Q How did you first become interested in writing for children?
A Way back in 1978 I was invited by the local BBC (Radio Sheffield) to write some stories for use in schools. I eventually began to send these to publishers and they became my first books.
Q Do you have any particular objectives in writing for children?
A My first is to entertain. I want children to be fascinated or excited or moved by what I write. But I also want to write about something that matters both to them and to me.
Q Who are your target readers?
A First I must please myself, but it is the self of four, or nine, or fourteen, or whatever happens to be the age of the central character in my book.
Q How is writing for children different from writing for adults?
A The difference lies largely in the subject matter. There are also layers of emotional and intellectual intensity in a novel for adults which may not be appropriate in most writing for children, except in teenage fiction. I don’t temper my use of language or imagery.
Q What different linguistic and structural strategies do you employ for different age groups?
A You must never confuse your reader, so young children should have a simple structure to follow. Older readers can be invited to work a little, so I may use two or more narrative voices, or employ flashback, or invent an original way of speaking, as in Spellhorn.
Q How do you collect data?
A It depends on the novel or play. Sometimes I interview people to ask them about their work or particular knowledge or experiences. Sometimes I use reference books for historical or political information. Sometimes the whole thing comes out of my head.
Q Do you get any feedback?
A Yes. I receive an enormous amount of individual letters, particularly about Dear Nobody, from all around the world. When a book is being used in schools I also get many class letters, often asking questions for course work. I find these letters very encouraging because I can see that children have understood what I’m trying to do in my books. But by far the best letters are those that come from individual children, because they have enjoyed a book and want to tell you so. These are worth more than any review.
Q What is the status of children’s literature in the UK? (Question in Turkish conference)
A Not as high as it should be, though there is media coverage of major awards and occasional reviewing of books. But it is certainly not given the kind of respectful attention that it receives in the USA or Australia.
Q What are the ethics of writing for children?
A When it comes to writing for teenagers, there doesn’t seem to be any taboo subjects, though the way in which they are handled would be subject to editorial sanctions.
Q How does the topic of multiculturalism contribute to young people’s understanding of the issue? (Question in Indonesia)
A Greatly, I would hope, as we would want children to allow themselves to ‘become’ the character they are reading about. In Tough Luck my Asian character, Nasim, had typical problems to cope with, and literature is one way of exploring these problems. However, Ruthlyn, the black girl in Dear Nobody, is simply Helen’s best friend, and that is another important way of representing our multicultural society. Add Abela is one of my most important books, and introduces readers to issues about illegal immigrants, as a young black child is brought from Africa and treated as a house slave.
Q Do you find school visits to be an important part of being an author?
A It’s part of the job, yes. Just as children need to know that an author is a real person, so we need to know that our readers are real people. I happen to enjoy giving readings, and I like talking to children, so it’s a pleasurable activity for me, although I turn down most invitations. However, not all writers like doing it and shouldn’t be expected to!
Q Do the children benefit more than by just reading the books?
A I’m sure they do. There is always a story behind the story for a start. It is useful for children to see that writers are real, alive, and that very often their own experiences have motivated or inspired the story.
Q What do you gain?
A It is very rewarding to know that your books are being read and enjoyed by children in schools. I always tell children that the best thing that can happen to an author is to meet the people she writes for, and this is true. However, schools must prepare the children by introducing them to an author’s work in advance of the visit. Otherwise the event is simply a one-sided performance and there is nothing to be gained.
Q Are you ever directly influenced by their opinions when you write?
A Not from a one-off visit, no. But I sometimes arrange to speak to a group of children while I’m in the process of writing – c.f. Tough Luck, Spellhorn and Street Child. Here I am deliberately asking their advice and opinion, or very keen to have instant feedback. The children in my village school are often the first to hear my stories – Fairy Tales and The Famous Adventures of Jack both began life at Edale school.
Q What is your favourite poem? (James Carter)
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
the blue and the dim and the dark cloths
of night and light and half light
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams,
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
It’s the poem that Chris sends to Helen in Dear Nobody.
Q Your characters seem to have a ‘lack’ which they need to fulfil in order to solve their problems within the book. Do you set out to consider a child who has something missing so that the situation can only be resolved when they find and restore this deficiency?
A Your remark about characters ‘lacking’ something is very interesting, as it is something which has never occurred to me before and certainly not something that I have consciously sought to explore, except in the short story The Girl who Couldn’t Walk which you may not have come across. It’s in my anthology, Tales of Wonder and Magic, published by Walker Books. I can see that in the novels such as The Snake-Stone, Tough Luck, Spellhorn and Holly Starcross your theory certainly applies, but then what about Granny Was a Buffer Girl, White Peak Farm, The Sailing Ship Tree and Dear Nobody and perhaps Daughter of the Sea? I think it’s a coincidence rather than a thematic route, but I’m prepared to follow your argument. I think the way I write is intuitive rather than structured in that sense, and what I’m looking for is a development of character towards a realisation of the true self, which may be achieved through resolving conflict, undertaking an emotional challenge, or, as you’ve suggested, attaining a goal.
Q I am also very interested in your use of different voices to create a broader picture of the family as well as the structure of the books. Do you fit the stories into a specific structure or do they lend themselves to a particular form as you write?
A This intuitive way of approaching a novel may in part answer your second question, about the different voices. I don’t think I’ve ever set off with the idea of writing a novel in different voices or using stories within stories, except in The Famous Adventures of Jack (Hodder) and my second novel for adults The Vinegar Jar (Penguin, out of print). With all the other cases the idea of writing in this way came as a result of trying to find the most appropriate way of developing a particular character or story line. You may be interested to know that I write plays too, and maybe this desire to include more than one voice in the narration stems from that.