I was ‘tidying’ the bookshelves the other day (ie moving things aimlessly around trying to find a non-existent space) when I came to my treasured set of children’s books by Henrietta Branford. I picked up her first one, Royal Blunder. It’s signed with love to The Horn Quintet – that’s Niall, me and the three offspring – and dated 1990. That gave me a jolt. Almost 30 years – can it be, really? Oh yes.
I first met Henrietta at a creative writing class. We went to it for two successive years but it was getting to be very ‘samey’ and we had decided to give it up, but were reluctant to give up seeing each other and a few more like-minded members of the group. At the last meeting of the class we agreed to go on meeting informally ‘from time to time’. This turned out to be weekly, in my house (at first, we circulated later on). We were nervous and excited about where this enterprise would take us, but set down the rules straight away. Anyone with work was to bring copies for everyone and read out loud. Comments would then be taken and noted, but the final decision about what, if any, action to take rested with the author. We were free to write about anything and everything, and there were experimental novels, poetry, plays… and chocolate biscuits and wine.
Henrietta was under some pressure to earn from her writing. Her husband Paul was a freelance photographer and there were three children of school age. There was an agreement that she would work on the writing for a year but then would need a paid job if no publishing contract was forthcoming. We all felt this pressure! The year came and went while ideas came and went, and then she wrote Royal Blunder and sent it to agent Gina Pollinger, who loved it. The first publishing contract came shortly after. Our group cracked open the first bottle of bubbly.
Royal Blunder is a magical cat. He has secret powers. Nobody knows where he comes from. Nobody knows where he goes. When Julie meets him in the hedge, a very fine friendship begins.
The stories in the book are warm, funny and enchanting. They also show, underneath the fun, Henrietta’s strong sense of fairness and concern for those with relatively little power in the world, such as children. Royal Blunder and the Haunted House followed, and then a whole series of books with bright, inventive and determined girls at the centre, girls such as Clare, Ruby Red and Dimanche Diller. My personal favourite amongst these early books for younger readers is Dipper’s Island, the first book in which all the characters are not drawn from the human world but are imaginary creatures living in and around the Dockens Water, a stunning wetland area in the New Forest, where Henrietta spent part of her childhood:
Up and down the Dockens, everyone was waking up. Trees drank deep. Leaves unfurled. Crumpled insects that had hidden all through the winter crept out and counted their legs.
The stream was in spate, brimming over with melted snow and ice. Dipper sat on the point of his island, facing the rush and bubble. Off in the woods a bird squawked. A fox barked.
‘Who’s there?’ Dipper called, but nobody answered. Springtime can be like that. You hear someone, and call, but no one answers. Something is going on, out in the woods, but it stops just before you get there.
There followed the Space Baby books, the very funny adventures of an alien trapped in the body of a human baby, and later, she went on to explore darker themes for older children, with White Wolf, in which the narrator is the wolf:
A wolf needs water that splashes all summer and turns to ice when the sun goes red. A wolf needs sun on his pelt in the springtime and snow on his snout in the fall. A wolf needs live food with warm blood and running feet. A wolf needs a pack. All I had was a cage.
Fire Bed and Bone, set at the time of the peasants’ revolt, in which the narrator is a dog:
The wolves came down to the farm last night. They spoke to me of freedom. I lay by the last of the fire with my four feet turned towards the embers and the last of the heat warming my belly. I did not listen to the wolf talk. This is no time to think of freedom.
and The Fated Sky, the story of Ran, a girl left alone after her father and brothers were killed in a Viking raid:
There was a dragon in the sky the night before the stranger came. It flamed across the red west from the cliffs to the black road of the sea. Its jaws were open, showing its curved teeth tinged with yellow. The single eye it turned towards me glowed like an ember in the darkness of its face.
My copy is signed, Dear Sandra: writing and chocolate biscuits for ever! Lots of love, Henrietta, August ‘96.
There are some heart-stopping moments in these later stories; Henrietta did not shrink from the bloody realities of life and not all the endings are happy, but after those stories came the picture books – original, enchanting tales for small children – a complete contrast again. Birdo, Little Pig Figwort, Six Chicks, Someone, Somewhere, Splash! All of them quirky and all of them as brilliantly written as ever.
Henrietta died in 1999. An immeasurable loss to her family and all others who loved her and her work, and to the world of children’s literature. In those few years she produced many wonderful stories. I have tried to give a flavour of some of them here. Her unique, loving spirit shines through them all. She and her inspired and much-admired editor Wendy Boase died within a short time of each other but, apart from the books, have left us the Branford-Boase award, an annual prize for the writer and editor of a first children's book.
Apologies for the rotten quality of the photos