Leila Berg, a children’s writer who played an extremely significant role in shaping the development of children’s literature in the 1960s and 1970s, passed away in April 2012. Her contribution to the field was recognised in 1974 when she won the Eleanor Farjeon award for distinguished service to the world of British children’s books. In 2010 Leila’s extensive archive was donated to Seven Stories, and it provides a fascinating insight into Leila’s life and work, and her passionate commitment to championing the rights of children.


A journalist and writer herself, Leila also edited the Nippers and Little Nippers series of early readers. These series were crucial to changing attitudes to children’s reading in the 1960s – they were a direct response to reading schemes such as Ladybird’s Key Words, which centred around the activities of middle-class Peter and Jane and their families. The Nippers books presented stories of urban, working-class children in situations with which such children could readily identify. Leila sought to represent not only their lifestyles, but also their language - ‘Mam’ replacing ‘Mother’, for example, to create a sense of place which had meaning for her child readers. Leila’s aim, above all, was to help working-class children recognise themselves in the books they read, and so validate their lives and experiences.

In her own words...

“[…] 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

Writing life

Leila’s efforts to represent real children in books for children were not always well received. Fish and Chips for Supper (1968) provoked outrage for its depiction of a family with a leaking roof and washing lines stretched across the stairs – some critics deemed such realism to be too devoid of optimism for young readers, others simply refused to accept that this was reality for any children in Britain. But gradually attitudes began to shift, and such social realism became increasingly common in books for children.

Leila’s Little Pete stories provoked similarly negative reactions from listeners after being broadcast on the radio programme Listen With Mother. After broadcasting the first story, the programme received complaints that Pete was an anarchic and corrupting influence, and the decision was made to pull the remaining stories from the programme! Despite the reservations of some radio listeners, Little Pete became one of Leila’s most enduring and best loved characters, precisely because young children could so easily identify with his insatiable curiosity, and his frank, occasionally cheeky, conversation.

Leila’s legacy

Leila campaigned actively throughout her life 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 championed reading, in particular reading for pleasure, as crucial to the successful development of children, and sought to educate adults in how to foster a love of reading in young children. So much of what Leila believed in is core to the aims and activities of Seven Stories, and we are privileged to play a role in keeping her legacy alive.