In the first of our new series about inspirational children's book creators, Linda Newbery revisits K M Peyton.

I came across Flambards in my twenties, and immediately thought it could have been written just for me. Training to teach English, I was given the assignment of selecting a children’s book and writing an essay on how I’d use it in the classroom. Unsure what to choose, I was browsing in the college library when Flambards caught my eye. I took it out, devoured it, loved it and wrote a rhapsodic appreciation – which didn’t get me a high mark, because, as my tutor commented, “It’s clear that the book made a great impression on you, but you haven’t said a single thing about how you’d present it to children.” In truth, I hadn’t been thinking of children at all; I simply loved the book for myself.

For anyone who hasn’t read it (go on, give yourself a treat!), it’s quite a traditional story in some ways, beginning with twelve-year-old Christina, an orphan, travelling to the Essex countryside to live with an irascible uncle and two boy cousins she’s never met. Edwardian life, social change and class injustice, the early days of flying, horses, romance, rebellion, bitter conflict and first love, all with the First World War looming – what more could anyone want? There's also fox-hunting, which I can almost forgive as it’s set firmly in the past (where it belongs, in my view, but I won’t get side-tracked) – and K M Peyton includes one character, Will, who detests it.

Flambards became the first of a quartet which takes Christina from the age of twelve to her middle twenties, into the First World War and out the other side, through love, loss and even parenthood. The adult Christina finds herself resurrecting and managing Flambards and its farm, which have become semi-derelict through the war years. Her rural preoccupations are thrown into contrast by her friend Dorothy, a VAD nurse throughout the conflict, who aims to make up for it afterwards in the carefree social scene (for well-heeled young city-dwellers, at any rate) of the twenties. Through the four novels, Christina’s affections are engaged in turn by three memorable young men: her cousins, hard-riding Mark and clever, sensitive Will (who could scarcely be more different from each other or more at odds), and the kind-natured stable-boy, Dick, who becomes an ally during her early days there.

What attracted me, apart from the irresistible ingredients, was the wonderful vividness of Kathy Peyton’s writing. She has the enviable gift of making it look effortless. Characters spring from the page. Landscapes, weather and settings are evoked in a few sentences – and her love and deep knowledge of the natural world is clear. She is as good at action as she is on the joys and anguish of teenage love. And no one does horses better than Kathy Peyton: her Sweetbriar, Dogwood, Toadhill Flax and others, are creatures you will love, covet or mourn for, as real and vital as any of her human characters.

After the wonderful surprise of Flambards, I read my way through all her books. Alongside the Flambards quartet, she wrote a series involving Patrick Pennington, a talented pianist given to bursts of violence. Pennington is a memorable character who has won the heart of many a reader, as well as that of Ruth, his long-suffering girlfriend (later wife), who began with her own story, Fly-by-Night. Kathy Peyton’s gift for humour, first shown in Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer, was used to enjoyable effect in Who, Sir? Me, Sir? about an unlikely group of children forming a tetrathlon team to compete against the posh boys from the local fee-paying school. She has also written adult fiction, produced some of her own cover artwork, and illustrated a book for young readers - truly, I think Kathy Peyton can do anything.

The cover of Fly-by-Night is illustrated by K M Peyton herself
My favourites? Apart from Flambards and the Pennington books, both of which grew into series, there are several excellent one-offs. I love A Pattern of Roses, a gentle, atmospheric story linking two time-frames and slowly revealing an old tragedy; The Right-Hand Man, set in Georgian times; and Dear Fred (really an adult novel, though initially published in a teen imprint), part story of renowned Newmarket jockey Fred Archer and part touching tale of first love and first sex.

Perhaps Peyton's heroines are a little too willing to devote themselves uncritically to men who don’t deserve them, as Lily does in the most recent title, Wild Lily – but another hallmark is their physical courage. Lily certainly demonstrates this, and is a worthy successor to the bold Christina from Flambards. Her heroes often have to strive hard for independence in the face of assumptions and expectations. Both Jonathan (Prove Yourself a Hero, The Team, A Midsummer Night’s Death and The Last Ditch) and Tim Ingram in A Pattern of Roses end up rejecting the values of their well-heeled, upper middle-class parents and turning their backs on the luxuries of their upbringing.

When K M Peyton made her name in the early 70's, teenage fiction was only just beginning to emerge. Until then, readers went straight from children’s to adult books; most novels of adolescence, such as The Catcher in the Rye or I Capture the Castle, were published on adult lists. Kathy Peyton was one of the pioneers, along with other such notable writers as Aidan Chambers, Robert Cormier and Jean Ure. It’s thanks to Kathy that my first publication, Run with the Hare, was a teenage novel. Having wanted to be an author from the age of eight, I’d been dabbling with this and that – poetry, fiction – without being quite sure where to direct my efforts. Becoming aware of the scope and potential of young adult fiction gave me a new sense of purpose and audience.

I’ve already dedicated one of my novels, The Damage Done, to Kathy. My new novel, The Key to Flambards, is dedicated to her too (who else?)

To Kathy Peyton, of course, with love and admiration – and thanks for lending me the key.

I mean not only the virtual key to Flambards, but also, farther back, the key that opened the door to my writing career. My twenty-four-year-old self would be astonished.

Header photo courtesy of Linda Newbery.

Cover artwork by Katie Harnett

Linda Newbery's The Key to Flambards is out now from David Fickling.

K. M. Lockwood writes, reads and edits in The Garret.  
Once downstairs, she runs a tiny writer-friendly B&B/retreat or wanders off  looking for sea-glass on the Sussex coast.
Twitter: @lockwoodwriter

1 comment:

  1. I can't remember what was the first book I read of KM Peyton, but the Pennington series is the one that got me hooked!


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