(Ann) Philippa Pearce Critical Essays

Introduction

(Ann) Philippa Pearce 1920–

British novelist for young adults and younger children and short story writer.

Pearce is among the most highly respected writers of books for young people. Although not prolific, she is considered among the foremost of the British writers who emerged at the end of the 1950s, such as William Mayne, L. M. Boston, and Rosemary Sutcliff. Her books probe the realities of childhood on many different levels. She uses elements of fantasy and the supernatural to complement the realism of her stories, and often demonstrates how heightened experience or a strong need can cause a supernatural event. Other themes concern the past and its influence on the present and future, social differences caused by class structures, and the loneliness and isolation that can exist within the family unit. Adults play important roles in Pearce's works, rather than being absent or ineffectual as in some other books for this audience. She uses the Cambridgeshire countryside of her childhood as the setting for most of her books, and her precise descriptions and vivid sense of place are often noted.

It is unanimously agreed that Pearce's greatest achievement is Tom's Midnight Garden, in which a lonely summer spent with his aunt and uncle leads Tom to discover a garden and a girl from the past. Essentially, this is the story of a desire for companionship so strong that it breaks through the barriers of time; Pearce firmly links fantasy with reality to suggest the effectiveness of imagination in overcoming limitations. She was praised for the originality of her theory of time and the consistency and logic of her approach. Some critics have called this work the most perfect book ever to have been written for children. A Dog So Small deals with fantasy in a different manner as it describes Ben's escape from reality in the form of an imaginary puppy. Triggered by his intense longing for a pet and the loneliness he feels as an excluded child, Ben learns through experience to distinguish possibility from impossibility. The unfolding of his thoughts and emotions is characteristic of Pearce's style, and is represented in several of her other titles.

Pearce's collections of short stories are often felt to be as successful as her novels. In What the Neighbors Did and Other Stories, she concentrates on everyday actions and events, and conveys their deeper essence as well. In The Shadow-Cage and Other Tales of the Supernatural, Pearce writes a series of ghost stories in the classic tradition, but with her own distinctive approach. In The Squirrel Wife she emphasizes human emotions and values, thus giving an uncommon immediacy to the fairy tale genre. As a collaborator, Pearce provided a novelistic structure for Brian Fairfax-Lucy's autobiographical reminiscences of his Edwardian youth, The Children of the House; directed to young readers, the work was praised for its unusual viewpoint and for the beauty of its sad though unsentimental ending. Ironically, the book was criticized for its unclear explanation of the passage of time, a feature felt to be handled successfully in Tom's Midnight Garden.

Several of Pearce's later works are considered minor by critics, some of whom have stated that she has yet to regain success on the scale of Tom's Midnight Garden. However, it is generally agreed that her combination of reality and fantasy is unique, and that her writing style has been exceptional throughout her career. Young people attracted to her works have found believable characters and situations with which to identify, while discovering a writer of imagination, depth, and quality. Pearce won the Carnegie Medal in 1958 for Tom's Midnight Garden, which was also given the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1963, as was The Minnow on the Say in 1958. The Battle of Bubble and Squeak was given the Whitbread Award in 1971. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 1.)