Hello, Anthony - thanks for letting me have this chance to pick the brains of someone who has provided great amusement for the children at St Edward’s Catholic Primary on many occasions. That’s through your writing if anyone was wondering - not any other alternative forms of entertainment such as hula hooping or interpretive dance (although I’m sure you could manage both if necessary.) Right, here goes:
I interviewed Mairi Kidd from Barrington Stoke publishers for Words and Pictures too. When did you first team up with the company for your reluctant reader range, and how did that come about?
Back in 2008 I met a delightful author called Cathy McPhail, who was writing for Barrington Stoke. She said how great BS were to work with, so they were on my radar. A little later, my agent, Philippa Milnes Smith, mentioned them. It so happened that I had an idea for a shortish book that I thought might work well for reluctant readers, so I sent it off to them. They liked it, and it eventually came out as The Fall. It’s such a wonderful little publisher, small enough for you to really feel that the whole company is part of your team. And they punch well above their weight – they have incredible writers on their list.
Did you struggle with reading at school or was learning to read something that came easily?
No, I was always a keen reader. When I was younger I was a heavy consumer of non-fiction – I was obsessed with nature and wildlife, and read everything my local library had on the subject by the time I was 8. However I read rather little fiction – hardly any of the children’s classics. Then, when I was 9 or so, a teacher gave me a copy of the Lord of the Rings. I didn’t really know what to make of it – I had to learn how to read it as a novel – and it took me three years to finish. But at the end of it I was a very different sort of reader (and person), and from then on I lived and breathed fiction.
I can tell from your website that you’re not afraid to plunge into the murky depths of a school visit. We love having authors coming to see us at St Ed’s - sometimes they even come back again (we do have great cake though). What makes a successful visit, in your opinion, and what could go badly wrong?
Some authors get slightly obsessed with the organizational side of things, but I don’t mind a bit of chaos. What always really helps is if at least a few of the kids know your work, which generates an infectious excitement. It’s great if the teachers can read a few chapters (or a whole book) out to a class before you get there. And I’d rather have a slightly rowdy but enthusiastic room than one drilled to be silent. In my experience visiting junior schools is almost always a complete joy – younger children are completely open, and delighted to be entertained. At secondary things can get a bit trickier. Years 7 and 8 are fine, but 9/10/11 can take a lot of work. But then it’s all the more satisfying when you win them round. Some of the best visits I’ve ever done were with initially reserved, even disdainful Year 10s, who end up seeing the point of you, and therefore, more importantly of reading. One thing I would say is that, at Secondary level, so much of the visit depends on having a brilliant school librarian – it’s a huge shame that some schools are getting rid of theirs.
Have you had any feedback from less confident readers or their teachers/parents through fan mail or school talks and workshops?
I get the odd letter and email and, more often, nice feedback straight after a session. But the best response I ever got came a couple of years ago. The Fall had won one of the categories at the Coventry Inspirations Book Awards, and during the ceremony they played a little film, made by a teenager, in which he talked about my book. He’d never read a novel before, and talked about his sense of discovery, wonder and connection when reading it. He said that the experience had transformed him. I’ll confess to wiping away a tear.
What three children’s books would be with us forever if you had your way?
That’s so hard to answer. The three that have meant the most to me are Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Redshift by Alan Garner and, perhaps Tom’s Midnight Garden. But then that’s to neglect all the amazing books for younger children. And of course all the more recent books – I do think we’re living through a golden age.
What do you think teachers and authors should be concentrating on if they want children of all abilities to have pleasurable and memorable reading experiences?
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this. However, as a general principle, the key is to get younger children to see reading as a source of fun, and not as a chore. So that means, initially, at least, giving them what they like, but also offering a wide range of titles so they can pick what appeals. I think that wide range is vital – it’s really hard to know in advance what’s going to spark that love of reading. Once they’ve made the link between reading and pleasure, then they can be gently nudged, led, encouraged, tempted, to move away from football and fairies (or whatever) on to more challenging books.
Men are in short supply at the school where I teach - in fact we have so few that they have to share the disabled toilet; sadly, it’s not worth putting in a urinal. How could schools provide good reading/writing role models for their pupils when there aren’t enough men coming into primary teaching?
I genuinely don’t see this as a major problem. Of course it’s great to have men in junior schools, but I never encountered a single male teacher in my time at junior school, and I became a reader. I suppose one option would be to try to get male writers to come in, but then that seems rather harsh on the women writers.
The new National Curriculum is, rightly, putting great emphasis on reading for pleasure and having books read aloud just for enjoyment (although, to be fair, that concept hadn’t passed most teachers by!) Did you enjoy listening to stories when you were at school or did you prefer to read on at your own speed?
I loved it when the teacher read to us – in fact, for a long time, that was my main way of absorbing fiction. I remember a teacher called Mrs Marah reading Charlie and Chocolate Factory to us. We were spellbound. And, of course, it helped that it wasn’t maths. Strangely, at home, my parents didn’t read to us very much. My dad was (and is) a superb storyteller, and he’d just make stories up, as the five McGowan kids sat around him.
Do you think the problems of dyslexia are taken into account often enough in schools? How can your books - and others in the Barrington Stoke range - help with this?
I know this sounds a bit odd, given that I’m writing books aimed partly at dyslexic young people, but I really don’t know much about how schools deal with it, these days. I do know that it is, at least, a problem people have heard of, whereas in my day it was barely recognized. However I’m quite drawn to the idea that dyslexia is only one part of the problem of low literacy levels, and that a holistic approach is called for. Beyond that, I’m afraid we’re beyond my competency level.
My classes love all references to bums (bare or otherwise) poo, wee and all other elements of middle grade humour. Do you ever get criticised for including what the punters want? Is there any snobbery about this sort of thing within the world of children’s authors?
I have reasonably strong feelings about this. My books are extremely scatological – my teenage books as well as my books for younger readers. There are various reasons for that, both high and low. Many of my favourite authors are similarly drawn to the comedy and pathos of the body – Rabelais, Joyce, Anthony Burgess, Shakespeare (!) – all are much more graphic in their humour than I am. Bodily humour is both universal and democratic – it appeals to old and young, rich and poor. It unites us, and reminds us that we are all made of the same stuff, the vulnerable, soft materiality of our flesh. Yet it still has the power to shock, to make the reader hold their breath, as well as their nose. Furthermore, I tend to mix together the high and the low, so the filth will sugar the pill of a passage of quite stretching philosophy. Having said all that, there is a type of book for younger children that lazily throws in some poo, or sticks a pair of underpants on a dinosaur, or has an alien break wind … although, actually, I’ve done all that, except the dinosaurs … But have I been criticised for it? Not to my face. And I think any parent or teacher who read one of my books would see either that it was justified by the storyline, or of such a bizarre and outré nature that it could hardly be described as pandering to the tastes of the groundlings.
What’s your next project, and is there any subject you’d love to write about but haven’t got round to yet?
I’m working on a sequel to Brock, my previous book for Barrington Stoke. Brock did quite well, and was longlisted for the Carnegie and UKLA book prizes. And I was really fond of my characters, and wanted to give them a second outing. I’m also working on a joint book with Jo Nadin, a really brilliant and funny writer. It’s a quirky YA romance, from male and female points of view. As for what I’d like to write, I’ve got an idea for a big Stephen King style blockbuster horror thing that I’m quite excited about writing. Eventually...