Thank you so much for featuring me for your fantasy reading theme issue, Myra.
I started writing ‘Princess Petunia’s Dragon’ as a picture book because I love the format. The story was about a child who wanted a difficult pet, a dragon – who finally came into his own when the weather suddenly turned cold. Each time I did a draft I found myself developing the plot, until it ended up at 7,000 words for a reading age of six to nine. I don’t make many conscious choices as I write, rather my imagination makes demands on me.
Like you say, Petunia is a feisty little girl and is probably the child I’d have liked to have been. Writing about a quirky, determined child is exciting, especially when she starts shouting back! I love the randomness of writing fiction.
There are elements in the story of Petunia – such as the gobstoppers – which grew out of the drafting process. Gobstoppers are a mainstay of strip cartoons in the UK and even saying the word outloud makes me smile. Freddy keeps one safe under a flap on his ear. I was teased as a kid because I have a dent in one ear too. These ideas jump up out of my tombola brain when I’m half asleep.
My first job after leaving university with a degree in French and Spanish and a year’s teaching abroad was (obviously!) not teaching or translating. It was at a children’s publishing firm doing everything from typing invoices to packing books. All good experience, despite the chilblains and the blisters. As I worked my way up in different companies, I collaborated with designers, illustrators, authors and other editors, and it was great fun. The editor’s name was never put on the book, but an author might compliment me with a ‘you do it, you’re the expert’. I also worked as a freelance editor in non-fiction – a calmer job, but rather lonely.
Later, with language tuition, I showed my pupils how to view the world. Each language has its own mindset, rather like a character’s viewpoint in a novel. As well as speaking languages, I’ve always loved drafting translations over and over again until I’ve done my very best.
Why do I love children’s books? Well, in the beginning there was an imaginary friend and I told her stories. And then I told stories to my little sister, who was not imaginary. Later, my daughter had two imaginary friends at once – oh dear, such competition! I also grew up surrounded by fabulous books and parents who loved reading out loud and often quoted our favourite characters. The rhythm and sound of the text is magical to me.
When did I start writing fiction? When a very feisty friend decided that I should provide her with a taxi service to a writers’ group. Shades of Petunia in the making.
Although a writer is somewhat of an ‘outsider’, being an insider of a supportive organisation like the SCBWI is fun. It doesn’t matter if you have to move to a new country, you can still find great people for mutual feedback and moral support. And get involved in activities such as workshops and retreats.
For me, fantasy is inherent to all stories. It’s the author’s imagination which introduces the reader to characters who can do things the child would love to do, or at least witness. Paddington Bear, Little Mrs Pepperpot, Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland are the stories that took root in my imagination.
Later I read Tom’s Midnight Garden where fantasy plays a role in a realistic setting. And I should add that humour is the thing I remember most about the stories I read as a kid.
My children were lucky enough to grow up as the Harry Potter series was being published.
All good stories are stuffed full of imaginitive writing that allows a child to relax, dream, and create their own world. I wasn’t asked to discuss the fiction I read in primary school – I would just slip into a book and puzzle things out, or not, owning my reading of the story in my head. I don’t know how fantasy affects children other than the fact that young readers will naturally pick books containing the type of emotion or action they find most intriguing and satisfying. Allowing them to own this space for personal pleasure is so important.
As for me, I am working on an adventure for nine to twelve year-olds, set in the tropics. The characters find their inner mojo in a believable setting, though an enhanced version of reality is obviously integral to my fiction. There are other similar stories in the pipeline. There may be more stories about Petunia and Freddy, so please watch this space.
I am excited to be giving a talk at the AFCC in June 2015. I will be doing more school and library visits as I love sharing ideas directly with my readers. Please see my website, blog and Facebook page for updates.