booker Prize shortlisted novel Circles of Deceit (St. Martin’s Press, 1987).
In 2005, Bawden published Dear Austen (Virago), a memoir written in the form of letters to her second husband, Austen Kark, after he died in a train accident.
“Nina was one of the most intelligent, down-to-earth people I ever knew, and a brilliant writer,” says Dina Stevenson, vice president and publisher of Clarion Books. “She was a close friend of the late Dorothy Briley, her original editor in the U.S and my former boss. Back in the days before electronic transmissions, I remember sitting in Dorothy’s office whenever Nina sent a new novel, ready for her to hand me each page when she finished reading it—I was too impatient to wait for the whole manuscript. Nina’s passionate and indomitable spirit in the face of tragedy was truly inspiring.”