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Author Profile: Nicholas Fisk

Updated: Jan 18

Children's author Nicholas Fisk, who wrote science fiction books Grinny, You Remember Me, A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair and Monster Maker.
Children's science fiction author Nicholas Fisk wrote Grinny, Trillions and many more books.

“Science Fiction. What a miserable description!”, author Nicholas Fisk once stated. The writer, real name David Higginbottom, believed that the word ‘if’ encapsulated the endless potential for possibilities of the genre far better than its actual name (1). ‘If’ certainly captured his approach to storytelling, where he investigated a fantastical premise with grounded believability and technical knowhow to write some of the most intelligent and compelling sci-fi books for children.

A combination of imagination and practicality served him well during a prolific writing career between 60s and 90s. His most famous works - Trillions, Grinny and A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair - are fantastic examples of robust storytelling with just the right amount of technical details, which grabbed children’s imaginations. They also conformed to his golden rule, which he colourfully described as “the plot can have one thumping lie, but only one” (2) but all events spinning out of this idea must feel credible to the reader (3).

The cover of Grinny, written by author Nicholas Fisk and published by Puffin Books in January 1 1973.
The cover of Nicholas Fisk's most well-remembered book, Grinny.

In Grinny the ‘lie’ is an alien invader disguised as a mysterious elderly relative who infiltrates a family using a hypnotic phrase. Only the children, Tim and Beth, are immune to Grinny’s persuasive powers and use their ingenuity to exploit its weakness to human emotions. Injecting a classic science fiction concept into an everyday scenario gave Grinny and its sequel, You Remember Me, a timeless quality. Over a long career, Fisk introduced and explored a panoply of ideas, including space travel, time travel, aliens, robots, other dimensions, and many, many more to young and inquisitive minds.

Fisk was part of a pioneering wave of writers who revolutionised children's publishing with their intelligent science fiction in the late 60s. His first sci-fi book, Space Hostages, was published in 1967, which was the same year that John Christopher’s The White Mountains burst into book shops and demonstrated the genre had a place in English children’s literature (4). In 1971, Trillions poignantly explored humanity’s tendency for war when the Earth is showered by microscopic crystals. Despite being benign, the jewel-like creatures’ presence is perceived as a threat by a reactionary military. It’s left to teenager hero Scott to bond with the microscopic visitors and face down the hysterical adult world.

His stories exuded an indestructible faith in children, whom he believed were the most ‘agile, adventurous, generous and receptive stage’ of humanity (5) and accordingly flung them into the centre of his stories. As a sci-fi obsessed 11-year-old, I vividly remember feeling a connection to the protagonists in Monster Maker and Trillions, who were open minded and hadn’t been stuck into ‘deadening adult moulds’ (6). Seeing children as miniature adults (7) who lacked just experience and authority, Fisk’s heroes could see and do things adults were too rigid to contemplate. On the flip side, the price of taking centre stage was danger (8). In the atmospheric Monster Maker, Matt works for special effects legend Chancy Balogh, whose workshop is packed with animatronic treasures but protected by a murderous security system, which inevitably crescendos into violence. His books acknowledged that children are survivors (9), much like the readers who negotiate a world ruled by grown-ups.

By the 1970s, children’s lives had dramatically improved; they no longer worked dangerous jobs, had legal protection, and extended access to education - but also had become consumers (10). Fisk, born in 1923, understood the transformation and identified the differences between his generation and the children of the late 20th Century in the essay One Thumping Lie. While middle-class children of the 20s and 30s grew up in the nursery and ‘spoke when they were spoken to’, modern kids lived and interacted with their families and were ‘harder’ and ‘tougher’ as a result. Their newfound agency was another compelling reason the writer placed them at the heart of his stories. Recognising they were intrinsically adept communicators his writing was also direct and compelling, but crucially he never compromised on language for the young audience (11).

His empathy for the young perhaps stems from his own experiences as a teenager in the Second World War, which were brilliantly depicted in the short biography Pig Ignorant. It charted 16-year-old Fisk’s life in war torn London as he played in jazz clubs, dodged Nazi bombs, and awaited call-up. The war’s horror was poignantly illustrated when he helped a shell-shocked girl whose parents had been killed in an air raid. The author also explored the period in A Rag, A Bone and a Hank of Hair, which is set in a sterilised future where children are precious. The hero, Brin, lives with a cloned family from the 1940s, who possessed an unquenchable spirit. Having lived through extraordinarily precarious times, the author bridged the gap between generations.

He was an enthusiastic contributor to the children’s membership service, the Puffin Club (12), often visiting schools to meet pupils. In an interview for the club, Fisk revealed he often wrote two stories at once, with the writing process taking nine months and would ruthlessly discard them if they didn’t work (13). He was also born into an artistic family - his mother came from a theatrical background and his father was artist, teacher, and critic. As well as a writer, the author was a gifted jazz player and artist, even performing with European jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt and drawing for the Daily Sketch newspaper (14).

At his peak in the 70s, Fisk was one of Puffin’s most successful authors (15) as well as inspiring modern writers like China Mielville and playwright Ed Harris (16). His passing in 2016 prompted an outpouring of admiration online and in the national press. He helped to pave the way for the YA science fiction and fantasy publishing golden age we’re living through. For a generation who had the sci-fi seed implanted in their brains by comics and TV, Fisk’s insightful speculative fiction was the next logical step in their education and provided the perfect grounding to move onto Clarke or Asimov later. Only a few of his stories are still in print but many second-hand copies can be found online or as e-books and are well worth tracking down for sci-fi lovers young and old.

Acknowledgements for Nicholas Fisk Author Profile

A big thanks to the Nicholas Fisk Literary Estate, and particularly Laura Cecil, who supplied a treasure trove of information and documents that were not online. I could not have written this article without their help and support. Thanks for reading the Nicholas Fisk author profile.

Nicholas Fisk References

1) This opening quote and ‘If’ are from the introduction of The Puffin Book of Science Fiction: Stories Collected by Nicholas Fisk. He had written a fiery introduction decrying the name. The book can be bought second hand on Amazon.

2) This is from Fisk’s essay, One Thumping Lie, which was published in Edward Blishen’s book, The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children. A digital version can be found online and provides a lot of useful information.

3) This line is from an essay by writer and critic Dennis Hamley, a copy of which was provided by the Nicholas Fisk Literary Estate.

4) This information was provided by Laura Cecil from Nicholas Fisk’s Literary Estate.

5) This is a quote from One Thumping Lie and really illustrates his respect for children.

6) This is from Hamley’s essay, who is elaborating on Fisk’s explanation of his ‘One Big Lie’ thesis.

7) This quote is from Fisk’s essay One Thumping Lie, although the point about children lacking experience is important because it sets them apart from adults.

8) Still Scared Podcast devoted an episode to Grinny and Monster Maker. They discuss at some length how Fisk puts his main characters in terrific danger.

9) This point is taken from Pat Thomson’s in-depth profile of Nicholas Fisk in the magazine Carousel from 1984. She writes that child “know about survival. They are working at it all the time.”

10) This point about consumers is also from One Thumping Lie and the Center for Media Literacy has an informative explanation of how children became consumers. Interestingly, Fisk came from a marketing background, so probably had first-hand experience of seeing children’s transformation.

11) In One Thumping Lie, Fisk wrote “then write faster narratives and pay less attention to old devices.”

12) This is from The Guardian’s informative obituary.

13) This information comes from a lovely interview of Nicholas Fisk by the Puffin Club, which was provided by his Literary Estate.

14) From the Guardian’s obituary (see 10)

15) This is according to Laura Cecil.

16) Ed Harris paid tribute to Fisk on Twitter on the day he died, pointing out his BBC radio play, Billions, was named in tribute to Trillions. SFX magazine says that Grinny was the first book that Mieville can remember.


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