Kathleen Wendy (Herald) Peyton Biography (1929-)
Publishing her first novel at the age of eighteen, and continuing her prolific writing career—sometimes in collaboration with her husband, writer and illustrator Michael Peyton—under the name K. M. Peyton, Kathleen Wendy Peyton pens stories that deal with the problems young people face while growing into adulthood. Praising such novels as the Carnegie Medal-winning The Edge of the Cloud as well as the books Blind Beauty, The Beethoven Medal, and The Maplin Bird, a Junior Bookshelf reviewer declared that "few writers deal more convincingly with the exquisite agony of growing up than Peyton."
Peyton's love of horseback riding, sailing, music, and flying is reflected in many of her books, and reviewers have praised the vivid descriptions of such activities as one of the best features of Peyton' books. In his A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writing for Children, John Rowe Townsend commented that Peyton "has, among many other gifts, the unusual one of writing extremely well about movement: about the way people move with and through and against the elements, in boats, on horseback, and—in the Flambards novels—in those frail, wind-buffeted early aircraft." For many years the Peytons lived close to nature and to the sea, making their home on an estuary in Essex, England. Noting this fact, Junior Bookshelf contributor Marcus S. Crouch wrote that Peyton "knows the sea, the creeks and the saltings, as well as the villages and the ports." Several of Peyton's stories, such as The Maplin Bird, The Plan for Birdsmarsh, Thunder in the Sky, and Sea Fever, take advantage of this background. Margaret Meek wrote in a review of The Maplin Bird for School Librarian and School Library Review that "the estuary scenery and details of seafaring are skillfully woven into the texture of the relationships" that unfold in Peyton's story.Just as Peyton's stories about sailing are not solely limited to descriptions of boating, critics have noted that her books about horses are balanced by their attention to the personal problems of their young protagonists. In Blind Beauty, for example, a troubled, horse-crazy pre-teen named Tessa comes to terms with the problems in her life and her relationships with her difficult parents through her determination to train an ungainly horse limited potential and failing eyesight to qualify to race in the Grand National. Praising the novel in Publishers Weekly, a reviewer wrote that Peyton's "distinctively cadenced prose . . . keeps the narrative galloping at a cracking pace," while School Library Journal reviewer Barbara Wysocki described Tessa as "an impulsive, independent, horse-loving teen with twenty-first-century problems. Appraising Fly-by-Night, Peyton's story about a young girl who raises a horse in her lower middle-class home, Crouch commented in his The Nesbit Tradition: The Children's Novel in England, 1945-70 that when the plot-line turned its focus on the personal struggles of its "young heroine, ponies quickly disappeared and [Peyton] . . . wrote a serious social novel." The story's protagonist, Ruth, a Young Readers' Review critic further asserted, "is a fine creation. She is a likeable, intense girl whose heart is in the right place. The way she meets her problems is completely realistic." The reviewer concluded that Fly-by-Night is a "beautifully written horse story." Other books involving horses and the teens who love them include Stealaway, which draws elements of mystery and the supernatural into its plot. In the novel, Nicky's horse-trainer mother gets a job at the stable of an isolated Scottish castle that has a centuries-old past which includes regional wars, the unsolved murder of a child, and the theft of a prize stallion. Along with her new friend Jed, Nicky finds herself drawn into the castle's past when the stable's new stallion is threatened and a ghostly white pony haunts the premises. Reviewing the book for School Library Journal, Kelley Rae Unger dubbed Stealaway "a good choice for horse lovers and mystery aficionados alike." A mistreated pony is the subject of Poor Badger, a book for younger readers that focuses on a young girl's efforts to find the pony a loving home and features "a veritable encyclopedia of how not to care for a pony," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor. Like Blind Beauty a teen's belief in the potential of a lackluster horse is the focus of Darkling, which finds Jenny's dedication to a wild colt paying off in a conclusion that features both an exciting horserace sequence and a budding romance.
While Peyton often pens stories about horses that are aimed at a pre-teen readership, she has also strayed into other subjects. In fact, the first three "Flambards" novels—Flambards, The Edge of the Cloud, and Flambards in Summer—are considered her most acclaimed books. Winner of the Guardian Award for Fiction in 1970, the first three volumes of the series follow the life of Christina, an orphan who lives in the crumbling English mansion Flambards along with her uncle Russell, a crippled yet domineering man whose only concerns are hunting, horses, and making certain his two sons carry on his Edwardian lifestyle. However, Will, the younger son, loves airplanes more than horses, and has no desire to be part of a social class that believes horses should be treated better than servants. Christina, who, as one Times Literary Supplement reviewer described, "loves hunting but hates the mindless world of the hunters," marries Will after discovering that they have similar beliefs, and the couple flee to London. Peyton's ability to highlight the shifting class landscape during the early twentieth century through characters such as Will and Uncle Russell makes Flambards an "important novel," according to Washington Post Book World contributor Madeline L'Engle.
Becoming a pilot for the Royal Air Force after World War I breaks out, Will is shot down and killed in Europe. Flambards in Summer relates how Christina, now a twenty-one-year-old widow, returns to the mansion and attempts to restore new life to Flambards. Following their Guardian award, the Peytons continued their popular series with Flambards Divided, which finds Christina facing the repercussions of her decision to marry "beneath her" after she weds Dick, a former stable hand at the mansion. The newlyweds' life together represents the rise of a new social class, as well as a threat to class traditions; and they are ignored socially by the local gentry.
Another of Peyton's well-known characters is Patrick Pennington, who first appears in Pennington's Last Term. Pamela T. Cleaver, reviewing the novel for the Children's Book Review, dubbed it "a rare, marvelous book." Peyton's "seventeen-year-old rebel, hating his last year at school, arrogant and surly, butting his head against authority," is "a totally believable teenager," Cleaver added. Pennington has a talent for playing the piano, and it is this ability that eventually redeems him in the eyes of his elders. In novels such as The Beethoven Medal and Pennington's Heir, Peyton's protagonist matures: Pennington marries Ruth, the leading character in Fly-by-Night, and the couple have a baby. Although Ruth and Pennington suffer some setbacks, such as Pennington's brief term in jail for striking a policeman, their ability to grow as people helps them overcome many obstacles successfully.Because Peyton usually sets her books in the twentieth century, the novel Snowfall serves as a bit of a departure. In addition to the absence of horses, the book was characterized by Booklist reviewer Frances Bradburn as "a delightful Victorian romance novel for teens." Based on a true incident, the novel finds sixteen-year-old Charlotte, who has been raised by her grandfather, promised in marriage to her grandfather's colleague, an assistant vicar who the young woman has few positive feelings for. Convincing her grandfather to allow her one last holiday prior to her wedding, Charlotte conspires with her older brother Ben to join a mountaineering party planned for the Swiss Alps. In the company of Ben and his handsome college friends, Charlotte visits the home of Milo, a well-connected young man of questionable values, where she is quickly swept off her feet and into the arms of more than one available young man. While noting that Charlotte's behavior does not reflect appropriate Victorian manners, Bradburn maintained that the young woman still conforms to the social "constraints of the era." Somewhat critical of the novel, a Publishers Weekly contributor maintained that Snowfall also reflects Victorian society in its "cliched" characterizations of Jews and people of "'low' birth. While some reviewers have taken issue with Peyton's tendency to resolve her stories with happy endings—the author was said to have a "strong but romantic heart" by one Times Literary Supplement critic—Townsend noted that several of her books "deal with large themes" and feature "excellent plots" featuring "great pace and certainty." With regard to Peyton's depiction of adolescents, John W. Conner cited Pennington's Last Term as proof that the author "understands the emotional turbulence" of the teenaged years. In general, Peyton has been characterized by critics like New Statesman contributor Naomi Lewis as "a strong, trenchant, curiously unsentimental novelist," and the Peyton's books have continued to be reissued, steadily winning new fans throughout her long career.
The purpose of all her writing, Peyton once asserted in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, is solely to entertain, and not to convey any particular moral message. "When a writer knows he has a juvenile audience," she explained, "a certain responsibility is inevitably felt, but to think that he can 'con' his audience into what might be called correct attitudes [is an effort that] must be doomed to failure."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Blishen, Edward, The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, Kestrel Books (London, England), 1975.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1978.
Crouch, Marcus S., The Nesbit Tradition: The Children's Novel in England, 1945-70, Benn (London, England), 1972.
Townsend, John Rowe, A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writing for Children, Longman (London, England), 1971.
Booklist, September 15, 1998, Frances Bradburn, review of Snowfall, p. 221.
Chicago Tribune Book World, December 29, 1968; May 9, 1971.
Children's Book News, March-April, 1969; September-October, 1970.
Children's Book Review, October, 1971; February, 1973; spring, 1974.
Children's Literature in Education, July, 1972; November, 1972.
English Journal, November, 1971; November, 1972.
Junior Bookshelf, November, 1964; December, 1966; June, 1969; October, 1971; February, 1974.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2004, review of Stealaway, p. 811.
New Statesman, November 3, 1967.
New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1966.
Publishers Weekly, May 11, 1990, review of Darkling, p. 261; January 20, 1992, review of Poor Badger, p. 65; September 14, 1998, review of Snowfall, p. 69; January 29, 2001, review of Blind Beauty, p. 90.
School Librarian and School Library Review, March, 1965.
School Library Journal, March, 2001, Carol Schene, review of Blind Beauty, p. 255; August, 2004, Barbara Wysocki, review of Blind Beauty (audiobook), p. 77; December, 2004, Kelley Rae Unger, review of Stealaway, p. 117.
Spectator, November 1, 1969; November 13, 1971.
Times Literary Supplement, December 9, 1965; November 30, 1967; October 3, 1968; April 3, 1969; October 16, 1969; November 30, 1970; November 3, 1972; December 5, 1975; September 29, 1978; September, 17, 1982; March 29, 1985; August 16, 1985.
Use of English, spring, 1972.
Washington Post Book World, November 11, 1979; February 12, 1984.
Young Readers' Review, December, 1968; May, 1969.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Jan Peck Biography - Personal to David Randall (1972–) Biography - PersonalKathleen Wendy (Herald) Peyton (1929-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights