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Philippa Pearce, 86; wrote books for children

January 08, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Philippa Pearce, author of the bestselling "Tom's Midnight Garden" and other children's books, has died, her publisher said. She was 86.

Pearce died Dec. 21 in England after suffering a stroke, said Reetu Kabra, a spokeswoman for Puffin Books, part of the Penguin Group.

The youngest of four children of flour miller Ernest Pearce and his wife, Gertrude, Ann Philippa Pearce was born in 1920 in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, England. The rural family home on the river Cam provided the setting for many of her novels.

"We lived in a big, shabby, beautiful mill house by the river," Pearce wrote in 1976 in the children's magazine Cricket. "We swam, fished, boated, skated.... When I grew up and went to London to work, I took with me all the places that I had loved. They turned up in the stories I was beginning to write."

"Tom's Midnight Garden," for which she received the Carnegie Medal from the British Library Assn. in 1958, revolves around a young boy and his discovery of a secret Victorian garden in the backyard of his uncle's house.

A haunting, lyrical look at the relationship between the young and old and the passage of time, the book is widely considered one of the best works of contemporary English children's literature. It has sold millions of copies and been adapted for radio, theater and television. A 1999 film version featured Joan Plowright and Greta Scacchi, with Anthony Way as Tom.

"If I were asked to name a single masterpiece of English children's literature since [World War II] ... it would be this outstandingly beautiful and absorbing book," critic John Rowe Townsend wrote in the 1965 book "Written for Children."

Pearce wrote more than 30 other works, mostly children's novels and ghost stories, all marked by a lack of sentimentality.

"There is very much unpleasantness in childhood that we adults forget -- and much that some simply dare not remember," Pearce wrote in the Horn Book magazine of children's literature. "For, let's face it, a good deal of childhood is strong stuff for adults and totally unsuitable for children."

In the early 1960s, Pearce married Martin Christie, who had been imprisoned in a Japanese war camp. He died two years later, leaving her with a daughter, Sally.

Pearce, who was educated at Girton College at Cambridge University, worked as a scriptwriter, radio producer and editor of children's books until the mid-1960s, when she was able to support herself by writing. She was appointed to the Order of the British Empire in 1997 for her service to children's literature.

Pearce, who is survived by her daughter and two grandsons, had been living in a cottage across the street from her childhood home -- a short walk from her old walled garden.

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