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Leila Berg (1919- ) is a prolific author, who has written for both adults and children. She was born in Salford, and had to trek an hour across Manchester to get to school. She had a bleak childhood: her father refused to speak to her because she was not a boy, and only started to communicate with her when he had no choice after Leila’s mother left home. She wrote about her early life in her autobiography Flickerbook, of which the Times said “She marvellously portrays the frazzling bewilderment that nearly all children suffer, remembers exactly how it felt to be locked into profound and terrifying ignorance.”
She agreed to go to teaching college in 1937, for a term only, and spent that term organising support and aid for the International Brigade, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She left before she was asked to remove herself. She took an Arts course at the University of London which included journalism, and then worked for The Daily Worker. She married, and was bombed out of her home. Unimpressed with the children’s books on offer, she started writing for her own children, and had immediate success. Her books, she thought, were not accessible, as they sold at high prices, so she wrote for the Brockhampton Press, who sold books for 5/-, rather than the 16/- more normal at the time.
Access to literature remained a central part of her work. In the 1960s, she wrote the Nippers series for Macmillan, “"books which fit the child [and] fit his experience." The books moved away from the comfortable middle class world of Janet and John, and showed a world where houses had no internal water and children played on dumps. There was outrage from the schools and local authorities sent advance copies of the series: this world could not exist. Housing reports produced at the time proved that it did. Children were suddenly presented with a vivid picture of the world they actually lived in. Leila Berg found, reading her book in schools: “"I was having to read through laughter all the time, continuous, constant laughter, not ordinary laughter. The children were hugging themselves and jumping up and down, hugging their neighbours in this warm, physical, clutching way. As I watched them they were getting loose and limp in front of me. I was quite shaken."
Berg’s achievement in writing Nippers was recognised when she was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon Medal in 1974. She continued to write books that were not comfortable: her Little Pete stories were condemned by some listeners to the BBC adaptation as too naughty, though surely Pete simply continued the tradition started by middle-class William, anything but an angel. She continues to start new projects. Her latest book, The God Stories - a Celebration of Legends based on the Old Testament has just been published.
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