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Joan Lingard obituary | Books

Joan Lingard, who has died aged 90, was a highly regarded writer of more than 60 books for both adults and children, and was best known for her Kevin and Sadie quintet of young adult books set in Belfast during the Troubles in the 1970s.

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She was also an influential figure in the contemporary Scottish literature scene, having served as an active member of the Scottish Arts Council and Scott PEN, and was an instrumental member of the committee that fought to get the Edinburgh international book festival established. She also founded the group Scottish Writers Against the Bomb.

Joan wrote first for adults. Liam’s Daughter (1963) was rapidly followed by five more adult novels in seven years, including The Lord on Our Side (1970), a novel set in Northern Ireland. In 1967 Joan’s friend Honor Arundel, herself a successful children’s author, suggested that she write a book about Belfast for children: The Twelfth Day of July was published in 1970.

Interviewed about it later, Joan said: “I wanted to write a book about prejudice. I wanted to say to young people – you don’t have to accept your parents’ prejudices. You can think for yourself.” Joan adapted Catholic Kevin and Protestant Sadie from characters in her adult novel and charted the story of their friendship across the divide. The bestselling series of five books followed the pair from childhood to early maturity – a maturity that Joan understood to have been forced on them prematurely by the situation in Northern Ireland at the time.

Across the Barricades, widely read since 1972, was reissued along with other Kevin and Sadie books in Penguin's The Originals series of young adult novels in 2016
Across the Barricades, widely read since 1972, was reissued along with other Kevin and Sadie books in Penguin’s The Originals series of young adult novels in 2016

Although the setting and context is specific – which adds much to its intensity – Joan’s skill in portraying a relationship that can survive and adapt despite the in religion, exile and the ongoing demands of family make it a universal story. Much to Joan’s delight, the Kevin and Sadie novels, and in particular the second book, Across the Barricades (1972) – which won the Buxtehuder Bulle award in 1986 when it was published in West Germany – have been loved by readers across the world ever since.

The success of The Twelfth Day of July quintet kept Joan writing for children rather than adults for the next decade, as did her four-book “Maggie” sequence, starting with The Clearance (1974), which she began partly to get away from the violence of her Northern Irish setting.

Set both in Glasgow and in the Highlands, and using social divisions as a background, the Maggie novels are equally strong on place and on the struggle that the central character, a likable, independent-minded teenager, has in moving away from the expectations of her family. The Resettling appeared in 1975, with The Pilgrimage (1976) and The Reunion (1977) following. The four books were adapted by Joan for a two-series BBC television drama, Maggie (1981-82), starring Kirsty Miller.

Character-led, often about girls finding themselves but with interesting and thoughtful boys, too, Joan’s stories are firmly based in realist situations that gave her scope to explore how children navigate adult prejudice and expectations. She was equally deft when using real, major conflicts as a dramatic background as she was when telling a story of a domestic or internal struggle. A shrewdly penetrating eye combined with a light touch and a gentle humorous tone enabled Joan to make social comments without preaching: she observed carefully and put in details, food most frequently, which supported the settings for her many different stories of self-discovery.

Joan’s career as a writer began early. An avid reader as a child, she borrowed as many books as she could from the local library in Belfast, supplementing them with the books she always asked for as presents. Nonetheless, she frequently complained that she had nothing left to read. She was 11 when, in response to her mother suggesting that she should write her own, Joan did just that.

Written on lined paper in green ink because she thought it an artistic color for a writer, Gail was an adventure story set in Cornwall. Joan numbered it 1 in her list of “BOOKS BY JOAN LINGARD”. As an adult, she claimed that it was from that moment that she knew she wanted to be a novelist.

She was born in a taxi in the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, the daughter of Henry Lingard, an accounts checker and chief yeoman of signals in the Royal Navy, and Elizabeth (nee Beattie). The family moved to Belfast when Joan was two and she grew up in Holland Gardens, in the east of the city, attending Strandtown primary school followed by Bloomfield Collegiate school, the local girls grammar, where she made a close group of friends with whom she kept in touch long after she had moved back to Scotland. Her links to the school were more officially retained with the recent opening of the Joan Lingard Library there, an honor of which Joan was very proud.

Joan Lingard at the Edinburgh international book festival
Joan Lingard at the Edinburgh international book festival

She left school at 16 following the death of her mother from breast cancer and got a job working in a primary school before returning to Edinburgh to join her father. In 1950 she enrolled at Moray House, Edinburgh University, to train as a teacher, graduating in 1953. She taught in primary schools in and around Edinburgh for the next 10 years while also beginning her life as a writer, whenever writing she could while her three daughters played in the garden.

Initially, she set her books in places she knew – Belfast, Edinburgh and Glasgow – and drew largely on experiences she had observed. Later, she set stories in France and Spain too and also began to reflect the experiences of those close to her. For children, The Guilty Party (1987) drew on her daughter’s involvement in the protests at Greenham Common, and Tug of War (1989) captured her second husband’s childhood experience of fleeing from Riga in Latvia in 1944.

She continued the story in a subsequent novel for adults, Dreams of Love and Modest Glory (1995). After You’ve Gone (2007), Joan’s last novel for adults, told of her father’s time with the British fleet in 1924, while her almost-last books for children, including The Eleventh Orphan (2006), were inspired by her grandparents who ran a pub in Stoke Newington, north London. Her final title for children was Trouble on Cable Street (2014), set in London in 1936.

Whatever the period or setting, Joan’s books had immediate appeal and throughout the decades of her writing her stories had absolute relevance for her readers. She was appointed MBE for services to children’s literature in 1998.

Joan was always a wonderful companion. She was wise, funny and direct. She had a gift for telling stories that gently provoked change by encouraging readers to be open-minded and bold. As she was.

Her first marriage, to Frederick England, with whom she had three daughters, Kersten, Bridget and Jenny, ended in divorce in 1971. The following year she married Martin Birkhans, who survives her along with her three children, five grandchildren and two great- grandchildren.

Joan Amelia Lingard, author, born 8 April 1932; died 12 July 2022

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