Leila Berg: 12/11/1917 – 17/04/2012
Leila Berg grew up in a Jewish immigrant neighbourhood in Salford in the twenties and thirties, when the scissors-grinder and the ragman and the bagel-seller still came round the houses, and grandmothers kept barrels of pickled herrings and onions in the living room, and Manchester was full of books and concerts and theatre and films.
As an adolescent she crossed Manchester on foot daily to get to school. She loitered in record and book shops, not buying anything, always sampling. Her father never spoke to her, until her mother left home and he needed her help. This non-relationship is explored in her autobiography Flickerbook.
After the war and the birth of her second child, Leila began writing for children, inspired initially by Susan Isaacs (the child psychologist, who did some very important work, and whom she feels is outrageously neglected), then by her own children. Her anti-authoritarian and anarchic attitudes, contrasting with the school experiences of her children, led her to an interest in children’s rights, alternative education, and informal teaching methods. She began to meet people like A S Neill, Michael Duane and other progressive education leaders, forming a long-lasting and deep friendship particularly with the American writer and educationist John Holt. This led to books about progressive schooling, and about childhood, such as Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive, Children’s Rights, Reading and Loving, and Look At Kids.
She wrote many books for children of different ages, and also became children’s books editor for Methuen, a well-respected independent publisher in London. Leila’s own books such as Little Pete Stories, Folk Tales, and The Adventures of Chunky, were published under a wide range of imprints. She also edited, and became particularly well-known for, the Nippers and Little Nippers series, many of which she wrote herself, but all of which had a unique character. The Small World series came last, but fell victim to contemporary mergers in UK publishing, and were never properly publicised, though some were translated and published in Europe and the States. She was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon Medal in 1973 for her services to children’s literature.
In 1974, with the children grown-up and moved away, Leila and her husband separated. She then moved out of London and re-established herself in a small village community in North Essex, UK. She began work on The God Stories, which was completed about three years later, after much research and rewrites. There followed an endless search for a publisher – in a new, merged world of publishing run by accountants, who insisted on books being aimed at a very specific target audience. The God Stories – a book based on ancient legends and designed for reading aloud at any age – was deliberately not that.
The last book she wrote was Flickerbook, published before The God Stories in 1997. With this one the research took an inward direction as she re-experienced herself as the child at the given moment. (She is very clear that she didn’t remember, but re-experienced.) Flickerbook was the first book ever to be made Book of the Month by a unanimous vote of Waterstones booksellers, and received many very generous reviews.
Through her 80s and early 90s, Leila was taking it easy, battling age and arthritis with homeopathics, exercise, flower remedies and friendships. She considered further projects – for example, a sequel to Flickerbook. Another possibility was a book for teenagers on Janusz Korczak, who died with his orphanage charges in the Holocaust, and whose story has haunted her for 30 years. She was trying to learn voice-recognition software – so useful when it works, so frustrating when it doesn’t – to help her continue working with arthritic hands.
Leila died in hospital after an accident at the care home she eventually had to be moved to. She was aged 94. Family and friends devised and attended a magnificent celebratory send-off, including many emotional readings, and much-loved music. Many of her possessions were distributed among her friends far and near, and parts of her vast collection of books went to various specialist libraries. Her working papers and the only known and near-complete collection of her work for children are archived at Seven Stories, while her papers and work for adults are archived at the Institute of Education in London.
Sadly all her work is currently out of print in the UK. However, translations of two books – The Little Pete Stories and The Story of the Little Car were re-published in Russia in December 2016 by Melik-Pashaev. Two other books are under active consideration there. In the UK, a book on the subsequent lives of some of the children from Risinghill is in production. It is called Risinghill Revisited and is written and edited by two of those ex-pupils.