As Lauren Child holds the first retrospective of her work at Mottisfont Abbey, Lydia Gard meets her to talk about the importance of fiction in childhood and her favourite childhood books.
Fiction is there to help us explore ideas and solve problems. I get really frustrated when I hear arguments about what children ‘should’ be reading. I think anything you read can be relevant to you, it’s what you take out of it. Fiction seems to be crucial for human beings. The wonderful thing about it is that you extract what you need to extract and read into it what you need to. It helps you digest something that’s happened or let’s your imagination run. If a child has a problem at school or home, they can feel they’re not alone.
When I write, I don’t have a moral objective. I didn’t think, ‘I should write a Charlie & Lola book about fussy eaters’, I just was a fussy eater. Those books evolved. I started with a thought or a sentence and then they would grow. The book about the new sibling has always been in me because I experienced that when I was two years old, so it’s part of my makeup. I didn’t think ‘what would be the best thing to write about?’ Or ‘what’s an important topic’, it’s just a story I have lived. Then the interesting, fun part is figuring out how I can tell it in a way that nobody else has told it. After all, every story has been told a thousand times, so what matters is putting part of yourself into it.
Making TV and writing books are worlds apart. To create a book, I work with an editor and designer principally. We work very collaboratively so you can hear each other’s voices. We all listen to one another and everyone ends up with something they are happy with.
In TV you’ve got so many people and external pressures, and someone is driving it. The deadlines are immovable but then someone will come along and say, ‘I’m sorry, I know you’ve done that episode, but Lola is not allowed to stand on a chair because it’s dangerous.’ And you argue, well, every child I’ve known in my life stands on a chair. And you’ve done all of the drawings but you’re not allowed to use it, because the chair has three legs and that isn’t safe. And you think, ‘You know these children are fictional, that they’re made of paper?” but it’s considered ‘not safe’.
So in the books Lola eats biscuits, those lovely party rings. In the show, she gets banana flakes. There’s a lot more restriction, and a ‘we know best’ tone of talking to the public. In the books there is a lot more flight of fancy and artistic freedom.
SEE ALSO: A Writer’s Books: Michael Morpurgo
If I hadn’t been a writer… I think I would have loved to have done something in film, whether it was animation or set design. I probably wouldn’t have been very good at it, you have to come up with things on time, there’s so much pressure. The scenes we created for Princess and the Pea is set design of a sort, but on a very small scale.
I can’t say what it is that makes children engage with my stories. Really I’m writing for myself and not everyone is going to enjoy or like what I do. You just have to let go of that. You’re not trying to please everyone, you’re trying to please individuals and hopefully, if I like it, I might pick up a few on the way who will also enjoy it.
Things go wrong if you think there is a formula. There is no ‘way’ of doing something, you have to write with personality. It’s mainly about just doing it. I have to go through early drafts, and they’re always very indulgent. Gradually if I have it there long enough I am more likely to be ruthless and take out what isn’t relevant to the story.
The pictures and words work together. I’m not mirroring everything I’ve said in words with the pictures. A friend who is an author says that children have very short concentration spans and so they don’t want too much description. We argue about that. I would say that everyone is different. Some children do want to read The Secret Garden for that exact reason. I know I did.
Lauren Child’s Favourite Children’s Books:
- A particular favourite from childhood was The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey. There is something both very funny and also quite menacing about it and the illustrations perfectly complement the story.
- I loved Quentin Blake’s illustrations as a child and still do, particularly for Clement Freud’s Grimble. The two Grimble books are about an unusual boy and his most unusual parents, all told with hilarious matter-of-factness. The words are complemented with beautifully observed, very funny drawings. I read these books regularly and always feel better afterwards.
- I also really like John Burningham’s picture books such as Granpa and John Patrick Norman McHennessy: The Boy Who Was Always Late. There’s something pleasantly anarchic about these books that appeals to me: I love the way they see things from the child’s perspective.
- As for more contemporary illustrators, I love anything by Sarah Fanelli, and Angela Barrett’s illustrations have been a big influence. I particularly like her illustrations for Snow White.
- The Secret Garden was the first book I read and then immediately re-read because the world it contained was so beautifully drawn and the book had such an intensity of feeling that I couldn’t leave it.
- The first book I ever bought for myself was The 18th Emergency by Betsy Byers. It’s still one of my favourites.