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05 Mar 2015

The Children Who Stayed Behind

As the world celebrates the importance of reading and books for children everywhere on World Book Day, author Deborah Moggach introduces the Vintage Children's Classic written by her own father – The Children Who Stayed Behind.

My father, Richard Hough, was born and brought up in Brighton and loved it all his life. In those days children roamed around more freely than they do now and he remembered long days out on his bike, an apple and a lump of cheese in his pocket, only returning home when dusk fell. He particularly loved the seafront – who doesn’t? After all, it had slot machines and side-shows and dodgems and candy floss and, best of all, a pier. There’s something magical about a pier – a place made entirely for fun, and stretching out so thrillingly into the middle of the sea.

Brighton, like all seaside towns, feels on the edge of the world. The sea is always present – you can smell it and see it, a great infinity, a place of mystery and beauty and adventure. And just across the water lies France, a foreign country – which is the most thrilling thing of all.

My father grew up before the Second World War. When it broke out, in 1939, France was occupied by the Nazis and suddenly became enemy territory. As soon as he was old enough my father joined the Air Force. He became a fighter pilot and made many hazardous journeys across the Channel into France; at the height of the war, the life expectancy for fighter pilots was just nineteen days!

Luckily he survived or you wouldn’t be reading this book. Though England wasn’t invaded, thank goodness, he always had a vivid imagination. Like all writers he constantly asked himself ‘What if?...’ which is the way all stories begin. In this case it was ‘What if England was invaded?’ What if the town was evacuated and all that was left were some children – who, as you know, have a much more interesting time when there are no adults around.

My father started writing for children when my sisters and I were young. He worked at home, tapping away on a typewriter in our cramped little cottage just outside London. He showed us his stories when they were still loose sheets of paper, and asked our reactions. I loved this; it made me feel grown-up, with an opinion that was valued, and this is so important for a child. It also made writing stories seem the most natural thing in the world (and indeed, I grew up to be a novelist).

My father drew on our lives quite a bit; we’d recognize things we’d said or done in his books. In this story, however, he also drew on his own childhood in the town he loved – a town whose existence was so nearly threatened by war.

But there were things from our childhood, too, in the book. One thing in particular. When it was first published, the book was called The Kidnapping of Kensington. We always had a lot of animals, especially rabbits (which we considered, quite rightly, more interesting than guinea pigs). Around this time my sister, Sarah, had a big white rabbit called Kensington. He was absolutely gorgeous. She used to carry him around everywhere and I can still remember the stab of envy when I saw him in her arms. Like all our rabbits he was very tame, hopping around the house like one of the family.

And, such is the magic of fiction, he’s not been forgotten. He still lives on, a living breathing rabbit, the hero of his own story. Or was he a she? I honestly can’t remember. But that’s part of the story too.

My father wrote many books but this is my favourite. I do hope you enjoy it too.