British author and poet Peter Dickinson, who deftly alternated between writing works for adults and children and won back-to-back Carnegie Medals, becoming the award’s first two-time recipient, died on December 16, his 88th birthday, in Winchester, Hampshire, after a brief illness.
Dickinson was born December 16, 1927 in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia, now known as Zambia. When he was seven, the Dickinson family moved to England so that Peter and his brothers could attend English schools. His father passed away shortly after the relocation. Dickinson earned a scholarship to Eton College in 1941, and following graduation in 1946 he was conscripted in the British army. His military service was completed in 1948, and that same year Dickinson began studies at King’s College, Cambridge from which he graduated in 1951 with a B.A. in English Literature. Dickinson noted over the years that in all of his early schooling he had few English lessons and was never told to write a story. But when asked how he became a writer, Dickinson posted the following poetic answer in his biographical Q&A on his site:
“It isn’t something I became —
It is the only life I know.
If you could somehow dam the flow
I’d be a writer just the same.”
Not long after his graduation from King’s College, Dickinson embarked on his first job at the satirical magazine Punch. where he was on the editorial staff from 1952 to 1969. The dramatic story of his first interview at the magazine is one Dickinson has often recounted, and it appears on his website: “He was knocked down by a tram on his way to the interview..., and arrived all covered with blood and dirt, but they gave him the job because he was the only candidate.”
During the time that Dickinson became established at the magazine, he married Mary Rose Barnard in 1953 and the couple raised four children. Mary Rose died in 1988 following a long illness. It was in the role of father that Dickinson’s love of storytelling flourished. He read to his children every night before bed and took particular joy in regaling them with various tales. His eldest daughter Philippa, the former managing director of Random House Children’s Publishers U.K., shared this remembrance: “There are so many images I have of my father, but perhaps the one which shines brightest at this moment is of him at the wheel of the family car, driving us all somewhere – to visit relatives, perhaps. In the days before radios in cars, the amazing stories he would tell us all the way there, and all the way back, was our ‘in-car entertainment.’ It was an extremely effective way of keeping four lively children amused during a long journey,” she said. “Some of these stories eventually became the beginnings of books which were published. Others never made it. I vividly recall a hilarious space adventure with giant spiders that had us all, including Dad, in fits of laughter – luckily there were fewer cars on the roads in those days. It was brilliant – and he did eventually get it down on paper but somehow it never quite worked as well... If it wasn’t a story, it might be an epic poem that he had learned by heart as a child. He also read to us every night at bedtime and continued to do so until we were into our early teens.”
While still working at Punch in 1965, Dickinson began working on his first crime novel for adults, often working at the kitchen table after dinner, according to his website biography. The resulting book, The Glass-Sided Ants Nest (Harper & Row in the U.S.; published as Skin Deep by Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K.) was released in 1968, and marked the first of six titles featuring Detective James Pibble. This debut won the Crime Writers Association Golden Dagger Award, a prize he also took home in 1969 for The Old English Peepshow (Harper & Row, U.S.; published as A Pride of Heroes by Hodder, U.K.), distinguishing him as the first author win twice in consecutive years. In 1968, Dickinson also launched his children’s book career with The Weathermonger (Gollancz, U.K.; Little Brown, U.S.), which kicked off the fantasy-adventure Changes trilogy. Shortly thereafter Dickinson left his position at Punch and began writing full-time.
For most of the 1970s and 1980s, Dickinson produced both adult and children’s books each year. His 1979 children’s novel Tulku (Gollancz, U.K.; Dutton, U.S.), set during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900, won both the Whitbread Children’s Prize and the Carnegie Medal. The next year Dickinson’s City of Gold (Gollancz, U.K.; Pantheon, U.S.), a collection of his retellings of Old Testament stories, also won the Carnegie Medal. In all, he would be short-listed for the prestigious prize nine times in his career, including most recently for his 2012 novel In the Palace of the Khans (Peter Dickinson Books, U.K.). Earlier this year, 34 of Dickinson’s backlist titles were released as e-books by Open Road Media.
Dickinson’s oeuvre includes nearly 60 books for adults and children that range from picture books to historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers. Among the many honors and awards he received was his appointment in 2009 as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for service to children’s literature.
In 1991, Dickinson married American author Robin McKinley, who survives him, as do his four children and six grandchildren.