Aidan Chambers was born in Chester-le-Street, Co.
Durham, in 1934. In 1953 after undergoing National Service, he trained to become a teacher and worked at Westcliff High School for Boys in Southend on Sea for 3 years. In 1960 he joined an Anglican monastery in Stroud, Gloucestershire, continuing to work as a teacher of English and Drama while he was there, and it was during these years that his first books were published - plays, including Johnny Salter (1966) and The Chicken Run (1968), and short novels and stories written for his pupils.
In 1967 he left the monastery, and a year later resigned from teaching. Since then he has been a freelance writer and lecturer for teachers and librarians. From 1982 to 1992, he was a visiting lecturer at Westminster College, Oxford, where he set up undergraduate courses in children's literature.
He has written six related young adult novels: Breaktime (1978); Dance on my Grave (1982); Now I Know (1987); The Toll Bridge (1992); Postcards from No Man's Land (1999) and This Is All: the Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn (2005). The first of these, Breaktime, was inspired by the farms and moors near Swaledale where Aidan Chambers worked as a teenager.
His children's novels are Seal Secret (1980) and The Present Takers (1984). He has also compiled and edited many further children's books, several of them ghost-related.
Together with his wife Nancy, he runs Thimble Press and Signal magazine, promoting literature for children and young adults. In 1982, they won the Eleanor Farjeon Award for outstanding services to children's books. From 1989 until 1995, under the imprint Turton & Chambers, he published a number of children's novels in translation, as an attempt to improve the poor state and small number of books published in Britain from other languages.
Aidan Chambers has written two books of criticism - Booktalk: occasional writing on literature and children (1985); and Reading Talk (2001), and two books for teachers and librarians - The Reading Environment (1991) and Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk (1993). He won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2002.
From 2003 to 2006, he was Hon. President of the School Library Association, his recognition of the central importance of libraries in schools. He was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Umeå, Sweden, in 2003, and from Gloucestershire University in 2008. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Aidan Chambers is often acclaimed by critics as one of the most remarkable Young Adult writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
However, though the six novels in his ‘Dance Sequence’ are marketed at (and enjoyed by) teenagers, they also have an adult audience. Chambers himself comments that he does not write specifically for any particular age-group: ‘I write novels which happen to be about characters who are in their teens and whose stories are told in the consciousness of adolescence’ (Email interview with Aidan Chambers, 1 October, 2007). Chambers often explores controversial issues: his 1982 novel, Dance On My Grave, offers a sensitive yet down-to-earth depiction of a homosexual relationship, and in this and other novels he also explores death, spirituality and religion. Chambers’ work is also stylistically demanding and he does not present his readers with an ‘easy’ read. In particular, some of his novels question the objectivity of reality by demonstrating the way in which it is difficult to separate ‘reality’ itself from its linguistic and figurative representations in newspapers, books, diaries and so on. Thus, for those readers who make the effort, Chambers’ novels offer rich rewards.
Chambers is most well-known for the six novels that he calls ‘The Dance Sequence’. Each one explores an aspect of contemporary adolescence, but each also stands alone as an individual novel. The first is Breaktime (1978), in which 17-year-old Ditto writes a book about his school holidays, to help his friend Morgan understand the pleasures and rewards of reading. He puts together diary extracts, letters and other short pieces (all written in the first person) and creates a work of literature based on his personal experiences. His main focus, like many adolescents, is on his difficult relationship with his father and his desire to lose his virginity with a girl he is attracted to. This demonstrates Chambers’ remarkable ability to incorporate commonplace adolescent concerns within an original and imaginative story, utilising experimental narrative techniques. What is most challenging for the reader is the blurring of reality itself with Ditto’s literary representation of reality - Ditto’s experiences with his father and his new girlfriend appear to be worked out satisfactorily and convincingly, but readers, like Ditto’s friend Morgan, must decide for themselves how much of the story is true and how much is fictionalised.
Thus, in Breaktime and subsequent works, Chambers does not simply ‘spoonfeed’ the story, but requires readers to engage with it actively and employ their own skills to interpret and understand what they are reading. For readers who are confident enough to do this, it is potentially a far more rewarding experience than that offered by a less sophisticated novel. Chambers believes that it is the responsibility of teachers, librarians and parents to help young readers to gain the skills and confidence they need to read actively:
'Inevitably […] children need to be taught how to interpret the “sign system” with increasing skill and subtlety […] The rewards are numerous. A far richer encounter with language, for example; a deeper exploration of the nature of life and how we live it; a much more profound understanding of the possibilities of meaning - of significance. And this means the enjoyment is richer too. '
The second novel in the sequence, Dance On My Grave (1982), uses similar narrative techniques to Breaktime. Its opening scene is a newspaper story about the arrest of Hal Robinson for supposedly desecrating the grave of Barry Gorman. The rest of the novel, like Breaktime, is made up of an assortment of miscellaneous pieces, including diary entries, lists, cartoons and a social worker’s reports, all of which tell the story leading up to Barry’s death. Barry was the passionate first love of 16-year-old Hal, whose tumultuous emotions are something that most teenagers, gay or straight, will be able to relate to. Hal is devastated to discover that Barry, who is older and more experienced, has cheated on him with a girl. The two lovers argue and Barry is later killed in a motorbike accident. Hal’s alleged desecration of Barry’s grave is actually quite the reverse - he is fulfilling a promise made to Barry to dance on his grave and celebrate their relationship.
Dance On My Grave is one of the first novels for young readers to feature homosexuality. Yet it is not an ‘issue novel’, as is the case with many teenage books, but rather presents the gay relationship between Hal and Barry in a matter-of-fact manner, depicting emotions that are common to the majority of intense first love affairs, both heterosexual and homosexual. Over the years, Chambers has received many letters and emails from readers who have felt a huge sense of relief in their identification with Hal:
'And most of these [letters and emails] were not from people who were gay […] but from people who found in Hal someone like themselves […] Young readers in their teens tended to react with the passion of relief -- “at last I’ve found someone like me”. Older, adult readers often react with what you might call “grateful regret”, saying that they wish they had read the book when they were in their teens, because, as one man of 86 put it, “it would have changed my life”'
The third book, Now I Know (1987) was inspired by Chambers’ own experiences of monastic life. The novel explores religion and spirituality through the eyes of Nik, a 17-year-old agnostic who is asked to help with research for a film about Christ. Nik has an enquiring mind and he becomes interested in Christianity’s relevance to modern life, while also falling in love with Julie, a Christian feminist. The Toll Bridge (1992) tells the story of Piers, who, feeling trapped by the expectations of his family and girlfriend, leaves home and takes a job as a gatekeeper of a private toll bridge, where he makes two new friends, one male and one female. The Toll Bridge is an ambitious and quite profound novel, for though it starts with a ‘typical’ adolescent frustration, it becomes much deeper than this. The novel borrows from Greek myth - Piers, struggling with his sense of identity, changes his name to Jan, short for Janus, who was the two-faced gatekeeper of Hades, while his two new friends re-name themselves Tess and Adam. Jan and Tess both find themselves captivated by the mysterious, handsome and elusive Adam, and the novel explores the complex nature of the friendships and relationships that take place during adolescence, when one’s own search for self-identity is still taking shape.
The fifth novel in the Dance Sequence, Postcards From No Man’s Land (1999), is one of Chambers’ most highly acclaimed works. 17-year-old Jacob Todd has travelled to Amsterdam at his grandmother’s request to honour his grandfather, who was killed there during World War II. However, the visit is far more intense than Jacob had expected, particularly when he meets an elderly lady, Geertrui, who, as a young girl, had rescued and concealed Jacob’s grandfather during a terrifying period of the war. Geertrui is known to Jacob’s family as an ‘angel of mercy’, and thus Jacob is shocked to discover that his grandfather and Geertrui had fallen in love. While Jacob comes to terms with his grandfather’s secrets, he is simultaneously exploring his own sexuality and facing modern-day moral dilemmas of his own.
Chambers, as usual, employs a sophisticated style in which Jacob’s story in the 1990s is set alongside Geertrui’s voice in 1944 -- as such, the parallels between the two eras and the two stories are made clear. In this novel, as in the rest of the Dance Sequence, the teenager’s ‘coming of age’ and search for self-identity is entwined with sexual exploration. Postcards also combines Jacob’s and Geertrui’s respective self-discoveries with more far-reaching philosophical questions about adultery, bisexuality and euthanasia, and Chambers does not attempt any neat solutions. Instead, through Jacob’s acceptance of moral ambiguity, the novel emphasises that there is no black-and-white divide between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
The sixth and final novel in the sequence is This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn (2005). Unusually for Chambers, the protagonist is a young woman, 19-year-old Cordelia Kenn, who is writing a series of ‘Pillow Books’ (Japanese tell-all diaries) for the baby girl with whom she is pregnant. Intending to present the pillow books on her daughter’s 16th birthday, she writes explicitly about her thoughts and feelings, her life experiences and her sexual adventures. This Is All, like other novels in the sequence, does not have a conventional linear narrative, but is comprised of Cordelia’s musings, poetry, lists and a variety of short pieces. Cordelia, like her male counterparts, has a lively mind which explores, questions and philosophises, as she determines to understand herself and the world around her. Her collection of ‘pillow books’, regarded by many reviewers as the most complex novel in the sequence, is the sophisticated culmination of Chambers’ long exploration into the world of adolescence in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries.
Now that the Dance Sequence is complete, Chambers’ next project is something entirely different, which may or may not take the form of a novel: ‘[My new project] is concerned with life as an “old” man now - which of course is very different from life as old man in my grandfather’s day or even in my father’s day. This is new territory, just as “teenage fiction” was new territory in the 1950s and 1960s’ .
Elizabeth O’Reilly 2007.