Studying With Jan Mark or, how I became a children’s book writer

Studying With Jan Mark or, how I became a children’s book writer

Jan Nothing to Be Afraid OfI wrote this essay in appreciation  for Jan Mark.  Jan was a two-time winner of the Carnegie Medal, the award given to England’s most outstanding work of children’s literature.  I studied  with Jan in the early 1980s.

This is how we proceeded. “The first part of the list consists of eponymous collections of short stories, the second of novels, the third of novels and short stories for children. I have chosen them not because I think they might serve as models but because they are seminal, very good or very bad….even really atrocious writing can have a certain panache…It would be useful if you could compile a similar list which you think I could usefully read.” Jan Mark to me.

It was 1983. I was a young American living in Combe village. My daughter, Lizzie, was a “rising five,” as head master Mr. Warner called her when we interviewed at the village school.

I wanted to write about war. I came to RAF Upper Heyford with my husband at that time, an Air Force commander of a munitions squadron, and the experience of being on a military compound dropped me back in time to my first job working for the American Red Cross on an Army compound in Vietnam. At Upper Heyford, I was a mum and a spouse with no identification of my own. All I knew was that I needed to write. I began a degree with Antioch College’s rather progressive International Studies Department for which I created my own degree plan and sought out scholars with whom I wanted to work.

I found Jan Mark. I have her photo beside me now, the photo I saw in the Oxford newspaper. Jan in 1983, looking over her shoulder, her amused smile, her discerning gaze, her wild dark and curly hair I remember as dark auburn. The article notes her appointment to the position of Arts Council Writer-in-Residence at the Oxford Polytechnic.

I believe I called the college, was given Jan’s phone number, and she answered when I called. I asked if I could be her student. She seemed to immediately think this was a fine idea and invited me over. Our first meeting was at 6 College Close, her apartment, on the Wheatley Polytechnic campus. She cooked lunch! She was tough and curious about this awkward person who bumbled into her life. I believe she was just back from receiving her second Carnegie Medal – for Handles. She said she wished she’d done something with her hair, as I remember, which was wonderfully wild. But it had all happened very fast, she’d said about the award or the speed of her life.

She was pleased. She was terribly unpretentious.

My list I offered Jan was everything by Doris Lessing and also books I was reading to my daughter, Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine by Evaline Hess, Bread and Jam for Francis. I don’t remember what Jan thought of Doris Lessing. But I loved how we read William Boyd and Russell Banks, both How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen and The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin Boaz in the same time, and I have ever since appreciated writing, unrelated to audience. In the same way today, I read Natasha Tretheway, U.S. Poet Laureate’s Thrall and Jacqueline Woodson’s exquisite novel in verse for teens, (and all beings) If You Come Softly, both illuminations on race.

I suspect Jan was not troubled by audience. I think she thought kids were their own true selves who often had better sense than their elders as in the short story, “Nothing to Be Afraid Of.” A timid boy comes into his own having experienced the world – full of fear – outside his mum’s clutches. Anthea a young friend introduces him to a park in which she places all things fearful that could lurk. His mother storms into Anthea’s home the day after her son’s visit, insisting to know what they had done to terrify her son who hadn’t slept since his day with Anthea. But when Robin spies Anthea who is trying to escape his angry mum, he says, “Let’s go to the park.”

With Jan, I leaped into contemporary English writing. She had a circle of poet friends and introduced me both to their poetry and to the poets. I met George Szirtes, who fled Budapest in 1956 when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution. Through his poetry I came to understand the story of modern Hungary. Jan loved the raucous music of Kit Wright’s poems. (“By the waters of the Wandle/ Where the lovers used to fondle,/ Where I craft this rhubarb rondel,/ Life is better: much.”) We were both writing poetry, Jan possibly for the protagonist in her adult novel Zeno Was Here published in 1987.

Looking back at our reading lists, I see her passion for the short story. And it is her short stories that linger with me, exquisite slices of a life at a moment of new clarity as in “William’s Version.” William is the star. He’s 4. He doesn’t change. But Jan treats us to the world of William who will not be deterred in his retelling of “The Three Little Pigs” in a moment of his life when he needs to seal his identity.

Together we discussed Anton Chekov, Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, Katherine Mansfield, Ruth Prewer Jhabval. Robert Frost, Phillipa Pearce.

“Meaty,” Tony Lacey calls Jan in his blog post featured upon the launch of the Hodder Silver series when they reprinted Jan’s dystopian novels, Divide and Rule, The Ennead, and Aquarius in 2014.

For the duration of our tutorials, she read all my new and often bad fiction when I was simply falling in love with this work, and intoxicated with writing. We continued to meet for tutorials in between her jaunts, lecturing or visiting schools – to Australia, to London, to Boston, even during a jaunt to the village where I lived and where Frank Warner at Combe school invited her to visit his class. Afterwards I took her for a picnic on the grounds of Blenheim Palace. That’s what we had in this Oxfordshire village where the Duke’s peasants used to live – the Palace grounds. She was amused by the village, saying no one lived in this England anymore. And she pointedly didn’t set her fiction here behind garden walls but in estates or factory towns.

I remember Jan as wickedly funny and wickedly subversive, but at the same time extremely tender hearted. She seemed to take people, whatever their age, as a great adventure. As perhaps even I was to her, an American writing about ghosts of the American war in Vietnam with my daughter Lizzie who Jan named the paginater when I described Lizzie ordering the pages of my novel as they spilled out of my typewriter.

She never questioned why I chose to work with her, a writer for children. It was perfectly logical to both of us. She might have said, Aren’t children people? Aren’t children bombed like the rest? Don’t they have a right to their own stories?

Ultimately, I think of Jan’s stories as moments of discovery as a person faces a moral or emotional dilemma. In the story that is my favorite, “Feet,” heroine Jane faces a dilemma as umpire of a tennis match. The star player, Collier, is talented and full of himself. He’s publicly dismissive of Jane which humiliates her. Not only that, as the game progresses, Jane commits one awful blunder after another, and while Jane continues to attempt to call the game correctly, Collier is verbally abusive. Jan Mark complicates this power dynamic as she does in every story. Heroine Jane recognizes that Collier faults – his foot repeatedly crosses the line when he serves. “I thought, why should he get away with it? Then I thought, He gets away with everything.” She begins to call them. Foot fault. And again. Foot fault. It destroys his serve. And him. He becomes clumsy and people laugh as he looses. It is not a victory for Jane. It’s not an easy right against might. It’s muddy like life, mirroring the moral choices we must make at every turn.

It was the privilege of my life to study with Jan.

Madhu’s Seeds

Madhu’s Seeds
Mustard Seeds Darjee
Illustration by Ram Darjee

An essay for spring published in  New Hampshire Home‘s back page feature “At Home in New Hampshire.”

Madhu’s Seeds

by Terry Farish

Madhu Bhandari tells me, “When I bring the greens home from the garden, that is the best thing.”

I am in her home in downtown Concord where she lives with her husband; her children, including her grown son Nilhari and daughter-in-law Devika; and grandchild, Neeja.Devika sits with us and translates for Madhu, who speaks Nepali. Dressed in turquoise trousers and a white shirt, Madhu is “wearing pote,” glass pote beads around her neck that say she is married.

“What kind of greens?” I ask.

“Mustard,” she says. She plants mustard seeds and harvests the leaves three times in a New Hampshire growing season in Sycamore Community Garden.Not in rows, she explains. That makes the seeds dry out. With the mustard greens, she makes gundruk— fermented mustard leaves that she keeps in a baggie all year long for gundruk soup. Read more

If You Knew Him, Please Write Me: Children’s Books about the U.S. in the Vietnam War

If You Knew Him, Please Write Me: Children’s Books about the U.S. in the Vietnam War

If You Knew Him, Please Write Me*

 By Terry Farish

 Reprinted from School Library Journal/ November 1988

Novels provide clues for children and teens about the war in Vietnam.


*message  left beside a name on the Vietnam Memorial, Washington D.C.

THE RED CROSS recruited women on college campuses in 1968 to go to Vietnam, and I did a tour in Cu Chi and Qhi Nhon, 1969-70. The war still belongs to me as it belongs to everyone else it touched.  When I became a children’s librarian, I started watching how writers approached the war in children’s and young adult books.

They reveal who carried the burden of combat.  In Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country (Harper, 1986) Sam’s mother tells her, “when you get to [the Vietnam memorial], you look at the names. You’ll see all those country names, I bet you anything. Bobby Gene and Freddie Ray and Jimmy Bob Calhoun…You look at those names and tell me if they’re not mostly country boy names.” Charlie Pippin (Macmillan, 1987) by Candy Dawson Boyd attempts to explore how too many blacks had to fight that war.

The children of the 2,700,000 American men and women who served in Vietnam are now touched by Vietnam. Children and young adults ask what happened and face some incomprehensible answers. Sam, in In Country, keeps asking Tom, a veteran:

“I want to know what it was like there. I can’t really

imagine it. Can you tell me what it was like?”

“Hot.  I’ll tell you that. Hotter than here.”

“Did you see palm trees?”

“Yeah, they had palm trees over there. At least they did

before we napalmed and defoliated them…Look, Sam.

It’s hard to talk about. And some people want to

protect you, you know. They don’t want to dump all

this stuff on you.”

The Vietnam Memorial, which veterans call “the wall” is a powerful symbol used in many novels. It wrenches and affirms.  It unites children with their fathers.

Unlike most novels that end at the wall, Park’s Quest (Dutton, 1988) by Katherine Paterson begins there. The wall sustains Park’s search. What he finds is the gem of the book, a girl named Thanh. The summer after the wall is dedicated, Park meets his father’s family for the first time. He meets Frank, an uncle he didn’t know he had, and Thanh, a belligerent Amerasian girl. Frank is married to a Vietnamese woman, Thanh’s mother. Thanh bosses and taunts Park.  Thanh is a survivor of war and refugee camps. She’s tough and not about to give up Frank to this new kid, Park, or to the baby that her mother is about to have. Readers learn these details along with Park as the situation unfolds. On the back cover of Park’s Quest is a black-and-white photo of Park’s father in uniform. Readers are often drawn to the photo when Park recalls it. Park finds the clue to Thanh’s identity in another photo of his father he sees in Thanh’s room:

He stared into the little brown face, the bright, mischievous

eyes, the stupid baseball cap cocked at exactly the same familiar angle…

“You can ask Frank,”[he tells her] “but I’m sure we have the same father.”

Paterson gives readers a second generation to help heal the wounds.

Park, Becca Silverman in Caribou (Greenwillow, 1984) by Meg Wolitzer, Charlie Pippin, and Ellie Farley in Cynthia Rylant’s A Blueeyed Daisy (Bradbury, 1985) are all 11 years old. Their problems and their perspectives, though, are very different.

Becca, in Caribou, has one of the most appealing and compelling voices in all of these books as Wolitzer recreates the year 1970 for contemporary readers. Becca’s family, including her 19-year old brother, Stevie, gather around the black-and-white TV to watch the lottery draft.  The first birthday that he calls, the birthday of the guys surest to be drafted for Vietnam, is Stevie’s. Becca says, “I froze there on the floor. We all froze, like we were having our family picture taken. In that one second everything changed. Just because my brother was born on a particular day during a heat wave a long time ago.” Stevie says, “I don’t want to learn to use a gun. I have enough trouble with the Dairy Queen machine.”

This is a novel about best friends and loving a brother and popularity. But within this framework, Stevie takes a Greyhound bus to Montreal, and one day Becca doesn’t stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance. “Nothing much happened,” Becca says about the year that she was in the sixth grade. She and Stevie were just living their lives and making history.

Boyd’s unwillingness to let characters realistically just live their lives in the main problem with Charlie Pippin. Charlie’s family is black. The book avoids any tinge of black stereotyping but creates a predictable vegetarian-pacifist type. Vets speak in simplistic language, and Charlie, sweet and hard working and innocent, remains that way, even as a ranger makes rubbings for her at the Vietnam Memorial. The book faithfully represents Charlie’s diligent research on Vietnam through the World Book and National Geographic.  But it misses the magic of fiction and discovery.

Cynthia Rylant’s very simple story, “Uncle Joe,” in A BlueEyed Daisy is really only a character sketch. Joe visits Ellie’s family right after he comes home from Vietnam:

In the night he made fudge in the skillet the way

he used to and poured it into a buttered plate to cool.

They all sat around the kitchen table, talking. Okey would

not talk of the war. Joe would not talk of the war. So no

one did.

It’s the silence that effects Ellie and other main characters. It forces them to confront or withdraw from the silence.

Marcie, the main character in Judie Wolkoff’s novel Where the Elf Kin Sings (Bradbury, 1980) and Marcie’s family get to the bottom of her alcoholic father’s problems with the help of a veterans’ counselor. She hears about the horrors of war. This is a detailed story of a combat veteran’s crooked path to recovery through his daughter’s eyes. The tone and mood are serious throughout.

The first-person narrator of Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 1988) Richard Perry, is 17 and looking for a better life than he has in Harlem. Perry’s telling is intimate and close, as if the reader were Perry’s friend and someone to whom he wanted to tell the truth. The tension in the firefight scenes is intense and prolonged, and readers feel that they are in the hands of a powerfully good storyteller. Myers’ characters aren’t cynical; there is prayer and brotherhood and they don’t do drugs. With the soul-searching, comradeship, and courage of Perry’s platoon, Fallen Angels comes closer to creating Vietnam war heroes than other books on the war.

In a night mission, Perry and Peewee are separated from their platoon and surrounded by Vietcong. Perry says:

“Let’s just keep quiet and shoot the shit out of

anything that come near us.”


I touched the safety. Changed the clips. I put a

frag grenade in front of me…

Peewee put his hand on my wrist.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Nothing,” he whispered back.

He kept his hand on my wrist. I moved

my hand and took his. We held hands in the


Some teens are getting other accounts of the war from books for adults.  In Country is an adult novel with a 17-year old protagonist who is watching for signs of Agent Orange in her uncle, loving another vet, and looking for clues about her father who never came back.  It’s been viewed almost equally as a young adult novel.

In Tim O’Brien’s personal narrative, If I Die in a Combat Zone (Dell, 1987), a 1973 ALA Best Book for Young Adults, readers get a process of thinking out of a draftee’s options from college to boot camp to a combat assault.  A buddy and he hash and rehash arguments about their duty to this war.  “Here were are. Mama has been kissed goodbye, we’ve grabbed our rifles, we’re ready for extinction. All this not for ideology, rather it’s from fear of society.” O’Brien went, in the end, as a foot soldier, and his book stops being about ideology.  It becomes a book about courage in scenes as visual and full of stink and sound as its descendent, the film “Platoon.” O’Brien hauls his readers in beside him and forces the question, of males and females, what kind of a human being would I be in combat?

A Piece of My Heart (Presidio, 1986) by Keith Walker and In the Combat Zone (Little, 1987) by Kathryn Marshall are two other adult books of interest to young adults. They are oral histories of young women  who served as nurses, refugee workers, Red Cross workers, USO staff, and entertainers in Vietnam.

Letters are a common device in these books to reveal fathers and brothers and sons separated from their homes. The books themselves can be seen as letters – attempts to communicate and help children and teenagers understand.