January 15, 1942 • Windsor, Berkshire, England
British author Jenny Nimmo writes about spell-casting cats and youngsters who inherit magical powers. The author of more than four dozen books for children and young-adult readers, Nimmo did not begin writing in earnest until she became a mother, though she had always written far-fetched, sometimes gory tales when she was in her teens. "A lot of people, my teachers particularly, used to throw my books back at me and tell me not to write such rubbish," she once recalled in an interview that appeared on the HarperCollins Web site. "I took them at their word and I stopped writing. Perhaps if I'd persevered then I might have started writing earlier, but I didn't have the confidence."
Sent to boarding school
Nimmo has lived in Wales for years, and some of her best-known fiction draws upon ancient Welsh legends. But she is English by birth, a native of the Berkshire district, where she was born in 1942. An only child, she was sent to live with relatives after her physicist-father died when she was five. Her uncle, who ran a free-range chicken farm, taught her to read, with the help of her favorite book at the time, The Bear That Never Was. As she remembered in the HarperCollins interview: "It was about a bear who comes out of hiding and is put to work in a factory because no-one believes that he is a bear, they all think he's a silly man who doesn't want to work! That was the book that taught me how to read."
Around the age of nine, Nimmo was sent to a boarding school. Teachers there encouraged her talent for drama, and she also developed musical abilities. She remained a voracious reader. When she read through the entire library at her middle school, she was given special permission to check out books from the high-school library shelves. It was during this time that she began writing her own murder-mystery stories that her teachers criticized. After leaving school, Nimmo put her dramatic skills to use by working with the Theatre Southeast, a company in Sussex and Kent counties. She appeared in its productions and also served as an assistant stage manager for three years.
"Her writing is powerful and as musical as the Welsh culture about which she is writing."
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers
In 1963, Nimmo took off for Amalfi, Italy, a picturesque Mediterranean coastal area south of Naples. She worked as a governess there for a year, teaching English to a family of Italian youngsters. When she returned to England, she landed a job with the television production arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London. She worked as a photographic researcher for two years, and then served as an assistant floor manager for a time. In 1970, she became a director and writer on the staff of a long-running BBC children's program, Jackanory. It was one of the most popular children's television shows in British history, featuring tales told by well-known stage and screen personalities. Nimmo's job as a writer was to adapt children's books for its teleplay format.
Imagined a talking statue
Nimmo thought of her own idea for a story, based on her time in Italy, about a statue that comes to life in the garden of a villa. As she recalled in the HarperCollins interview, she decided to "set it in Sicily in 1915, during the First World War. I gave it to my producer and she said that it was, 'No good for television but it would make a wonderful book. Go away and lengthen it, make it into a full-length novel' and so I did." The Bronze Trumpeter was published in 1975 to some excellent reviews. Its plot centers on a young boy who is befriended by the statue of a musician on the grounds of a Sicilian villa that comes to life for him. The lonely boy learns much from his friendship with the Trumpeter, who even helps him uncover a scheme cooked up by his frosty governess, Fraulein Helga.
Major Works by Nimmo
The Bronze Trumpeter, Angus & Robertson, 1975.
The Snow Spider, Methuen, 1986, Dutton, 1987.
Emlyn's Moon, Methuen, 1987, published as Orchard of the Crescent Moon, Dutton, 1989.
The Chestnut Soldier, Methuen, 1989, Dutton, 1991.
Ultramarine, Methuen, 1990, Dutton, 1992.
Delilah and the Dogspell, Methuen, 1991.
Rainbow and Mr. Zed, Methuen, 1992, Dutton, 1994.
The Stone Mouse, Walker, 1993.
The Witch's Tears, Collins, 1996.
Gwion and the Witch, Pont Books, 1996.
Seth and the Strangers, Mammoth, 1997.
The Dragon's Child, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997.
Delilah Alone, Mammoth, 1997.
Toby in the Dark, Walker, 1999.
Esmeralda and the Children Next Door, Methuen, 1999, Houghton, 2000.
Something Wonderful, Collins, Harcourt, 2001.
Midnight for Charlie Bone, Egmont, Orchard, 2002.
Beak and Whisker, Egmont, 2002.
Invisible Vinnie, Corgi, 2003.
But Nimmo would not publish another book for almost a decade. In 1974, she married artist and illustrator David Wynn Millward, and soon began a family that would number three children. They settled in Wales, and Nimmo did not begin writing again until her youngest child began preschool. She wrote a children's book titledTatty Apple, about a boy named Owen and his green-and-brown rabbit, Tatty Apple, who has magical powers.
In 1986, Nimmo earned terrific reviews for her next book, The Snow Spider, which also became the first of an acclaimed fantasy-fiction trilogy of the same name. The young-adult novel won the Tir na n-Og Award for best children's book either in the Welsh language or set in Wales, given by the Welsh Books Council the following year. It borrowed many elements from an old Welsh saga, the Mabinogion, for the modern-day plot. The Mabinogion dated back to the medieval era, but its tales were thought by scholars to be even hundreds of years older than that. Its intertwined stories involved princes, far-off lands, magical spells, and giants.
Boy struggles with powers
The Snow Spider chronicled the tale of Gwyn Griffiths, a ten-year-old boy in Wales whose sister has recently disappeared while walking in the hilly Welsh countryside. She is presumed dead. Gwyn's mother is grief-stricken, and his father blames him for the loss. But Gwyn's wise grandmother gives him five odd gifts for his birthday: a brooch, a pipe, some seaweed, the broken figurine of a horse, and a scarf his sister once wore. These items help him uncover his magician's gifts. It turns out that Gwyn is the descendant of Gwydion, a powerful magician, but the family's gifts have grown weaker over the generations. Gwyn's grandmother wants to help him unlock his secret talents. He tosses the brooch, for instance, and it returns to him as Arianwen, a silver spider. Arianwen becomes his helpmate, and shows him how to make contact with his sister, who may not really be dead at all.
Nimmo continued the saga of Gwyn in Emlyn's Moon, which was published in the United States as Orchard of the Crescent Moon. Its plot revolves around his neighbor and friend, Nia, who hopes to rescue her friend, Emlyn. Along the way, Gwyn learns that he and Emlyn are cousins, but the branches of their families have a longstanding grudge against one another involving Emlyn's mother, who vanished many years before.
The last of Nimmo's trilogy is The Chestnut Soldier, which features Gwyn on the verge of turning fourteen. He has learned much about his powers over the years, but fails to use them wisely at times. One of his decisions puts a soldier in danger. The man has returned to the village to recuperate, after serving with the British army in Northern Ireland. In this final work, which features an epic struggle between the forces of light and dark, Gwyn finally unlocks the riddle of the broken-horse statue. An essay in the St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers called this trio of books "a stunning achievement. Nimmo explores Gwyn's dual existence as ancient magician and young boy through five years, by turns showing his enthusiasm and weariness for his role as his awareness grows, and also his final acceptance of what he is."
Wrote underwater mystery
Nimmo returned to the fantasy/psychological-thriller format for teen readers with Ultramarine in 1990. In it, a brother and sister are sent to stay with older relatives they've never met. The seashore visit uncovers many intriguing stories about Ned and Nell's family, including the events surrounding their mother's death by drowning. They also come to realize that their real father may have been a mysterious sea creature known as a kelpie, a shape-shifting water devil of Gaelic lore who takes the shape of a horse to lure its victims. But their father tried to use his powers for good, by serving as a protector for other sea creatures. Ned and Nell learn some of this when they befriend a local eccentric who also rescues sea creatures. In the end, Ned departs for his other home—underwater. Nell's story continues solo in Rainbow and Mr. Zed, which finds her living with her aunt and grandmother. "Rainbow," it turns out, is Nell's real name, while Mr. Zed—"zed" is British English for "zero"—is the wicked uncle who hopes to use Nell's powers to further his own ambitions.
Talking animals, whether stuffed, stone, or real, always seem to appear in many of Nimmo's books. These include The Stone Mouse, in which a brother and sister discover a talking stone mouse. She has also written a comical series beginning with Delilah and the Dogspell in 1991. It features a spell-casting cat who uses her powers to harass the local dogs. A 1994 book, Griffin's Castle, features a plot that involves the carved animals decorating the walls of Wales's famed Cardiff Castle. Dinah is upset about her mother's plan to sell their old house, and asks the animals to help her thwart the plan. Toby in the Dark, published in 1999, is a teddy bear who helps the three children living in the home of a mean-spirited foster parent. Family strife also runs through Nimmo's books. The plot of Milo's Wolves, which appeared in 2001, begins when a father confesses to his three children that they have a brother, Gwendal, who has been in a clinic for many years, but is now coming home.
More tales of magic
Nimmo began another series in 2002, "The Children of the Red King." It kicked off with Midnight for Charlie Bone, about a ten-year-old who discovers that he has inherited supernatural powers, and is sent off to a special academy to refine them. The series had echoes of the successful "Harry Potter" books by British author J. K. Rowling, but Charlie, unlike Harry, possesses the unique gift of being able to look at a photograph and suddenly hear the conversations and thoughts that took place at the time it was taken. The series continued with Charlie Bone and the Time Twister and Charlie Bone and the Invisible Boy.
Not all of Nimmo's books have appeared in print outside of Great Britain. Her popular "Snow Spider" and "Charlie Bone" series, as well as the two Ultramarine books and Griffin's Castle, have been published for American readers. Other works issued by New York City publishing houses have been Esmeralda and the Children Next Door, about the star in a family of circus performers, little Esmeralda, who possesses a super-strength that is a hit with audiences but embarrasses her in real life. Other children tease her because she can lift both her parents and carry them around. In Something Wonderful, Little Hen is a shy, hesitant hen that is the runt of her farm. Dejected when she learns she cannot take part in a special competition for the other chickens, she finds some eggs in the woods that have been accidentally left behind by the others. She stays with them until they are hatched, even braving a storm, and returns with the baby chicks to the farm and a hero's welcome. "Youngsters will enjoy and identify with this story about one small animal's special gift," noted a School Library Journal review from Anne Parker.
Nimmo's children are grown now, but she remains busy at her home in Llangynyw, which is named Henllan Mill. She and her husband run a summer art academy which includes lodgings and meals. She finds it hard to write during these weeks when the guest-students are around, but described it as a kind of vacation from the necessary discipline of being a full-time writer. "It's a mental break I suppose," she said in the interview that appeared on the HarperCollins Web site, "which is sometimes a good thing."
For More Information
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1996.
"Children's Notes." Publishers Weekly (July 12, 2004): p. 65.
Parker, Anne. "Something Wonderful. " School Library Journal (September 2001): p. 202.
"Authors ... An Interview with Jenny Nimmo." HarperCollins. http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/authors/interview.aspx?id=495&aid=4283 (accessed on July 26, 2004).
"Nimmo, Jenny." Contemporary Authors Online. http://web1.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/313/94/49940612w1/purl=rc1_CA_0_H1000073184&dyn=8!xrn_3_0_H1000073184?sw_aep=itsbtrial (accessed on July 26, 2004).