Leila Berg
Illustrated Biography

(for the long version of her childhood, read Flickerbook!)

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.

Leila's infant school class photo
Leila's infant school photo, age 4, 1923. She's third from the left, front row.

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 Flickerbook.

As a student, Leila walked out of a teaching course, but completed a journalism one with distinction, not bothering, however, to pick up her certificate. She started her career as a journalist with The Daily Worker, while boyfriends of this time were getting killed in the Spanish Civil War. She had, earlier, joined the Youth Front against War and Fascism, and then the Young Communist League. Then the war, World War II, started. She got married, got bombed out of her house, and had her first child as a refugee in her own country.

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.

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Leila, aged 41, 1959, photo by Anthony Panting

During this period she wrote many books for children of different ages, and also became Children's Books Editor for Methuen, then a well-respected independent publisher in London. Leila's own books were published under a wide range of imprints. She also edited, and became particularly well-known for, the Nippers and Little Nippers series, most of which she wrote herself, but all of which carried her characteristic attitude.

The Small World series came last, and were most unfortunately never properly publicised - casualties of the merger wars, very deserving of revival. She was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon Medal in 1973 for her services to children's literature. Books for children were followed by books about "free" schools, and about childhood, such as Risinghill, Death of a Comprehensive, Reading and Loving, and Look At Kids.

Leila at age 58
Leila at age 58, photo by John Walmsley

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. 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 the new, merged world of publishing run by accountants who insisted on books being aimed at a clear niche. Which of course The God Stories - a book based on Old Testament legends, for reading aloud at any age - was deliberately not.

Leila at 70-something
Leila at 70-something, photo by John Walmsley

Her last writing to date is the autobiographical Flickerbook, published in 1997, before The God Stories. With this one the research took an inward direction as she re-experienced herself as the child at the given moment. (She is very definite 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.

Now aged 81, Leila is taking it easy, battling age and arthritis with homeopathics, exercise, flower remedies and friendships. She is considering further projects - perhaps a sequel to Flickerbook. Another possibility is 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, since she first heard it from George Him (illustrator of her Folk Tales) and his friends, who had known Korczak in Poland. She has a computer and is looking for the best in voice-recognition software - so useful when it works, so frustrating when it doesn't - to help her continue working with arthritic hands.