Linda Newbery: How I ended up writing the follow-up to the classic children's book, Flambards

Published on: 27 November 2018 Author: Linda Newbery

Author Linda Newbery talks about her book, The Key to Flambards, which is linked to the much-loved Flambards series from the early 20th century – and how her love of the original even led to a friendship with its author, K M Peyton.

I was awake early before a holiday in Cornwall. For some reason, I was thinking about the various sequels and prequels to classic novels (Geraldine McCaughrean’s Peter Pan in Scarlet, Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front, several follow-ons to The Wind in the Willows). That would be fun, I thought. What would I choose, given the chance?

The answer came promptly: Flambards, of course!

Discovering teenage fiction

It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that I owe my publishing career to K M (Kathy) Peyton. I always wanted to write, but, until then I’d been dabbling in poetry, fiction and short stories, not sure where to aim. Flambards and its successors made me aware that there was such a thing as teenage fiction – still in its early days at that time – and of the enormous scope it offered.

I’d read Flambards, and almost everything else by the brilliant K M Peyton, since discovering it in my student days while training to teach English. Given the task of choosing a children’s book and explaining how it could be used in the classroom, I was browsing in the library when Flambards caught my eye. I read it, loved it, and thought it could have been written especially for me.

My essay, though written with huge enjoyment, didn’t get a good mark. My tutor commented, 'This book obviously made a great impression on you, but you haven’t said a single thing about how you’d present it to children.' I’d forgotten that bit.

I simply loved the book for myself: Edwardian England, the countryside, social injustice, strong sense of place, horses, the early days of flying, memorable characters, the First World War looming and – above all – tremendously engaging writing.

Talking Flambards with its author

Years later, with published novels of my own and reviewing regularly for Books for Keeps, I wangled the job of interviewing Kathy Peyton for the Authorgraph feature. That was the first time I met Kathy in person – at her Essex home, which felt like walking into one of her books. It’s on the edge of a village on the estuary of the River Crouch, near Chelmsford, adjoining a small wood planted by Kathy herself, and is filled with books and with artwork by Kathy and her husband Mike; we sat and talked in the comfortable study used by both.

That meeting was the first of many. We would meet for coffee before publishers’ parties in London, and when I was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, it was a slightly surreal thrill to invite Kathy to the ceremony as my guest. I’ve now visited her home many times and on occasion stayed overnight – taking the chance to write a few pages in bed, hoping for a sprinkle of Peyton magic dust over my words.

We’ve often talked about Flambards and its characters. At one time, Kathy was thinking of writing about a child of Christina and Mark, having realised that a son of theirs would be of an age to fly in the Battle of Britain. In fact, she did write an excellent Second World War novel, Blue Skies and Gunfire, but without involving her Flambards cast. She also told me an idea she had about Mark, which found its way into my own book… But I can’t say more than that.

Revisiting Flambards

So, back to my drive down to Cornwall, spent dreaming and plotting. It was obvious that I couldn’t continue Christina’s story in a book for children: Flambards Divided leaves her in her early twenties, widowed, divorced, a mother, and about to marry for the third time. Instead I thought of revisiting Flambards now, in 2018, at the time of the centenary of the Armistice.

Not wanting the house to belong to wealthy country landowners, I decided that it had changed hands several times since Christina’s day but is now owned by Trustees and run as a retreat centre, offering courses in art, photography, local history and the like. My main character, Grace, is Christina’s great-great-granddaughter – descended from Isobel, the baby born to Christina after the death of Will, her first love. Much tinkering with the family tree followed, and I contrived for Grace to have the Russell surname. The house having been privately owned, she and her mother Polly have never had the chance to visit, until now.

And, like Christina, Grace has experienced a recent traumatic experience and loss, one which shakes her sense of identity and makes her future uncertain.

It's here: The Key to Flambards

Before going any farther, I approached Kathy – with some trepidation. She might be outraged at the idea of another author trespassing on her very special territory. But, very generously, she agreed at once, and when I told my agent and editor (David Fickling) they were both keen, too.

The challenge then was to produce a story that draws on the characters of the Flambards quartet, especially in the context of their wartime experiences and the Armistice centenary, without making it too complicated for those coming fresh to my book, while Grace’s story needed to be absorbing in its own right.

This proved quite difficult, but I was helped by having one editor (David) who knows Flambards and Kathy very well, and had edited Flambards Divided, and two others (Bella Pearson and Anthony Hinton) who didn’t know the books. I hope between us we’ve avoided over-complication while still providing satisfaction for the many fans of Flambards. I discussed my basic plot outline with Kathy but beyond that we didn’t collaborate, although she was, of course, the first to read my draft.

Now that the book is here as finished object, with lovely cover artwork by Katie Harnett, I still can’t quite believe I had the cheek...

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