Adam says he wasn’t given a particular reason why Waterstones picked Boy Underwater for their Children’s Book of the Month, but believes it’s the combination of the central character’s massive journey, the serious themes in the book but the humour of the delivery that have made it stand out.”It’s a really emotional story and it takes the character on a massive journey from being a normal little boy to uncovering his family secret but I think I’ve managed to make it funny as well.”If you were to say ‘what is the book about?’ it doesn’t really sound like a children’s novel – there’s quite serious themes. But I’ve tried to make the book a very safe place for children to go to those difficult issues knowing I will look after them as a narrator and writer but combined with that are the humorous element of Cymbeline’s voice.”The swimming is very important. And what he has to uncover about swimming, particularly why his mum has never taken him swimming, is the tip of the iceberg of all the secrets that his family has.”I think the central theme of the book is that if you bury secrets they will always, always, always come back to you. You can’t keep the past down and really neither should you.”
A lot of writers peak early, and not many are still flourishing in their 80s. Lively’s productivity has been so steady and reliable that she is sometimes taken a little for granted. In this country she is not nearly as well-known as she ought to be, and even in her own — although she has won both the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature, the equivalent of our Newbery award — she is not as big a name as, say, her contemporaries Margaret Drabble or A. S. Byatt. She has a fervent following and regularly sells out at literary festivals, but has remained just on the edge of the radar.
Books written by the author in her London home. Credit Photographs: Left, Tom Jamieson for The New York Times; right, New York Review Books
Lively’s prose is sharp, precise, perfectly pitched, but shrinks from flashiness in a way that has sometimes been mistaken for cozy or middlebrow. The novel that put her on the map, the 1987 Booker-winning “Moon Tiger,” formally quite daring, was even criticized for being a “housewife’s” book. Lively writes mainly about the English middle class, and for a while, anyway — when much of the energy in British fiction was coming from writers born outside of England like Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and Kazuo Ishiguro — this made her seem stodgy and old-fashioned to some. She has also overlapped with a younger generation of male writers — Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — who grabbed so much attention it was sometimes hard for a female novelist to get a word in edgewise, especially one whose personal life, like hers, was sedate and headline-resistant: no scandals, no feuds, just one marriage. Her only vice, aside from a glass or two of wine in the evening, is that peculiarly English addiction, gardening. A little terrace at the back of the house is crammed with rosebushes, pots and pots of tulips, and an abundance of plants and bushes whose names most people have never heard of.
By now, though, her body of work proves that certain themes never go out of fashion: One of her great subjects turns out to be the way the English middle class, always insecure, is always reinventing itself. Lively, reinventing a life of her own, didn’t begin writing until she was in her late 30s. She was married — to Jack Lively, a political theorist she met at Oxford — and had two children, and was casting about for something to do. “I’m one of those people for whom reading became writing,” she said. “Because of my odd childhood, I’ve always been an obsessive, avid reader, and that went on and on and on. Not every obsessive reader feels the need to turn into a writer, but a few do, and I’ve never met any writer worth his salt who wasn’t an obsessive reader.” Her early reading was mostly indiscriminate, she added, but by the time she was in her 20s she began paying attention to writers like Henry Green, Elizabeth Bowen and William Golding, who displayed a particular precision and elegance of language.
She started writing children’s books — her first, “Astercote,” was published in 1970. The best of them, the Carnegie-winning “The Ghost of Thomas Kempe” (1973), is in some ways a grown-up book in disguise: The ghost is really a metaphor for the persistence of the past, the way some things never vanish, or else the way the past shapes the future, which has become Lively’s signature theme.
There is no shortage of Jacqueline Wilson profiles, but this is a good feature:
“We lived in a very small flat, I’m an only child so it was just my parents and me. I remember I locked myself in the loo, and was having some long involved imaginary game.
“I heard giggling outside, I opened the door and there were both my parents, listening, absolutely spluttering with laughter because I’d been muttering in different voices. I felt so humiliated and embarrassed. That was very clever because it taught me to play it in my head.
“Afterwards I’d be sitting there, looking gormless but actually playing the game inside my head. And in a way, that is what a writer does. Certainly by the time I was six, I knew very much that I wanted to be a writer,” says the 71-year-old who was raised in Bath, Somerset.
She has been creating stories ever since, becoming one of the most-read in children’s literature. Her books, often dealing in subjects like adoption, illness or family strife, are passed on by generations because they feel real.
feature profile of Chris Riddell in Times Saturday Review by Alex O’Connell
Riddell, 54, has become one of the most successful and sought-after children’s book illustrators of his generation, as well as an accomplished children’s writer and The Observer’s spiky political cartoonist. His two series for 7 to 11-year-olds — the Ottoline and Goth Girl books, in which he creates words and pictures — are immensely popular and it’s impossible to walk into even the smallest bookshop and not find at least ten examples of his work on the shelves.
“I only ever write to give myself something to illustrate,” he says, speaking on the phone from his studio in Norfolk, his working retreat from his main home in Brighton, where he lives with his wife, the printmaker Jo Burroughes. “It sounds facetious but it’s true. I love words, I am a reader and the reading will sometimes inspire me to draw something. When I read on my own I have to collaborate with myself.”
For those new to Pichon’s work, the Tom Gates series is a British publishing sensation. Having started life in 2011 with The Brilliant World of Tom Gates, there are now 10 books charting the life and times of Tom, an endearing but chaotic young boy (aged about 10), his mother and father, sister Delia and best friend Marcus. In five years, the books have sold more than four million copies worldwide, and been translated into 42 languages.
In the same satirical realist comedy fiction genre as the monumentally popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise, the Tom Gates books are not just guaranteed to enthrall a young reader on a summer holiday afternoon. They are also perfect for children who need a bit more encouragement than average – whether that might be due to a diagnosed condition such as dyslexia, or because they just can’t sit still.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like books. I loved them. I just took longer to read than anyone else
Really excellent profile feature about Kes Gray from the East Anglian Daily Times:
“We’d been cycling in heavy rain for about three hours and went down a little country lane,” he explains. “The guy in front of me said ‘We’re going to turn right’ and that’s all I remember. I don’t remember anything else, apart from waking up on the road.
“I’d braked and my wheels went sideways from underneath me. It happened so fast I didn’t even know it happened, and had no time to brace myself for the fall.” And still doesn’t know the exact reasons why. “I broke my pelvis in three places. I broke my ribs. I broke my collarbone. I hit the back of my head.
“I ended up in hospital in Kent for three weeks – on morphine in the early days, in a wheelchair for nine weeks I think it was; then crutches.
“The surgeon told me that if I hadn’t had a helmet on, I probably would have died. I hit my head so hard I broke the back of the helmet.”
Good profile of Frances Hardinge:
I meet Frances in Dublin, a city she is visiting for the first time, as part of the International Literature Festival. She is wearing her trademark, broad-brimmed hat.
There is something of the foppish hippy about her, but her beautiful manners, upright posture, and her accent seem Victorian. She is softly spoken, but impeccably articulate. She is a person of conviction.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an author,” she says. “I know I was producing some full-length work, short, full-length work, when I was thirteen, hand-written, never showed it to anybody. Just as well, because it’s not very good.”
Thankfully, neither was her critical eye and she remained doggedly determined to write, either “until published or until [she] dropped dead”. At sixteen, she began sending stories to publishers. Mostly, she would hear nothing back, but, “on occasion, there would be some feedback”.
“I remember one, in particular, which went along the lines of ‘we loved your story, we just didn’t know what it was about’,” says Frances.
A recommended autobiographical feature:
You have to be slightly obsessive to be a successful writer. I nearly always write first thing when I get up, and will even get up half an hour earlier on Christmas Day to get something down. I have rare moments of inspiration where I know what I’m going to write next, but mostly I just plod along and twist the words around until something works.
Ideally, I like to write 1,000 words per day. When you do that, you can get two books a year done, easily. I was only going to write 100 books, but I don’t want to stop now so I will probably keep writing forever.
I don’t write about teenage girls now because I don’t know how to get the tone right. Social media and the pressure on girls to do things like sending topless photos is really worrying. Normally I get into the characters’ heads, but if I was to do that with a 15-year-old girl, the adult in me would want to interfere. I wouldn’t want to write a preachy book.
Success was a complete surprise, but now I’m very competitive and want my books to do well. It’s the children’s response that means the most. I get a special kick when the kid who ‘hates reading because it’s boring’ loves the books. The latest book is about a child who doesn’t get the opportunity to be a bridesmaid, so she puts an ad up in the newsagent for people to hire her and gets to go to several different weddings.
I’ve learned not to worry so much. My marriage broke up and I had a few health problems, but I just got on with it. The other things I obsessed about mostly didn’t happen, so it was such a waste of time worrying.
Besides the silly (sub-editor) headline – “Tiers before bedtime” – this is a marvellously full profile of the author of Goodnight Mister Tom:
The children’s bestseller Goodnight Mister Tom is a tale of love, rebirth and friendship. As it begins a new West End run 34 years after it was published, its author, Michelle Magorian, tells Amanda Craig how disturbing elements of the novel are buried in her own past
full piece behind the paywall: Tiers before bedtime | The Sunday Times.
Ness dismisses any snobbery about YA fiction. “Writing for teenagers requires no less effort or emotional investment than any other writing. The same practical work is involved. And writing for teenagers actually has huge benefits. They are totally open-minded readers, and that allows you to take risks as a writer that you might not get away with otherwise.” They are more than happy to accept his genre-bending thrillers and his celebration of difference.