Keren David began her career in journalism as a teenager, starting out as messenger girl and then becoming a junior reporter at the Jewish Chronicle. She worked as a reporter for the Sunday Times and the Daily Express in Scotland and then as a news editor at the Independent, later becoming a commissioning editor on the Comment pages. She lived and worked in Amsterdam for eight years, returning to London in 2007. Since then Keren has written two books for teenagers, the contemporary thrillers When I Was Joe and Almost True, both published in 2010. Drawing on her background in news, they tell the story of a boy taken into police protection after witnessing a murder. Below Keren discusses the books of Antonia Forest.
Keren David on Antonia Forest
Antonia Forest's series of books about the Marlow family were a joy to read when I was growing up; books about family and school life in which every character, however peripheral, was captured by Miss Forest's shrewd and accurate pen. In thinking about a book to choose for this post, I was surprised to find myself thinking back to them. I had not realized how much they mattered to me.
The series centres on twins Nicola and Lawrie Marlow, part of a big family which moves from Hampstead to the countryside when the father, a naval commander, inherits a farm and considerable acres. The books switch between the twins' progress at Kingscote School, a girls' boarding school, and their home life. It is an upper middle class existence, with servants at home and Latin at school. The stories set at home range in genre - some are thrillers (The Thuggery Affair, The Marlows and the Traitor, Run Away Home), and others tackle social and philosophical themes, such as Peter's Room, which examines the consequences of creating made-up worlds.
My absolute favourite is The Ready-Made Family in which Karen, the dreamy, studious oldest sister, stuns her family by a rushed marriage to a widower with three children. Children's authors are often advised to leave adults out of their books, and told that younger readers have no interest in the lives of grown-ups. I tend to disagree. This book is skilfully told through a teenager's eyes, and deals mainly with the consequences of the marriage on Karen's new step-children, whilst giving a curious child reader fascinating hints at the inner life of the older generation - from Nicola's harassed mother, to the grieving grandmother of the motherless children and the grumpy new husband himself.
Antonia Forest wrote the books between 1948 and 1982, setting each one in the time that she was writing. So, although the books cover just a few years in a family's life, their settings span 34 years - something which mattered not a jot to me, used as I was to reading more books which felt old-fashioned than contemporary. As I was reading and enjoying her books in the 1970s, though, the climate was changing in children's publishing. Books about upper and middle-class children at boarding schools were deemed irrelevant and out-dated. The view that children must read only about their own worlds seems to me misguided and wrong. I greatly enjoyed reading about the Marlows partly because their lives were very different from mine. I knew no one at a boarding school - in fact, no one at a fee-paying school - no one who inherited or lived in big houses; my world did not include hunting, falconry, sailing or cricket. How would I know about these things if it were not for books? Antonia Forest expanded my world considerably.
But the book which had most impact on me is one of the school stories - End of Term; and it did so because there was a character there with whom I strongly identified.
The plot features staples of school stories - a school play, shifting friendships, a new girl with family problems, sports teams. Nicola Marlow's best friend in this book is Miranda West, a girl who changes over the course of the series from being 'a bossy, conceited person who made no bones about despising the worms of the Third Remove' to 'someone to grin at across the classroom - someone who saw the same joke at the same time as you'.
Miranda West was special to me because, like me, Miranda was Jewish. And like me, she was almost the only Jewish pupil amongst a crowd of Christians. Multi-culturalism at Kingscote School meant Miranda, and at my school it pretty much meant me.
Unlike the very rare Jewish characters in other children's books that I'd read, Miranda was neither foreign, nor a victim. She wasn't persecuted and was not even vaguely exotic. She was confident, intelligent, popular and attractive. Yet she remained slightly an outsider, a status completely imposed by others.
Miranda was a very English Jew - no Yiddish, not too much religion - someone who rarely shows up in literature. I had the same reaction to Miranda that, much later, my Mancunian Jewish husband had in reading Howard Jacobson's wonderful book The Mighty Waltzer. When you read a book in which you find a character near to yourself, you suddenly realize how absent you've been from everything else you've ever read, and you comprehend your outsider status in a new way.
End of Term's plot concerns a nativity play, and Miranda, without wanting to change anything about herself or her beliefs, feels excluded and wants to be part of it - a conflict that I experienced every year around Christmas time, when I bitterly resented and desperately envied all the fuss and decorations and carol-singing that descended on my school. It helped enormously to find these things reflected and discussed in a book. Thanks to Antonia Forest, I felt more normal somehow, less invisible and somehow easier with being myself.
Returning to Antonia Forest's books as an adult I've found them just as enjoyable, interesting and wise as I did when I read them in the 1970s. I'm struck again by her skill as a writer, her wisdom about people and her ability to engage with big questions about life and death, religion and philosophy whilst creating an entirely believable teenage world. In my books I've adapted some of her character names as a little homage.
Antonia Forest's books showed me new worlds and reflected myself back to me, at an age when I was least sure of who I was. No other author did the same.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]