Swindells, Robert (Edward) 1939-

views updated

SWINDELLS, Robert (Edward) 1939-


Born March 20, 1939, in Bradford, England; son of Albert Henry (in sales) and Alice Swindells; married, August, 1962; wife's name, Cathy (divorced, c. 1976); married Brenda Marriott, 1982; children: (first marriage) Linda, Jill. Education: Huddersfield Polytechnic, teaching certificate, 1972; Bradford University, M.A., 1988. Politics: "Ecology." Hobbies and other interests: Reading (almost anything), walking, travel, watching films.


Home and office 3 Upwood Park, Black Moor Rd., Oxenhope, Keighley, West Yorkshire BD22 9SS, England. Agent Jennifer Luithlen, "The Rowans," 88 Holmfield Rd., Leicester LE2 1SB, England.


Telegraph and Argus, Bradford, Yorkshire, England, copyholder, 1954-57, advertising clerk, 1960-67; Hepworth & Grandage (turbine manufacturer), Bradford, engineer, 1967-69; Undercliffe First, Bradford, teacher, 1972-77; Southmere First, Bradford, part-time teacher, 1977-80; full-time writer, 1980. Military service: Royal Air Force, 1957-60.


Society of Authors.

Awards, Honors

Child Study Association of America's Children's Books of the Year, 1975, for When Darkness Comes; National Book Award nomination, children's category, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1980, for The Moonpath and Other Stories; Other Award, 1984, Children's Book Award, Federation of Children's Book Groups, and Carnegie Medal runner-up, British Library Association, both 1985, all for Brother in the Land; Children's Book Award, 1990, for Room 13; Carnegie Medal, 1994, for Stone Cold; Earthworm Award, senior fiction category, 1995, for Timesnatch; KJJ Preis (The Netherlands), 1995.


When Darkness Comes, illustrated by Charles Keeping, Brockhampton Press (Leicester, England), 1973, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1975.

A Candle in the Night, David & Charles (Newton Abbot, Devon, England), 1974, reprinted as A Candle in the Dark, Knight Books (Sevenoaks, Kent, England), 1983.

Voyage to Valhalla, illustrated by Victor Ambrus, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1976, Heinemann Educational (Portsmouth, NH), 1977, reprinted, Knight Books (Sevenoaks, Kent, England), 1994.

The Very Special Baby, illustrated by Victor Ambrus, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1977, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1977.

The Ice-Palace, illustrated by Jane Jackson, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1977.

Dragons Live Forever, illustrated by Petula Stone, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1978.

The Weather-Clerk, illustrated by Petula Stone, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1979.

The Moonpath and Other Stories, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1979, published as The Moonpath and Other Tales of the Bizarre, illustrated by Reg Sandland, Carolrhoda Books (Minneapolis, MN), 1983.

Norah's Ark, illustrated by Avril Haynes, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1979.

Norah's Shark, illustrated by Avril Haynes, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1979.

Ghost Ship to Ganymede, illustrated by Jeff Burns, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1980.

Norah and the Whale, illustrated by Avril Haynes, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1981.

Norah to the Rescue, illustrated by Avril Haynes, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1981.

World Eater, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1981.

The Wheaton Book of Science Fiction Stories, illustrated by Gary Long, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1982.

Brother in the Land, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1984, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1985.

The Thousand Eyes of Night, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1985.

The Ghost Messengers, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1986.

Staying Up, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1986.

Mavis Davis, illustrated by Amelia Rosato, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1988.

The Postbox Mystery, illustrated by Kate Rogers, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1988.

A Serpent's Tooth, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1988, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1989.

Follow a Shadow, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1989, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1990.

Night School, illustrated by Rob Chapman, Paperbird, 1989.

Room 13, illustrated by Jon Riley, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.

Daz 4 Zoe, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1990.

Tom Kipper, illustrated by Scoular Anderson, Macmillan (London, England), 1990.

Dracula's Castle, illustrated by Jon Riley, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.

Hydra, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.

Rolf and Rosie, illustrated by David McKee, Andersen Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1992.

You Can't Say I'm Crazy, illustrated by Tony Ross, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1992.

Fallout, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.

The Go-Ahead Gang, illustrated by M. Bradley, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1992.

Inside the Worm, illustrated by Jon Riley, Doubleday (London, England), 1993.

Sam and Sue and Lavatory Lou, illustrated by Val Biro, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

The Secret of Weeping Wood, illustrated by Carolyn Dinan, Scholastic (London, England), 1993.

The Siege of Frimly Prim, illustrated by Scoular Anderson, Methuen (London, England), 1993.

We Didn't Mean to, Honest!, illustrated by Carolyn Dinan, Scholastic (London, England), 1993.

Stone Cold, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1994.

Timesnatch, illustrated by Jon Riley, Doubleday (London, England), 1994.

Kidnap at Denton Farm, Scholastic (London, England), 1994.

The Muckitups, illustrated by Laura Beaumont, Piccadilly (London, England), 1995.

The Ghosts of Givenham Keep, Scholastic (London, England), 1995.

Unbeliever, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1995.

Jacqueline Hyde, Doubleday (London, England), 1996.

Last Bus, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1996.

Hurricane Summer, illustrated by Kim Palmer, Mammoth (London, England), 1997.

Nightmare Stairs, Doubleday (London, England), 1997.

Peril in the Mist, Scholastic (London, England), 1997.

Smash!, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1997.

Abomination, Doubleday (London, England), 1998.

The Strange Tale of Ragger Bill, Scholastic (London, England), 1998.

Dosh, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1999.

Roger's War, illustrated by Kim Palmer, Mammoth (London, England), 1999.

(With Peter Utton) The Orchard Book of Vikings, Orchard (London, England), 2000.

The Orchard Book of Egyptian Gods and Pharaohs, illustrated by Stephen Lambert, Orchard (London, England), 2000.

The Orchard Book of Stories from Ancient Egypt, illustrated by Stephen Lambert, Orchard (London, England), 2000.

Invisible!, Corgi Yearling (London, England), 2000.

Doodlebug Alley, illustrated by Kim Palmer, Mammoth (London, England), 2000.

A Wish for Wings, Doubleday (London, England), 2001.

Wrecked, Puffin (London, England), 2001.

Blitzed, Doubleday (London, England), 2002.

No Angels, Puffin (London, England), 2003.

translator; "alfie" series by gunilla bergstrom

Alfie and His Secret Friend, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1979.

Who'll Save Alfie Atkins?, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1979.

Alfie and the Monster, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1979.

You're a Sly One, Alfie Atkins, Wheaton (Exeter, England), 1979.

Is That a Monster, Alfie Atkins?, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1989.

Contributor to books, including The Methuen Book of Strange Tales, edited by Jean Russell, Methuen (London, England), 1980, and Haunting Christmas Tales, Scholastic (London, England), 1991.


Robert Swindells is a popular English novelist for children and young adults, perhaps best known for Brother in the Land, the story of a boy's struggle for survival after a nuclear holocaust. Swindells, who has never avoided the most difficult issues facing humanity in modern times when writing fiction, won the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1994 for Stone Cold, the story of a serial killer whose victims are homeless teenagers. Many of Swindells's other books have similarly chilling elements, and he is able to demonstrate how the courage of his characters enables them to survive. Without talking down to his younger readers, Swindells offers a variety of imaginative plots and realistic endings in his many novels for young adults. As Myles McDowell noted in Twentieth Century Children's Writers, the author "offers few cozy endings. He respects the maturity of his young readers and offers them compelling and sometimes profound imaginative experiences in language which is potent and easily accessible."

Swindells was born in 1939, and all of his childhood memories are in some way influenced by World War II. In an essay for the Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), he recalled that as a very young child, he visualized Germans as "black, hairy creatures with fangs who dropped bombs from aeroplanes." After the war ended, Swindells had more unrest to deal with: his parents quarreled, and their tiny house was crowded and noisy with his four other siblings around. Reading was his way of finding refuge from this daily turmoil. "My mother had taught me to read before I started school and at six, I was an avid reader, but our little home was becoming crowded and it wasn't easy to find a quiet spot to sit with a book," he said his SAAS essay. "I learned to sink so deeply into whatever fantasy I was reading about that mayhem might erupt all around and I wouldn't even notice. Books became an escape route for me. A way out of the house. Out of the city. Out of my ordinary life."

At that time in England, all children took a compulsory test at the age of eleven that determined whether they would continue on to a college preparatory "grammar" school, or be routed towards a school where they would leave at age fifteen to work. Swindells's parents didn't have the time or education to adequately prepare him for this task, and his dreams of going to college and being a teacher were crushed when he failed his exam. He was terribly disappointed, and from then on he and his father were at odds with each other. In school, however, Swindells was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who inspired him and his classmates to do and be their best. "I don't know to this day why that man was at [the school]," Swindells commented in SAAS. "He could have been teaching in a grammar school where the rewards would've been greater, and I would have missed out on a pivotal experience." Swindells was active in making up his own stories, and his teacher encouraged him to enter a country-wide essay contest. He won, beating out many other students, including those in the grammar schools.

When he was fifteen, Swindells graduated and went to work. After a few years, things worsened with his father, and his mother became ill. To get out of his family situation, Swindells left home and joined the Royal Air Force for three years, but he decided not to re-enlist when his service was over. Instead, he got a factory job and was married soon after. Two daughters were born in quick succession. In 1967, inspired by an acquaintance, Swindells returned to school, taking classes in the evening. Within two years he had passed his exams and applied for a position at a teacher's training college in a nearby town. Swindells was ecstatic at his newfound lease on life: "I'd made it," he wrote in SAAS. "I was going to be a teacher after all."

His college years were very happy ones for Swindells, and he discovered a new interest while attending classes. "One of the things we did in college was to read children's novels," Swindells related. "Lots of them. I loved them. I thought, 'These are much more fun than most of the stuff I read when I was a kid. These writers don't talk down. It's not about fairies.'" This experience convinced him that he wanted to write books for young people. He proposed to one of his advisors that instead of writing an essay to complete his degree work, he could write a children's novel. The idea was approved, and Swindells started the book. He handed in his manuscript and hoped it would allow him to pass and obtain his degree. He was surprised to find out that not only did he pass, but the woman who read his manuscript believed he should try to get it published. He sent the manuscript to the first publisher on the list he was given, and within a week he received word that it was accepted. The book, When Darkness Comes, is about a Stone Age character. It was published in 1973.

Swindells got a full-time job teaching and continued to write on the side. Within a short time, his marriage ended; he remarried six years later. In 1980, he quit teaching so he could be a full-time writer and make speaking appearances in front of various groups. It was tough going for several years, until he published Brother in the Land in 1984. This stirring book about life after a nuclear holocaust was critically acclaimed and won several awards. "A long-time activist with the antinuclear movement, I'd poured my soul into that book, and it was to be my first major success," Swindells confessed in SAAS. The result is "a powerful story of survival," according to Naomi Hurwitz Faust in the Times Literary Supplement, and "no holds are barred in describing the horrors of the aftermath." Noted Hazel Rochman in Booklist: "The fast-paced story has the excitement of World War II survival adventures," complimented by "intense and immediate detail." The first-person narration of teenager Danny Lodge, filled with the struggles to survive against hunger, radiation sickness, and bandits, "has immediacy and great impact," Anne Connor wrote in School Library Journal. "While grim and painful to read," the critic added, "it is not preachy or heavy-handed, an improvement over most doomsday science fiction."

After Brother in the Land, which earned a Children's Book Award and a Guardian Award nomination, Swindells wrote two more tales with supernatural or science fiction elements and then turned to more realistic fiction. Staying Up revolves around fifteen-year-old Brian, whose difficult home life and involvement with a rowdy group of football fans lead him into trouble. While he tries to impress the fellows of "The Ointment" and is injured by violence at a football match, his girlfriend Debbie is menaced by a rapist. "In the space of one short novel Swindells covers almost the entire Social Education curriculum," Sarah Hayes observed in the Times Literary Supplement, "yet he has written a fast, dramatic story and contrives a breathtaking finish." The critic praised the way Swindells has "caught the intensity of adolescence" by setting "the sensational in a social context."

Similarly, in A Serpent's Tooth, a tale of how a proposed nuclear dump affects fourteen-year-old Lucy's family relationships, "the dynamics among Lucy's family and friends support the action," Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic Betsy Hearne wrote. In revealing that the dump site was once a burial ground for victims of the Black Death, Swindells draws parallels between that medieval plague and the modern dangers of nuclear power. According to Colin Greenland, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, what keeps this "straightforward, eco-feminist" novel from being merely a political warning is "the author's awareness that neither piety nor propriety would be enough in itself to satisfy a yearning adolescent." While Lucy joins her mother at a protest camp outside the site, she also spends time dealing with a new school and trying to establish a relationship with a boy.

Swindells combines a realistic tale of teenage problems with a supernatural element in Follow a Shadow. In this "first-rate imaginative plot," as a Junior Bookshelf reviewer described it, 15-year-old Tim is drifting away from school and becoming involved with a bad crowd to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. After discovering a portrait of a nineteenth-century ancestor, however, Tim feels a strange kinship that sometimes links his awareness with his forefather's. Research leads him to the identity of his mysterious relative, whose ghost later rescues Tim from physical danger as well as the same tragic fate he once suffered. "There is real emotional power in the story," declared a Growing Point critic, "and the use of time-slip brings a sharp second-world into being." But Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Carolyn Shute thought the "intriguing" plot concept "suffers from poor execution," adding that while Tim's questions about his identity are universal, "the answers here are too easy, too unrealistic." In contrast, Bruce Anne Shook remarked in School Library Journal that Follow a Shadow "sustains suspense throughout. It's a first-rate story, and something different from run-of-the-mill problem novels."

Swindells received a master's degree from the School of Peace Studies at Bradford University in 1988, partly on the strength of his book Brother in the Land. His interest in social and political issues is reflected in many of his other novels, including Daz 4 Zoe, a Romeo and Juliet-type story set in a near-future where the wealthy have walled themselves off from the "lower classes." Praising the "strong personal rhythm" of the characters' voices, a Growing Point critic observed that the book "is a triumph of alert, originally planned narrative, a new sound perhaps for the future." A Junior Bookshelf reviewer drew parallels between Swindells's story and South Africa's apartheid system, as well as the futuristic society of George Orwell's 1984, and concluded that the book "must enhance [Swindells's] already outstanding reputation as an author of power and imagination."

The author earned Britain's highest honor for children's writers, the Carnegie Medal, in 1994 with Stone Cold, another stark portrayal of social realities. Following a serial murderer who preys on homeless teens, the book generated a lot of controversy because of its subject matter. The narrative alternates between two first person characters, a boy named Link who is living on the streets, and the killer himself, who may or may not make Link one of his victims. Once again Swindells was passionate about his subject, actually sleeping on the streets himself a few nights in order to understand the reality of the situation of homelessness. The choice of Stone Cold for the Carnegie AwardBritain's most prestigious literary honor specifically for a children's bookgenerated some controversy, but for many critics it marked a certain "coming of age" for young adult literature. The award, and Swindells's choice of such difficult subject matter, recognized that young people are aware of difficult social issues and mature enough to read about them and to ponder them at length.

In an essay for the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, a critic summed up the allure Swindells's fiction holds for teen readers: "His stories exhibit sheer narrative energy to a high degree: common assent among readers is that few writers' pages are more compulsively turned over. Through an acute historical sense, profound understanding and unease about today's social conditions, and logical projection of them into convincing and disturbing dystopias, Swindells uses narrative to dramatize human failings and young adult possibility highly effectively."

Swindells has also become popular with younger readers, penning picture books such as Rolf and Rosie and chapter books like The Secret of Weeping Wood. When speculating about the reasons for his success as a writer, Swindells has said that both chance and talent have much to do with it. But he added in SAAS: "Mostly though, it's other people. Parents. Teachers. Some we remember with gratitude and affection." He once expressed that his fondest desire is to "see the day when every child everywhere will enjoy a childhood without hunger, anxiety, war, or any form of deprivation."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 20, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 14, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Twentieth Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1989.


Booklist, April, 1, 1985, Hazel Rochman, review of Brother in the Land, p. 1114.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1989, Betsy Hearne, review of A Serpent's Tooth, p. 159.

Growing Point, January, 1990, review of Follow a Shadow, p. 5265; March, 1991, review of Daz 4 Zoe, p. 5482.

Junior Bookshelf, December, 1989, review of Follow a Shadow, pp. 303-304; April, 191, review of Daz 4 Zoe, pp. 71-72.

School Library Journal, September, 1985, Anne Connor, Brother in the Land, p. 149; October, 1990, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Follow a Shadow, p. 145.

Times Literary Supplement, August 16, 1985, Naomi Hurwitz Faust, review of Brother in the Land, p. 910; March 6, 1987, Sarah Hayes, "At a Loss in Limbo," p. 248; April 1, 1988, Colin Greenland, "Positive Role Models," p. 370.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1991, Carolyn Shute, review of Follow a Shadow, pp. 36-37.*