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Helen Cresswell: Imagination at Play

"Log on to your imagination - that's the real internet - and you can access it just by opening a book." – Helen Cresswell

She is considered to be one of the best modern writers of English literature for young people. From folk tales to picture books to modern stories to screen plays, Helen Cresswell’s deft ways with words have made her works favorites of readers of all ages.
 
Fast Facts on Helen Cresswell:
  • Born on July 11, 1934, in Nottinghamshire, England
  • Married to Brian Rowe on April 14, 1962. They had two children: Caroline Jane and Candida Lucy.
  • She wrote over 100 books for young people. Her favorite was The Piemakers, the funny story of a village commanded to make a gigantic pie for a royal visit.
  • She was nominated for the Carnegie Medal—the English-equivalent to our Newbery Medal—four times: in 1967, for The Piemakers, 1969, for The Night-watchmen, 1971, for Up the Pier, and 1973, for The Bongleweed
  • She died of cancer on September 26, 2005, in Eakring, Nottinghamshire, England.
Her Early Life
 
“The most interesting part of any writer's life is her childhood. They are the only years that count in the sense that they hold the key to what she writes, and why.... This, after all, is what writers really do--try to make sense of the world." – Helen Cresswell
 
Her childhood home was not a happy one—her father was often quite cruel—but she did have a loving mother and a special sanctuary: a bookcase stocked with a complete edition of Shakespeare’s works in 21 volumes with color plates. There was also a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These books she loved along with classic English poets. By the time she was six or seven she began writing, imitating the style of her favorite poets: Edmund Spenser, John Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins or using characters and plots drawn from Shakespeare.
 
“I have a strong feeling now, as an adult, that I am practically a result of what I read as a child, and yet I am sure that I did not ‘understand,’ in the sense of being able to formulate as an idea, even a fraction of what I read.” – Helen Cresswell*
 
She worked hard at her studies and won a scholarship when she was ten to an excellent girls’ school. Helen was popular there, very outgoing and funny, but at night she would stay up late to keep writing her poetry. During her time at school she developed serious health problems and had to be hospitalized for a year. She went on to Kings College of the University of London where she finished with honors.
 
Cover to Bagthorpe's LiberatedHelen’s most famous books in America are her funny ones. The Bagthorpe series is about an oddly competitive and (perhaps) brilliant family whose misadventures are rather like those of Muggle-bound Weasleys. Though they are most always cheerfully bickering and trying to show one another up, in the middle of them all is Ordinary Jack. It’s his adventures and those of his dog, deemed an Absolute Zero by Mr. Bagthorpe, that make up the first two books of the ten-book series.
 
The Bagthorpes’ wild antics and vocabularies can be a bit daunting for younger kids so those readers may care to try another Cresswell series based on another most original character. Posy Bates’ burning ambition is to have a pet but her mum says no. For most girls, that would be that but Posy has a plan. With her adventurous ways and positive attitude, Posy might be an English cousin to Ramona or Junie B. Jones.
 
Concerning Her Craft
 
Unlike some, this author never wanted to speak about her work in detail for she believed the work spoke for itself. Although she had been asked many times about the nuts and bolts of her creative process, she was always wary of answering directly, not because she was being difficult but rather because:
 
”The moment a writer becomes aware of his own creative processes, the moment he stands outside them and they become conscious, then they lose their dynamism, and he may as well lay down his pen. He who attempts to analyse magic while at the same time practicing it stands in peril of finding symbol turn to cliché, intuition to conscious will, organic growth into mere plotting.”*
 
She also said, “…I write partly in order to find out, and in a sense I do not know what I mean until I have said it. And in the same way as I am operating on this level as a writer, so the reader too is experiencing things which he recognizes but has no words for. This is partly what any kind of reading does. It makes accessible all kinds of floating feelings and attitudes and ideas which probably have never been crystallized before.”
 
Readers can experience some of her writing—including her screenwriting for E. Nesbit’s excellent Five Children and It series--at their local libraries.
 
More on Helen Cresswell:
 
Notes for this article were drawn from several sources including:
*“Ancient and Modern and Incorrigibly Plural” by Helen Cresswell in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children edited by Edward Blishen. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Kestrel, 1975.
 
These articles, collected in Biography Resource Center, may be read online by our patrons.
 
“Helen Cresswell”
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2010. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center.
 
"Helen Cresswell." Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 25. Gale Research, 1998.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center.
 
Helen Cresswell." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center.
 
General Online Sources:
 
“Helen Cresswell’s Literary Legacy”
 
“An Interview with Helen Cresswell”
http://freespace.virgin.net/andy.oldfield/feat/iview.htm
 
Big Three Book Award: Helen Cresswell