Launched in 1969 by MacMillans Educational, London
The Nippers series was conceived to fill what was then a yawning gap in early reader material for kids from working-class homes, with a strong though not necessarily respectable sense of family. The books were the first of their kind with a sense of humour, realistic situations, and colloquial language.
Read a Nipper!
Every Nipper was written about a specific place, though it was never named, with the real jobs, streets, and idioms of the place, which made the stories particularly vivid. Leila sat in the school playgrounds, listening and talking with the children, and discovered that the most used and valued words were things like “hospital” and “ambulance” and “accident”, not “See John, see the boats”, as was then typical in early readers, and she wrote accordingly.
At the beginning she was writing them all herself, but later she began to hunt for other writers and artists who understood what she was aiming at. They were very difficult to find at first, but J L Carr, who was later to be on the shortlist for the Booker Prize, and Trevor Griffiths, who later wrote The Comedians, both wrote a Nipper, while Denise Robertson wrote three, and “Ricky’s Birthday” was Jaqueline Wilson’s first published book. Leila also went to a newly-opened Carribean bookshop, New Beacon Books, to find non-white writers and artists, one of whom – Beryl Kingston – was the first black head teacher in the UK.
Read another Nipper!
The series was proposed in 1966 by MacMillans. Leila at first declined the offer to edit the series, but later agreed on condition that the publishers not be embarassed by the furore about to be created by the publication of Risinghill, and also that they understood she would be sending the following briefing to possible authors:
The majority of the children who now read, cannot read about themselves. For with very few exceptions, the children who exist in books are middle-class children. This situation is beginning to change, and a very few books are now being written about working-class streets; of these very few, some are patronising and ‘slumming’, others can only be read by children with educated backgrounds.
School readers are in much the same position. The children in school readers may not have nannies or house-keepers or ponies’ but they have gardens and lawn-mowers. What proportion of the readers of these primary school books actually do have gardens and lawn-mowers?… or sit down to a leisurely breakfast with both Mum and Dad? What is it like when ‘children’ in some mysterious way apparently does not include you?
Our whole society is in any case depersonalising these children. They have never had the space, the pleasant surroundings, the privacy, the calm, the cherishing, the respect, the books and pictures and music, the talk and the discussions and the reading aloud, that have helped other children’s confident identity to grow. And even in the books they get in school, which are often the only books they handle, they see no recognition, no reflection of themselves, nothing that tells them they belong in this world; they grow up feeling they have no right to exist.
We cannot evade this difficulty – which arises mainly because our writers are middle-class people with cultured backgrounds – by making the first books fantasy tales. Fantasy is fine, important, and enriching – provided it is rooted on a firm grasp of reality, a firm belief in your own identity, and a firm confidence that you are worthwhile. We must give this first, otherwise the fantasy we also want to give the child will be an escape from the child’s own nothingness, instead of an enrichment of the child’s identity.
We must write about our children in primary readers as they really are. How many writers can do this? And can do it with accuracy, strength, grace, rhythm – in fact, in good writing? And have, furthermore, an affectionate and respectful understanding of the small child – the essential child, not merely the child favoured by circumstances?
Leila concluded, in Reading and Loving
Though I didn’t know it then, [editing the series] really was going to educate me.
Read a Nipper by Denise Robertson!
Leila tried to get the newly-published Nippers and Little Nippers placed on sale in special stands at supermarket check-outs, but at that time, the late 60’s, it was unheard-of to use such places as a retail point for kids’ books, and her idea was firmly rejected.
We’re trying to compile a complete list of all Nippers ever published in this series edited by Leila.