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Lynne Reid Banks, Author of ‘The Indian in the Cupboard,’ Dies at 94

WorldEuropeLynne Reid Banks, Author of ‘The Indian in the Cupboard,’ Dies at 94

Lynne Reid Banks, a versatile British author who began her writing career with the best-selling feminist novel “The L-Shaped Room” but found her biggest success with the popular children’s book “The Indian in the Cupboard,” died on Thursday in Surrey, England. She was 94.

Her death, at a care facility, was caused by cancer, said James Wills, her literary agent.

Ms. Banks was part of a generation of writers, including Shelagh Delaney and Margaret Drabble, that emerged in postwar Britain and whose books explored the struggles of young women seeking personal and financial independence, in sharp contrast to the contemporaneous “angry young men” literary movement defined by John Osborne and Kingsley Amis.

Over her long career, Ms. Banks’s character portrayals were often called insensitive and her language offensive, particularly in her two best-known works. She was a complicated, sometimes contradictory figure who became increasingly unrepentant about her firmly held opinions.

“The L-Shaped Room” (1960), lauded by critics as a second-wave feminist novel, tells the story of an unmarried secretary whose conservative, middle-class father throws her out of their home when she tells him she’s pregnant. Rather than reach out to the father of the child, she rents a small, L-shaped room at the top of a rooming house in London and becomes part of an improvised family of fellow boarders, including a Caribbean-born jazz musician. Class, race, sexism and the danger of illegal abortions are all central to the plot.

Ms. Banks didn’t consider herself a feminist when she wrote the book; as a young woman coming of age in the 1950s, she said, she thought that men were superior.

But she soon changed her mind. “What a joke,” she told the BBC’s program “Bookclub” in 2010. “I mean, I don’t believe that anymore. I think women are infinitely the superior sex and that men are probably the most dangerous creatures on the planet.”

Ms. Banks came to regret the racial tropes used in her portrayal of the Caribbean housemate in “The L-Shaped Room,” acknowledging that racism had permeated her narrative. “The prejudices existed, and they came out in this book, and it’s shame-making, but there they were,” she told the BBC. “They were absolutely part of the atmosphere.”

The novel became an immediate best seller in Britain and was made into a film, released in the United States in 1963 and starring Leslie Caron, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.

After “The Indian in the Cupboard” was published in 1980, The New York Times hailed it as the best novel of the year for children. Ms. Banks wrote four sequels.

The first book in the series begins when a boy, Omri, is given an old medicine cabinet with magical properties: When he places plastic action figures inside, they come alive. The first toy he brings to life is a Native American named Little Bear — the “Indian” of the title. One of Omri’s friends places his toy cowboy in the cabinet, and a well-worn conflict is set in motion.

Although the purported message to young readers was the importance of tolerance and respect for other cultures, Ms. Banks was later accused of perpetuating stereotypes. (Little Bear speaks in a dialect of broken English, and the cowboy is a laconic man who likes his whiskey.)

By the fourth book, “The Mystery of the Cupboard” (1993), critics had grown impatient with the clichéd characters that would step out of the magic cupboard. “Through its innocent-looking mirrored door march a succession of plucky, albeit creaky cultural stereotypes, ever predictable and true to the dictates of their sex, ethnic group or time,” the fiction writer Michael Dorris wrote in The New York Times Book Review.

The American Indian Library Association in 1991 listed “The Indian in the Cupboard” series among the “titles to avoid,” and a school board in British Columbia temporarily removed the first book from its libraries in 1992, citing “offensive treatment of native peoples.”

Still, the series remained popular, and “The Indian in the Cupboard” was adapted into a 1995 film directed by Frank Oz.

Lynne Reid Banks was born in London on July 31, 1929. She was the only child of James and Muriel (Reid) Banks. Her father, who was Scottish, was a doctor; her mother, who was Irish and known as Pat, was an actress.

As a child during World War II, Lynne was evacuated with her mother to Canada, where they settled in Saskatchewan. It was a mostly happy time, and the human cost of the war became clear only when she returned to London at 15.

“I found my city in ruins,” she said in an interview for the reference work “Authors and Artists for Young Adults.” When she learned about the wartime hardships that the rest of her family had endured, she was horrified and ashamed. “I felt like a deserter,” she said.

She first pursued a career as an actress, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and working in repertory theater. She also began writing plays. In 1955, she became one of the first female television reporters in England, working for Independent Television News (later ITV). One day, she was asked to try out a new kind of typewriter in the newsroom. One sentence led to another, and she realized that she was writing in the voice of a woman who was pregnant, unmarried and on her own. These random first sentences became the seeds of “The L-shaped Room.”

“I didn’t know I had a book,” she later told the BBC. “I knew I had a situation.”

The success of novel gave her the freedom to write full time, and she quit her television job. But her life took another turn when she met and married Chaim Stephenson, a sculptor, and moved to Israel to join him on a kibbutz.

The move led her mother to accuse her of wasting her talent and placing herself in a dangerous and “soul-stunting” situation, Ms. Banks wrote in The Guardian in 2017. But she loved her adopted country, and she taught English and continued to write while raising three sons, until the family moved back to England in 1971.

Ms. Banks wrote two sequels to “The L-Shaped Room” — “The Backward Shadow” (1970) and “Two is Lonely” (1974) — as well as two books on the Brontë sisters: “Dark Quartet: The Story of the Brontës” (1976) and “Path to the Silent Country: Charlotte Brontë’s Years of Fame” (1977).

She began writing books for children and young adults in the 1970s, incorporating elements of magic and fantasy that would find full expression in “The Indian in the Cupboard.” She wrote more than 45 books for adults and children altogether, many with Jewish themes, as well as 13 plays produced for radio and theater.

The challenges of single motherhood was a theme Ms. Banks returned to in 2014 in “Uprooted, A Canadian War Story,” a young adult novel based on the years that she and her mother spent in Canada during the war.

She is survived by three sons, Adiel, Gillon and Omri Stephenson, and three grandchildren. Her husband died in 2016.

Ms. Banks remained productive in her later years. “It’s great being old,” she wrote in The Guardian in 2017, in an essay on the advantages of aging. “I can be eccentric, self-indulgent — even offensive.”

Indeed, at the age of 85, she touched off another literary furor when she wrote a letter objecting to The Guardian’s decision to award its children’s fiction prize to David Almond for his book “A Song for Ella Grey” (2015), writing that a book with “lesbian sex,” as well as swearing and drinking, was not appropriate for children.

A predictable outcry in response to her letter followed. “Although I’m still on the outs with modern life,” she wrote, “being old means I’ve stopped minding what people think of my opinions.”

Sofia Poznansky contributed reporting,

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