Fantastically Great Women: Leila Berg

In anticipation of Kate Pankhurst bringing her book Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World to Seven Stories this week, we are delving into our archive to share the stories of great women who did remarkable things. Today, we shine the spotlight on Leila Berg.

A children’s writer who was fundamental in shaping the development of children’s literature in the 1960s and 1970s, Leila Berg is perhaps one of the most progressive women in our collection.

As a journalist and a writer, Leila wrote and edited the Nippers (1971) series for early readers. Leila’s primary aim of the series was for working-class children to recognise themselves in what they were reading for the first time. She did this by representing familiar experiences in family life through familiar language that young people would hear every day (using the word ‘Mam’ rather than ‘Mother’), which created a meaningful sense of place.


“[…] at least the first books [children are given in schools]…might underline their identity, cherish it, and build from there…But what is it they are given? They are given readers about a family that lives in a detached house…mother who says ‘Good morning, children’ and children who say ‘Good morning, mother’…a family who never has to clock on. If anything could completely confirm for this child what he has already dimly suspected through his growing five years – that he and his family and friends and his street are worthless and expendable – it is the orthodox school reader. As far as they are concerned, he does not exist.”

- Leila Berg, Reading and Loving (1977), p. 75

The books also broke new ground in their complexity of language. Leila sat in school playgrounds, listening and talking with the children to get a better understanding of how children spoke to each other. She was struck by their use of words such as “accident” and “ambulance”, rather than the simple, monosyllabic words that were typical in children’s books at the time and wrote accordingly. For the first time, an author was speaking the true language of children.

The positive reception that Nippers drew prompted Leila to write Little Nippers for under-fives and also influenced her later titles, although some weren’t always greeted with the same level of praise. Fish and Chips for Supper (1968) sparked outrage for its bleak (but realistic) depiction of family life, as critics initially claimed that the book was too devoid of optimism and would not benefit young readers. However, attitudes began to slowly shift in favour of the book as more authors adopted the use of realism in their work. Yet again, Leila was ahead of the curve.

Until her death in 2012, Leila campaigned for the recognition of the value of children, and the importance of providing both home and school environments which respect the language of children and their own ways of expressing themselves. She pushed reading for pleasure as crucial to the successful development of children and educated adults in how to encourage a love of reading in young people.

We at Seven Stories are privileged to keep Leila’s legacy alive through our collection. Between her pioneering writing style and her years of activism for children’s reading, Leila Berg truly was a Fantastically Great Woman.


Kate Pankhurst and Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World come to Seven Stories on Saturday 26thNovember at 2pm.

£3 per person, admission required. Suitable for ages 5-8. Supported by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Book tickets here.