Thursday, 28 March 2013

Interview #17: Barbara Mitchelhill

A young mum and her little daughters were watching television together. The mum was struck with the idea that she would like to be a television presenter. It would be a nice job, she told herself.

Never mind that she had no experience. Never mind she already had a job as a school teacher. The mum decided to write to the BBC anyway. Well, why not? What did she have to lose?

Little did she know that the letter would set her on a long journey to publication as an award-winning writer. Barbara Mitchelhill is today the author of thrilling YA historical adventure novels Run Rabbit Run, The Road to London and Storm Runners as well as the Damian Drooth series for younger readers.
Best-selling author Barbara Mitchelhill

"I was naive," said Barbara, speaking to Bookengine by phone from her home in Staffordshire. This may be true. But to her great surprise, she got a call from the BBC, inviting her to go to their studios in London.

"I spent the whole day there. They were very nice. At the end of the day they asked if I had an Equity card. I said, no I didn't. Obviously I didn't. I was a teacher. They said we can't employ you.

"But instead they said 'would you like to write for us?'. I had never written anything. But I said yes, I would love to."

Barbara was soon a successful TV writer. She was writing for shows like Play School. Often she would take her daughters, Susie and Sally, to see the shows being made.

She was still working as a teacher. Her next good fortune came when an educational publisher contacted her school and asked the head if there was a teacher who might like to help write stories for their new reading scheme. Barbara was the natural choice.

Writing with such tight boundaries might seem restrictive. Yet the process of having to find new and creative ways of pushing those boundaries can be great training for authors seeking to work on the bigger canvas of a novel. Barbara Mitchelhill is not the only famous writer to hone his or her writing talent in this way. Mal Peet, author of the brilliant Paul Faustino novels, too, began by writing reading scheme books.

Barbara's multi-award winning novel
Barbara said: "It taught me to come up with ideas. You had a limited number of words.  It's fine if you have to come up with only two or three stories.

"But you had to come up with eight or nine of them. That was hard."

In time, Barbara was ready to spread her wings. She began writing novels for older children. At last she found what she really wanted to do.

"Now I write only for nine- to 13-year-olds. I don't write for educational publishers any more.

"I really enjoy writing novels with something to say. I love history. I've found this niche of writing adventure stories with a historical backdrop.

"I love doing the research and writing for children of that age.

"I write adventure stories set in a historical period. But I write about ordinary children, not about kings and queens."

Run Rabbit Run is set during the Second World War and tells the story of a brother and sister who go on the run when their father refuses to go to war to fight.

Road to London follows a theatre-obsessed young boy who finds himself in Elizabethan London in the company of William Shakespeare.

She said: "Having a book you enjoy as a story, you absorb so much. I do spend a lot of time on the research. I want them to be factually correct.

"I've just finished a book and sent it to my editor today. It's another World War Two one. You have to be so careful about dates and times."

Barbara described her writing process: "I think of an idea and write out a two-page outline for my editor. If she says yes, I start writing it. Often I find the final book is nothing like that original outline. Characters take over! When I look back at the outline, I realise it's gone a bit adrift.

"I do find that if the outline is too detailed you lose that freshness. And the writing can become a real slog if there's no excitement there.
Road to London was nominated for the Carnegie Medal

"When I was writing Road to London I had a most odd experience. An apothecary walked into the story out of nowhere. He turned out to be a key character in the book."

Barbara is drawn to certain periods of history.

"I've no idea why I'm drawn to the Second World War. With Road to London, which is about Shakespeare - I love theatre and am very interested in Shakespeare.

"I have got one coming out soon, A Twist of Fortune, which is set in Victorian London. It's so easy in this country to experience certain places. London is awash with historical settings. There are some buildings in London that were in existence 400 years ago."

It can take Barbara around nine months to write a novel, which includes all the research.

"I feel slightly empty when I finish a book," she said.

Going on tour and visiting schools to promote the book extends the time she spends with her characters. But sometimes, once she's thinking about her next book, she can forget what was in her earlier ones. She remembers a child once asking her about a character she had no recollection of whatsoever.

Barbara has been asked to write a new Damian Drooth book. This series is about a young detective and is aimed at younger readers.

"I enjoyed writing about him and found it easier to write about him because the characters were already there. It's just about working out a situation for him."

Her work is receiving the recognition it clearly deserves.

Run Rabbit Run recently won the Stockton Book Award, a Young Quills award from the Historical Association and the West Sussex Children's Book Award. It was also nominated for the Carnegie Medal.

Her new book, out in April
Meanwhile, more novels continue to appear.

A Twist of Fortune, is out next month (April 2013) and is another thrilling tale set in Victorian London. It's the story of three siblings, the Pargeters, who are forced to live with their uncle and auntie in a dangerous part of the city. When life becomes intolerable, they decide to leave and seek their long-lost grandfather.

A Twist of Fortune seems a rather apt title for Barbara. For it was her own twist of fortune - a letter to the BBC - all those years ago, that led her on this wonderful writing journey.

* My thanks to Barbara for speaking to  Bookengine. If you'd like to find out more about her and her books, visit her website, She is appearing at the Urmston Literature Festival in Greater Manchester on April 17.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Interview #16: Julia Eccleshare

WHICH current young adult authors will we still be reading in 20 years’ time?

Julia Eccleshare
Julia Eccleshare, the Guardian’s children’s books editor, is more qualified than most to make that call.

She revealed her predictions during a recent phone interview with Bookengine.

But we’ll get to that all in good time.

I’d wanted to interview Julia for some time. She’s a hugely influential figure in children’s fiction and young adult books, certainly one of the most important of recent years without actually being a fiction writer herself. (We'll get to that too, so be patient!)

As well as her Guardian duties, she’s Puffin Books’ general editor of their mighty Modern Classics list.

Pick up a copy of Stig of the Dump, say, or Carrie’s War and there she is, introducing these great books of the recent past with insightful introductions and afterwords.

She has served as a judge - and continues to do so - on many book award panels. Over the years she has been involved in the Whitbread Children's Book Award, the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and also the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. She is a co-founder of the Branford Boase Award for an outstanding novel for young people by a first-time writer.

A fabulous guide to children's and young adult fiction

She has edited many important books about children's literature. Chief among these is the essential 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.

As I intimated earlier, Julia has never written a children’s book herself. Why?

“I’ve read too many children’s books. I remember being a child but I don’t see the world as a child does,” she said.

Her first job was working as children's book editor on the Times Literary Supplement in the 1970s before working as a book editor at Puffin Books and at Hamish Hamilton children's books in the 1980s. Eventually she moved into freelance book reviewing.

I asked Julia what drew her to children's literature in the first place and she replied in an instant: Rosemary Sutcliff.

"I read history at university and I absolutely loved her books. I also liked authors like Philippa Pearce and books like Emil and the Detectives.

"I absolutely loved the sense of escapism books gave me. That feeling of wonder, of realising you could find out what someone else is thinking.

"I am not someone who read for plot as a child. I was never as concerned about what happened next in the story. I always read for feeling, for the emotional response a book caused in me."

I asked Julia about her thoughts on the importance of reading to children and young people, particularly for today's youngsters who have so many more ways to spend their time, so many more distractions than previous generations had.

She said: "I'm not sure that it's reading, actually, that's important. I think it's stories. Two of my children are dyslexic so reading is difficult. I like books myself, the book is a good form, it works very well. But I don't think it matters if you get these stories through another medium, such as audio books.

"So rather than get hung up on books, it's the stories that are important.

"Stories should be fun, they should be exciting and funny. They're about disinhabiting yourself and inhabiting another character."

Julia said she was annoyed by what she calls 'lookalike' fiction, such as the overwhelming number of books about vampires inspired by the success of Twilight.

"It's driving out originality. I'm not against it, but I've had enough of it. Publishing is a curious business, it's got to make money, but it's not prepared to take risks. And without that it's difficult for originality to come through.

"Yet I think it is original voices that people want.

"And for writers today getting published isn't difficult, it's staying published. People aren't given time to build a reputation."

She says authors like Jacqueline Wilson (whom Julia first published in the 70s) and Philip Pullman were published for 10 years before they became major successes.

I asked Julia what she thought about the popularity of self-publishing among first-time authors thanks to the advent of e-readers. Was this a route she would recommend for the serious writer who was finding it difficult to get published on the conventional agent-publisher path?

"I don't know enough about it. It's a very speculative question.

"I believe in the democratisation of all these things, but at the same time I do feel very strongly that books need to be edited."

From the days of Robert Cormier and S E Hinton through to today's leading writers such as Anthony McGowan and Melvin Burgess, young adult fiction has always ventured into dark and disturbing areas. Was there any subject matter Julia believed was unsuitable?

"Violence is off-limits. I read a book this morning and it starts with 60 pages of a child being beaten up. That angered me.

"There is nothing wrong with death in children's books, but it has to be handled in an emotionally sophisticated way."

I asked her what made a book worthy of Puffin's Modern Classics list? How did you define a classic?

She replied: "I guess it's books that have long-lasting values. You look at something like Charlotte's Web and you can feel it."

And what are the classics of the future? Which contemporary authors will we still be reading?

She believes it's irrelevant how much a publisher pushes an author or how many copies a book sells. That's no guarantee of longevity.

"It's very often the quiet books that last," she said.

So, if she had to stick her neck out, who did she believe was headed for classic status?

Patrick Ness's Carnegie winner is likely to last, says Julia
She cited Patrick Ness, particularly The Knife of Never Letting Go and the recent Carnegie Medal-winner A Monster Calls.

Although she's not a fan of fantasy, Julia earmarked Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series as one that would last.

"Geraldine McCaughrean should still be read. She's an exceptionally talented writer - she writes a different book every time. I also think How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff will still be read 20 years from now.

"But, you know, not all authors write good books all the time. Philippa Pearce, for example. Not all of her books are good."

So, there you have it. If you have first editions of anything by Patrick Ness, Philip Reeve, Geraldine McCaughrean or Meg Rosoff, it's probably wise to take very good care of them. Chances are they will be worth something in the years ahead.

• Many thanks to Julia for sparing an hour on a Sunday morning to speak to Bookengine.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Interview #15: Rachel Lyon

Rachel Lyon with her book outside the Childe of Hale's cottage, near Runcorn

A remarkable thing happened to Rachel Lyon when she was a little girl.

Remarkable because it was a kind, generous and selfless act by someone who had been moved by her writing and had such faith - even at that young age - in her talents as a writer.

Now she is a published author, Rachel intends to say thank you to that person by giving him a signed copy of her brilliant debut picture book The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale.

Rachel's charming debut, The Childe of Hale

I'll let Rachel take up the story: "I have always wanted to write. From when I was very small, I used to write poetry. I got a typewriter for Christmas when I was nine or ten and I used to write my poetry on that.

"When I had a bundle of poems, my family showed them to a neighbour. He asked if he could show them to his wife. For two weeks we didn't hear a thing. And then he turned up and we discovered he'd paid for them to be printed and bound.

"He'd called the book No Thorns On This Berry. Berry was my maiden name. And he'd written a lovely preface, saying I was only ten years old."

It seems Rachel has been blessed by mentors in her life who kept the flame of her writing ambition flickering, as she explained as we chatted in the coffee shop at the end of the road where she lives in St Helens.

"In primary school, if they had a writing competition, teachers used to say to me, it's something you are good at, you've got a good imagination. I won a few prizes and got a lot of encouragement."

She continued to write throughout her years at high school and at Leeds University, where she studied communication and English. The notebooks of ideas for stories and poems piled up.

After graduating, she worked in London for a while before returning to St Helens, where she struck out on her own as a freelance copywriter.

Vanina Starkoff's beautifully striking illustrations accompany Rachel's words

Her passion for telling stories had not waned in all this time. She decided to sign up for a creative writing course at St Helens College. Little did she know how her fortunes were about to change. She discovered the course's tutor had written a musical about the Childe of Hale, a true story of a 16th century giant, John Middleton, from a village near Runcorn.

Contemporary accounts put Middleton's height at nine feet three inches (2.81 metres) which would mean he was taller than Robert Wadlow, the Guinness Book of Records' tallest man.

Middleton is reputed to have met the King in London, and defeated the monarch's wrestling champion. For his troubles he was presented with £20, which was stolen by thieves on the journey back to Hale.

It was a story Rachel was vaguely familiar with. But as she researched Middleton further, she realised nobody had ever written a children's book about him. When she read about Middleton having to sleep with his feet dangling out of his cottage window, she realised she had to write his story.

"I thought, children would love that. I thought, why has nobody ever written that as a story for children?"

So she sat down one day and began writing, in rhyming verse. "The words just flowed. I finished most of it that day and the next day I polished it and took out any awkward rhymes."

The grave of John Middleton, the Childe of Hale
She felt a change in her writing with The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale.

"As soon as I had written it, I knew that it was what I had been trying to do for all those years."

After friends encouraged her to try to get it published, Rachel sent it out into the world. After some interest from a small Liverpool publisher, the story was snapped up by Maverick and its charismatic boss, Steve Bicknell.

"I liked Maverick because they published Mrs MacCready Was Ever So Greedy and the Fearsome Beastie."

As Steve told Bookengine last year, there is a timeless quality to Rachel's The Childe of Hale. In a bid to reflect that quality, Vanina Starkoff was hired to illustrate the book.

Steve told Bookengine: "It's going to be absolutely amazing. We want to give it an interesting old look without falling into cliches."

And they certainly have. The book was published in January, and Rachel attended a launch party in Covent Garden, where she met other authors from the Maverick stable, including Giles Paley-Phillips and Julie Fulton.

I suggested to Rachel that she might have struck gold with her first book by finding a particular niche - historical true stories told in verse. She agreed. Perhaps sensing a classic book in the making, the National Trust is stocking the book at Speke Hall, where a portrait of John Middleton hangs, while the Childe of Hale's cottage may soon stock the book when it opens as a holiday cottage.

Vanina Starkoff consulted pictures of Hale village for her illustrations

Rachel has written other stories since, including a convention-busting version of George and the Dragon (Georgie and the Dragon where the damsel in distress saves herself). But she has been scouting around for another slice of history that she can turn into her rhyming magic. And she thinks she might just have found what she's looking for.

A school teacher who read The Childe of Hale suggested Rachel should turn her talents to Queen Ethelfleda. Not heard of her? No, neither had Rachel.

But seemingly she was a warrior queen, not unlike Boadicea. The foundations of her ninth century castle were found by workmen constructing the Runcorn-Widnes railway bridge across the Mersey. (I used to be the editor of the local newspaper in Runcorn and Widnes and I'd never heard of her, but apparently the bridge has a plaque bearing her emblem.)

Rachel is researching the story but she has not yet talked with Maverick about a follow-up book. That, however, will have to wait. Rachel has a rather more pressing matter to contend with... she's heavily pregnant with her first child.
* My thanks to Rachel for speaking to me. Her website is here,
Maverick Books are here,