obituary of Tony Mitton | Children and teenagers

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My friend Tony Mitton, a popular and prolific children’s writer, died of leukemia at the age of 71.

He was born in Tripoli, Libya to Stanley, a professional soldier who rose from private to major, and Peggy (née Locke). Stanley was stationed in Malta and the life of a military family took Tony to Germany and Hong Kong. In 1959, Stanley left the army and the family moved to England. In 1961, due to his mother’s ill health, he and his brother, Bernard, boarded at Woolverstone Hall State High School in Suffolk, where Tony was happy and became Head Boy.

He progressed to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1969, determined to become an academic and a poet. After a depression, he took a year off from university to work as a cow herder in Switzerland, which proved to be an intensely physical and very healing experience.

In 1972, a year before graduating, he married his father’s secretary, Christine Harter, from the Seychelles. He taught at a primary school in Ely, Cambridgeshire, from 1975 to 1978, during which time he and Christine separated; they later divorced. After leaving his teaching position, he attempted to establish himself as a poet, but failed to progress.

In 1979 Tony was introduced by friends to art history lecturer Elizabeth McKellar and they moved to Cambridge, where Tony resumed teaching. Their daughter, Doris, was born in 1985 and their son, Guthrie, in 1989. Tony and Elizabeth married in 1991.

Tony’s background in teaching and fatherhood, along with his lively sense of humor, led him to write poems for children. He had a strong feeling for metrical form, and his deep interest in myth and folklore provided him with a reserve of narrative inspiration. In 1996 his first book, Big Bad Raps, appeared. Many picture books for young children with strong verse rhythms, entertaining storytelling and bold alliteration followed, such as Bumpus Jumpus Dinosaurumpus! and at the edge of the coolness of the swimming pool.

Over the years he has worked with illustrators such as Guy Parker-Rees and Ant Parker. His audience ranged from preschoolers to teenagers. In 1996, Plum, a collection of his poems, was published – and it was this vein of his work, followed by Come Into This Poem, Pip, My Hat and All That, and the award-winning Wayland verse narrative, illustrated by John Lawrence, whom he particularly appreciated. In 2000, he won a Smarties Book award and became a full-time writer.

Tony was a gifted musician, a devoted father and husband, an entertaining companion and a lover of walking. Although not religious, he had a lifelong interest in Buddhism and practiced meditation daily. This is expressed most directly in his only novel, Potter’s Boy (2017), which is set in a mythical Buddhist land. One of his latest projects was Goddess Gaia, an environmental collaboration for schools with Orchester Hallé.

He is survived by Elizabeth, Doris and Guthrie, and his grandson, Rowan.

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