Friday, 16 May 2014

The 40th anniversary of 'The Trouble with Donovan Croft' - with guest contributor, Bernard Ashley

This month marks the 40th anniversary of The Trouble with Donovan Croft, a book that has remained a children’s classic ever since it was first published in 1974. Bernard Ashley’s first novel appeared at a time when children’s writers were increasingly creating books that challenged ideologies and addressed real issues affecting real children. Firmly in the vanguard of this movement, the novel is well known for addressing a number of big issues including racism, isolation and the challenges faced by foster families. Though the book has taught many children valuable lessons on the destructive impact of prejudice, it is the brilliantly accurate depiction of the key relationships that capture the imagination, particularly the wordless relationship between the selectively mute Donovan and his friend and foster brother, Keith.

The book won The Other Award (an alternative to the Carnegie medal) in 1976 and, since publication, has never been out of print. In 2005 Bernard chose Seven Stories as the home for his original manuscript, which gives a wonderful insight into the creative development of the book. In this special Seven Stories blog post Bernard Ashley talks to us about the real life inspiration for Donovan Croft, the challenges of finding a publisher, and of writing as a means of escape:

Author, Bernard Ashley (photo © Norman Smith)

'I started writing The Trouble with Donovan Croft a year or so after I took up the headship of a junior school in East London in 1971. The school was big and multi-cultural with a large percentage of its children described by the Home Office as ‘immigrants’ because their parents had come to Britain in the previous ten years. One such London-born boy gave us cause for concern: his mother had gone home to the West Indies on family business where she stayed longer than expected. There were no mobile phones, texts, and easy-to-make international calls in those days, and, despite letters from her and whatever his father said to him, the eleven-year-old fretted and seemed to think she was never coming back. He became depressed and shrank into himself.

At about the same time my wife Iris, an Infant teacher, told me of a six-year-old girl in her class who had stopped speaking to everyone: firstly to the adults at school, then to the children, and finally to her family at home.

Since the mid-sixties I had been writing for an educational publisher who published ‘readers’ I’d written for the ‘D’ stream children in my class, and two non-fiction ‘social science’ titles I’d researched for secondary schools. Now, in a difficult job which left neither time nor energy for research, I really needed to start writing again. I had discovered the truth of what Graham Greene says in Ways of Escape: ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation. Auden noted: “Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.”’ Having a personal life outside work is essential, although for teachers it has become harder and harder in recent years. Perhaps I could write a piece of fiction without the need for research? I knew of two unusual situations no one had written about before. So I started on my first novel, with little planning except knowing there’d be a climax that hinged on whether or not elective mute Donovan could break his silence in a crisis.

A page from the original manuscript of The Trouble with Donovan Croft
by Bernard Ashley, here at Seven Stories

I wrote paragraphs in the car on Saturday mornings while waiting for one of my sons to run out onto a football pitch, and I made time some evenings, often merely revising my weekend efforts be swapping one word of phrase for another.

Although I based the start of my story on his situation, I didn’t write about my troubled eleven-year-old, nor about my wife’s silent pupil - but I did get the girl’s parents’ permission to write a story based on a child suffering from elective mutism. And of course, fired up, I had research to do after all.

As I finished each chapter I’d leave it on the pillow of my eldest son Chris – now also a children’s writer – whose enthusiasm spurred me on.

That was the time when the old quarto paper was being replaced by A4. With the book finished I went to a stationer in East Ham to buy a pack but he hadn’t any in stock; however, I was shown a special box of cream-woven, rounded-corner paper with reinforced binding edges. ‘It’s not quite your A4, sir, but it’s very close.’ And it had a very superior binder to go with it. So I bought it and typed up my story; but my wife, kissing the package for good luck as it went off to Oxford University Press, told me they’d probably reject the story but accept the binder. Which turned out to be halfway true. Having published the book OUP had an office clear-out when they moved from Ely House to Great Clarendon Street and they sent the manuscript back to me. Sans binder.

A page from the original manuscript of The Trouble with Donovan Croft
by Bernard Ashley, here at Seven Stories

The eleven-year-old boy in our school had by now gone on to secondary education, and I came very clean about my book with the staff and children, one of whom, Donovan Richards, willingly lent me his first name for the eponymous central character.

The book received generally good reviews. It was welcomed not only as one of the first school stories to be set in the state system – with which more readers could identify - but for having a black central character and a strong subtext against racism. Its paperback edition went on to win the ‘Other’ Award, an alternative to the Carnegie Medal, which was given annually for non-racist, non-sexist, non-classist children’s literature. And happily it has survived in print for forty years.

The Trouble with Donovan Croft started me on a serious writing career that I managed alongside my teaching, eschewing agents and insisting on long deadlines in order to enjoy my way of escape – writing books that would excite and entertain while giving some reassurance to children going through troubled times that they’re not the only ones. Like real-life Donovans. 
Within a few weeks of ‘Donovan’s’ fortieth anniversary in May my twenty-fourth novel will be published: The Shadow of the Zeppelin (Orchard), a story of the First World War. I’m halfway through my twenty-fifth, and I’ve planned the one after that. So I say thank you to Donovan, to OUP, and to the UK children’s books world for giving me my fruitful way of escape.'

Bernard Ashley's twenty-fourth novel, The Shadow of the Zeppelin (Orchard), is available to buy now. If you'd like to come and see the original manuscript of The Trouble with Donovan Croft or learn more about the Seven Stories Collection, email: or phone: 01914952707.


  1. It's wonderful reading here of Bernard's memories of how he came to create Donovan Croft, a book I remember well from the 1970s. A few years ago, Bernard and I learned that we shared a connection beyond writing for young people. It turned out that the East London school where he took up his headship in 1971 was the same school in which I had served my first term as a probation teacher two years earlier.

    Mr Ashley, the new headteacher, must have brought with him swathes of fresh air! I recall not only the grim Victorian building but an equally grim atmosphere. As a new and inexperienced teacher, I needed to seek advice from the previous head on how best to respond to a very disturbed 9-year-old who kept hiding under his desk. I was looking for some insights and useful strategies. Instead, he called the child out of class and beat him. I was shocked and felt terribly guilty. I never again consulted him. I've also never forgotten how, on being told that an angry parent was waiting in his office to see him, he'd immediately wanted to know the parent's colour.

    When my supervising inspector came to visit me, I told him of my concerns regarding both these incidents. How should I respond to this headteacher with such anti-child and racist attitudes, I asked? The inspector suggested it would be best if he moved me to another school. But I don't want to run away, I said. I'd like to know what to do. You don't have a choice, he said. 'I'm moving you.'

    I spent my next two terms at a primary school about a mile away with a culture and atmosphere light years away from the dreadful place down the road... and I passed my probation. Thank goodness for the arrival, two years later, of headteacher Bernard Ashley who LIKED children and loved stories.

    Congratulations to Donovan and his creator, 40 years on!

    Beverley Naidoo

  2. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should let it grow and share it with the world.> self development books