My friend Tony Mitton, the popular and prolific children’s writer, has died of leukaemia at the age of 71.
He was born in Tripoli, Libya, to Stanley, a professional soldier who had risen from private to the rank of major, and Peggy (nee 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 settled in England. In 1961, owing to his mother’s poor health, he and his brother, Bernard, boarded at Woolverstone Hall state grammar 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 poet. After having a breakdown, he took a year out from university to work as a cow herd in Switzerland, which proved an intensely physical and very healing experience.
In 1972, a year before graduating, he married his father’s secretary, Christine Harter, from 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 post, he tried to establish himself as a poet, but failed to make progress.
In 1979 Tony was introduced by friends to Elizabeth McKellar, a lecturer in art history, and they settled in Cambridge, where Tony resumed teaching. Their daughter, Doris, was born in 1985 and son, Guthrie, in 1989. Tony and Elizabeth married in 1991.
Tony’s experience of teaching and fatherhood, and his vivid sense of humour, drew him to writing poems for children. He had a strong feeling for metrical form, and his deep interest in myth and folklore provided him with a store of narrative inspiration. In 1996 his first book, Big Bad Raps, appeared. Many illustrated books for young children with strong verse rhythms, entertaining narratives and bold alliteration followed, such as Bumpus Jumpus Dinosaurumpus! and Down By the Cool of the Pool.
Over the years he 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 prize-winning verse narrative Wayland, illustrated by John Lawrence, that he particularly valued. In 2000 he won a Smarties Book prize, and became a full-time writer.
Tony was a gifted musician, a devoted father and husband, an entertaining companion, and a lover of walking. Though not religious, he had a lifelong interest in Buddhism and practised meditation daily. This is most directly expressed in his only novel, Potter’s Boy (2017), set in a mythic Buddhist land. One of his last projects was Goddess Gaia, an environmental collaboration for schools with the Hallé Orchestra.
He is survived by Elizabeth, Doris and Guthrie, and his grandson, Rowan.