British critic and writer for children was born in Leeds. After attending school in Leeds and later Emmanuel College (Cambridge) and service in the RAF he started working as a reporter for various newspaper (Yorkshire Post, Manchester Guardian). He was even appointed Editor of the Guardian Weekly but he gave up the position in 1969 and began to write reviews of children's books.
In 1961 he published his first book, Gumble's Yard - there was a thriller plot though the main point was to describe the life of children in slums (Townsend was inspired by his own report about the activities of the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Manchester). Critics generally appreciated his attempt to write about such theme - they even said it was not necessary to involve the thriller plot. Yet some of them complained the book did not have sort of 'happy end' - for in the end the character returned back to his obnoxious home whoch he had left at the beginning.
The book has two sequels - Widdershins Crescent (1965) and Pirate's Island (1968). Though they were quite successful it was obvious that the writer is still not able to free himself from the tradition of adventure stories. Furthermore he often kept himself being patronizing in his portraits of working-class life. The same pattern may be seen in his other works such as Hell's Edge (1963) (dealing with the realtionship between a boy from North and a girl from South; there is a thriller plot keeping the story moving; and though the author tried to use Yorkshire's dialect to make the story look more authentic, the usage of the dialect was a failure for it seems unreal in the book).
While his first books (Gumble's Yard and its sequels) might be considered to be children's fiction, in Hell's Edge he turned to older readers. As for his next novel, The Intruder (1969), the book is sometimes regarded as a children's book just because of the fact that it contains illustrations. Yet they say it is his finest work. It is a story about a boy and his father living on a coast; one day the boy meets a stranger who claims to share his own name. The stranger starts to control and leads their lives and it looks like he is determined to destroy them both.
Goodnight, Prof. Love was among the best teenage novels of the 20th century with its comic-tragic story about a boy's love with a waitress. Yet Townsend then decided to try a few new forms. The result was A Wish for Wings (1972) about Leonardo da Vinci and a flying machine, Forest of the Night (1974) dealing with adolescent sexuality (inspired by Blake's poem 'Tyger! Tyger!'), The Xanadu Manuscript (1977) which is a science-fiction or A Foreign Affair (1982) - comic romantic novel again.
As experienced reviewer of children's books he published the history of English children's literature Written for Children (1965 and revised several times). In 1971 came out his collection of critical essays on contemporary writers for children, A Sense of Story (1971; in 1979 republished under the title A Sounding of Storytellers).