Children's column: Remembering Naomi Lewis

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Tuesday, 21st July 2009

Two memorials have been planned for Naomi Lewis, children's writer and critic, who died on 5 July at the age of 97. The official celebration of Naomi's life and work, organised by her brother Toby and nieces Rae and Gina, will be held in Central London in September, with details to come shortly. Those in the children's book world who knew Naomi and would like to be informed about it are invited to contact the family by email on 'raelewis at blueyonder dot co dot uk', or on the following numbers: 0208 994 4310 or 07981 600222.

Another, organised by a neighbour, Brian Blandford, will be held at the Conway Hall this Saturday, 25 July.
Many in the children's book world met Naomi Lewis even in recent years, since she continued to attend literary parties until quite recently; I expect I am not the only one surprised to learn how old she was. Both the Times and the Guardian contained substantial obituaries. They were full of colourful details.
Blake Morrison spoke of Lewis's sweetness of nature, and of how she remembered the names of children she had never met, and of her twice-yearly, hand-written, much-corrected round-ups of children's books - lucid and authoritative once deciphered - in the Observer. Beverley Naidoo admired Lewis's ability to encapsulate the spirit of a book in a few words (invaluable for those round-ups). The coverage also informed us of Lewis's commitment to animal rights, her refusal to review any book that entailed cruelty to animals, her rescuing of stray cats, and her habit of taking injured birds for flying practice in rooms at Conway Hall, safely away from her cats.
We learnt of her committed humanism and her lectures for the South Place Ethical Society - on Primo Levi's literary achievement, on A History of Heaven, and the intriguingly entitled Is Queen Victoria Dead? And that her career as a critic began when she repeatedly won New Statesman competitions under a variety of assumed names, until she finally made her identity known to the editor and was immediately employed. We heard about a perfectionism that made her correct her writing until the last minute so that publishers had been known to wait outside a door for sheets of writing to be successively slipped under it. Of how she once left a mischievous note on the lap of sleeping Julian Symons in the London Library, causing him never to visit the library again. That in an interview for Books for Keeps she was asked if she believed in fairies, and replied: 'Of course, but I am never sure if they believe in me.' And a former pupil wrote in praise of her as an inspiring teacher, her poetry lessons a joy, remembering her enthralling enunciation of Keats Ode to Autumn.
All these details and more made Lewis come across like a richly drawn character in fiction. It made me regret, as is so often the case with posthumous revelations, that I did not know more about her sooner. But what I, and so many people, will remember, is her encyclopedic knowledge of children's literature, and that she wrote so beautifully. Of her prolific output of writing I reviewed only a few books: one was Elf Hill, her collection of retellings of tales from Hans Christian Andersen, in whom she was an expert. The stories, I said, were told with rare and often heart-stopping elegance . She wrote to thank me, in a finely turned letter that embodied the sweetness of nature Morrison referred to.