Interview with José Patterson: Clear the Blizzard of Words

By Donna Vann

I interviewed octogenarian José Patterson, long-time member of SCBWI who has recently self-published her first book of children’s fiction, ‘No Buts, Becky!’ 

José, how did you get started as a writer? 

During WWII My sister and I were evacuated to a farmhouse in Sussex. My mother used to send us children’s comics and magazines – I wrote something and sent it off and got a prize of an autograph book. I was absolutely thrilled to bits. I wasn’t good at maths but I always loved writing imaginative essays, so I guess it started then. 

I know you were a teacher for many years - tell us about your work with traveller children. 

Oxfordshire Education Department converted an ex-library van into a mobile school which my colleague and I drove to traveller sites. Since we never knew how many pupils we’d have nor their literacy abilities, our mantra was always: ‘flexibility’. Most of the children were illiterate and tempestuous. It made me see so clearly what a huge barrier illiteracy is. The travellers drove without licenses – they hadn’t got the literacy skills to pass the tests. They had no sense of time. 

I have to say also that I came across prejudice. I’m a Jew – I know about anti-Semitism, about prejudice. I thought we were top of the list! Not so. I got a promotion to advisory teacher to all the children who because of their parents’ way of life couldn’t have a normal education – traveller, fairground and circus children. 

So your first books grew out of that? 

I’d written an article in an educational journal about traveller children which the publisher Hamish Hamilton liked. They commissioned four books in the series, ‘The Way We Live’: A Traveller Child, Mazal Tov: A Jewish Wedding, Happy New Year and A Circus Child. 

Do you feel that being Jewish influences your writing? 

Not really. I love social history, so anything historical intrigues. I’m at home with the Jewish rules of ‘No Buts, Becky!’ (her recent children’s novel). That’s my background, even though our family wasn’t strictly observant. You don’t touch money on the Sabbath, because that would be working, and you don’t write. That’s why the letters from Becky to her mother had to be imaginary, because she wasn’t allowed to write on the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening. 

How did ‘No Buts, Becky!’ come about?

Some years ago I went to a fascinating lecture given by a friend of mine who had lived in the East End of London with her Yiddish-speaking grandmother. Her ‘Bubbe’ told her about the hardships of life for poor Jews who were constant targets of pogroms. Then I just thought up the story. 

What made you decide to self-publish? 

I had sent the manuscript to David Fickling and got back a reader’s letter which began, ‘I like this book.’ That gave me confidence to proceed. Although David wouldn’t publish ‘No Buts, Becky!’ he recommended self-publishing. After all, I’m 84! By lucky chance, a member of my writing group had just done the same thing and she’d found a good firm, Troubador, who have been excellent and very professional. 

The book took at least 10 years from original concept to publication. It was always ‘not quite right’ for a publisher’s list. That’s why I went with self-publishing. In the first three months the book sold almost 500 copies.

What’s your next writing project? 

I’m working on a re-write of a true story about Sarah, an 11-year-old girl, who travels alone from a little town on the Polish/Russian border to New York. 

What advice do you have for other writers? 

I would say from hindsight, don’t take criticism personally. When you write something, you’re so into it, you fall in love with it. You become territorial. 

Do what I never did – grab your reader straight away. Look at a lot of books and see how they start. I sent my story to a literary critic, and when I got his critique back I wept over it. He said, ‘What is this book? A blizzard of words all over the first paragraph....This is not going to work.’ In the end I cleared the blizzard. If you know what to do at the beginning it’s going to save you a lot of heartache. 

José Patterson was one of the first members of SCBWI in the UK. She lives in Oxford, where her husband founded the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish studies. Over the years José has raised four children, worked as advisory teacher for traveller, circus and fairground children and written many articles for magazines and newsletters, as well as six books of non-fiction for children. ‘No Buts, Becky!’ is her first children’s novel.

Donna Vann is the author of eight books for children. She is currently working on an historical adventure and a book about a dog in space under her pen name, D.V. Hawkes. You can find out more about her and her books here.


  1. Thank you Jose and Donna.
    Especially interesting to read about your work with the traveller children and the mobile school.

  2. What a fascinating journey so far. Congratulations on the publication of No Buts, Becky!

  3. A fascinating story, Jose, and thanks Donna. Intriguing.

  4. Thanks, Jose - your story sounds just as interesting as your books!

  5. José, I really enjoyed meeting you and interviewing you. You're an inspiration!


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