In Memoriam: Jill Paton Walsh (1937–2020)

It’s a trick of the human mind that we rarely remember experiences in sequence. Rather, our brain does something scattershot, collaged. When emotion inflects memory, as happens at the death of a friend, it can be a struggle to organize the onrush of the past into narrative coherence.

The news has crossed the ocean that Jill Paton Walsh, children’s and adult novelist, has died at eighty-three. For decades Jill was a staunch presence in the hearts of American and Canadian children’s book people — especially in New England. Indeed, she once mused, sotto voce, that she might be more highly regarded on this continent than in Great Britain. I’m asked to describe how this happy association came about.

Jill won a 1976 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for her novel Unleaving. When Horn Book editor Ethel Heins rang her with the news, Jill astonished Ethel by deciding to use the prize money to accept the award in person. Upon arrival in Boston, Jill likely visited novelist Jane Langton, whom she’d befriended at a Loughborough conference. Herself a spirited member of the New England children’s book community, Jane found in the demonstrative Jill a capacity for warmth and enthusiasm unusual in a British person of her generation. Jill forged an attachment to New England instantly, and for good.

In 1977, educator Barbara Harrison founded the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College (now University). She drew together sympathetic Boston-area figures as professors. The faculty included Jane Langton, novelist Betty Levin, and Horn Book editors Paul and Ethel Heins. (I showed up as a graduate student that year, and stayed on. Barely out of college myself, I’d found my own professional circle at one hop on the game board.)


Jill Paton Walsh and Gregory Maguire in 1978.

The following summer, Barbara invited Jill Paton Walsh and critic John Rowe Townsend to co-teach a course in Modern British Fiction for Children, and for the next seven summers Jill and John served as adjunct faculty. In 1986, when faculty relations with the administration of Simmons grew prickly, John and Jill met with the dean privately, trying to broker a resolution. Their efforts were rebuffed, but note the characteristic gesture: they were never known to walk away from a knotty situation with a “not my problem” attitude.

Efforts at reconciliation exhausted, the original faculty of the Center resigned, more or less en masse. However, our belief in a common mission soon turned gripe sessions into board meetings for a new nonprofit, Children’s Literature New England. Answerable only to itself, CLNE launched in 1987 with a week-long conference at Harvard. For nineteen more years it mounted institutes at varying venues, including Cambridge and Oxford. Biennial colloquia followed. Jill’s frequent core lectures were a signal contribution, enrapturing audiences with intellectual heft leavened with compassion. By the time, after thirty-three years, CLNE folded its wayfaring tents in 2020, a détente with the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature had been achieved — though it had taken some finesse. Jill stood in solidarity throughout, an unwavering advocate of the visions that powered both operations.

Jill’s Booker Prize–nominated novel for adults, Knowledge of Angels, shares with her young adult novels a respect for the value of discourse. Her recurring subjects were the aesthetic and dramatic appeal of actual thinking, and the moral consequences of deliberation. Reflection, Jill insisted, is prologue to moral action. A Parcel of Patterns, Shine, Fireweed, A Chance Child, Grace — we are bequeathed a shelf of books detailing the courage the young can show in dark times.

                   

Although Jill became more focused on writing for adults than for children, she crossed the Atlantic annually to visit her children’s book compatriots. My own devotion to Jill as a friend and hero isn’t the subject here; nonetheless, it’s hard to disentangle personal memories from professional. My three adopted children considered Jill and John, who married in 2004, to be honorary grandparents. Indeed, Jill once slipped me a check, whispering, “At our age we can’t be expected to post presents in a timely fashion — be sure the children receive gifts from us at their birthdays and the holidays. We’ll top up the fund when it runs out.”

Jill had been diminished by John’s death in 2014. So her children, her CLNE friends, and my family, too, crowed with delight at the notion she would marry again. That she spent the last nine months of her life in COVID sequestration with Nicholas Herbert — her new beau who became, for barely three weeks, her third husband — meant she went out in a blaze of romantic affection. Such joy! She was rendered nearly incoherent with it — a rare condition for that consummate rhetorician.

At the CLNE institute in 2006, “The Heroic Ideal: Revisited,” Jill and John concluded their final appearance at a podium together by honoring the names of previous speakers who had passed away. Jill considered how we the living were to move forward without meeting annually, quoting Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” It seems apt to return to these words now that Jill has crossed to join the other heroes. Her legacy is brilliant in our twilight of grief. Her shield in defense of honor, of the young, of friendship and love, and of the hope possessed by children, the Lords of Time, as she called them — it’s polished as bright as that of Achilles.

…Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

From the January/February 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is a founding co-director of Children's Literature New England and the author of novels for adults (including Wicked and A Winter Wild Swan) and children (including Egg & Spoon and the forthcoming Cress Watercress, both published by Candlewick).

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