Jean Kenward obituary

Other lives: Poet and children’s author, and the creator of Ragdolly Anna, whose adventures were dramatised for television in the 1980s

My mother, Jean Kenward, who has died aged 102, was a poet whose work, for both children and adults, was published in many anthologies. She also wrote children’s stories; the Ragdolly Anna series (1979-87) was dramatised in a popular Yorkshire TV series featuring Pat Coombs in the 1980s.

Jean was born in Pangbourne, on the River Thames in Berkshire, one of three children of Ruth (nee Stone) and Harold Kenward. Her father worked for Dunlop – he later became sales director and president of the Motor Trade Association, and was knighted. As a child, Jean was left to run pretty free with her brother and sister: she always loved being outside. She began writing at the age of eight, while a pupil at the local school in Pangbourne, and studied in the late 1930s at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Jean Kenward writing in her garden in Chorleywood, 1962
Jean Kenward writing in her garden in Chorleywood, 1962 Photograph: None

During the second world war she served with the WRNS. She was introduced to David Chesterman by his father, her doctor, and on their first date went blackberrying with him. They married in 1945 and settled in Chorleywood, on the border between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. David worked first for Dunlop, and later as a classical music promoter, and together they brought up three children. Jean wrote in spare moments, in the kitchen or the garden, and also gave courses on the creative imagination at the Harrow School of Art.

Her poems often appeared in magazines such as Country Life and on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Corner. She published several collections of poems, starting with Rain (1946), which was dedicated to her brother, killed in the war, and, for children, A Book of Rhymes (1947). Her last collection of children’s poems, Horses of the Moon, was published online in 2021.

Jean’s poetry expresses a deep love of the natural world, and also a mischievous humour, often close to nonsense, such as one poem about an old woman made wholly of string, or another about a man who did everything backwards. Some of the more serious ones reveal a mystical centre, pondering the mysteries of life, death and change (she once said that after death she might return as a puddle), and the value of human relationships. She loved the sonnet form, which came naturally to her. In the poems for children, rhythm and rhyme are always important, and there is often a hidden meaning.

Jean Kenward’s Ragdolly Anna stories were adapted by Yorkshire TV for a children’s series featuring Pat Coombs
Jean Kenward’s Ragdolly Anna stories were adapted by Yorkshire TV for a children’s series featuring Pat Coombs Photograph: None

She once described herself as a solitary: she was not the “joining” type. But she had many close friends, of all ages, and enjoyed a wide correspondence. When a guest came to dinner, she loved to discuss weighty matters such as “What is truth?”, with both seriousness and humour.

In her last years, when she felt that her imagination only grew stronger as her body weakened, she would often cite Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei (from War and Peace): “No, nothing is certain, nothing but the nothingness of all that we can understand, and the splendour of something we can’t understand, but we know to be infinitely important!”

David died in 2011. Jean spent her last few years in a care home in Whitstable, Kent. She is survived by her children, Melinda, Danny and me, and by nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Andrew Chesterman

The GuardianTramp

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