are now said to be living in a golden age of children’s
literature, do you think opportunities for writers have increased
or diminished since the first publication of “The Summerhouse
So hard to answer! There's no doubt that when publishers didn't
think of children's books as such possible moneyspinners as they
do now, a good book could be recognised as such very quickly because
it was out there on a level playing field.
Now there's big promotion money swilling about, so many of
the novels pushed really hard are 'high concept', or in a series,
or some other attraction that has nothing to do with their quality
as good reads. That's very worrying. On the other hand, I am
entirely confident that if an author
- even an unknown - writes a truly splendid book, they'll still
find a publisher.
As for the 'golden age', I wouldn't think so. So many lovely
books, made to look so attractive and accessible. The readers
are lucky there. But look more closely and you see that, among
the very few shining names, we have a slew of fads, and most
of the stuff will slide out of print and be no very great loss.
My worry is exactly the same as it was thirty years ago - that
good books can get lost in tides of over-publishing and that
even a passionate fast reader could devour books all year and
still, by the law of averages, miss most of the stuff on the
shelf that's really worth reading.
Authors who claim this is a golden age are being a little arrogant,
I think. It will be most interesting to see how much of the stuff
that is published is entirely forgotten in a decade or two. If
you look at the business with a long view, I don't see any truly
new challenges facing the field. There will always be people
who feel inclined to pick up the pen and write. "This is
the story I want to share with the world." That'll never
change. As Raymond Carver says, there have to be easier ways
to make a living. So what drives most of us is that books almost
mean more to us than real living. And though each of us secretly
thinks that we know which books will last, so many people have
been so wrong before. I wouldn't bet on these things.
re-issue by Random House of a number of your previous novels
has afforded you opportunity to revise these works. What changes
did you feel needed to be made and on what basis were alterations
I've often dipped in on reprints to change amounts
of money, or bring the television programmes my characters are
watching up to date. But this time, because the books were being
reset so radically to make them so much more attractive and accessible,
I thought I'd go through them more thoroughly.
Obviously I wanted to keep the essence of each book intact. And
since children's emotional make-up doesn't change over the years,
that wasn't hard. But childhood changes a lot, and so does the
world around my readers. So, just to take two small examples,
the notion of midwives on bicycles is simply silly now and gives
the reader a message I don't want to give - that this is some
Enid Blyton wonderland Ione lives in. So I gave the midwife a
And a lot has happened since The Granny Project was
written. Russia is totally changed. I made a lot of adjustments
to keep Natasha's sense of her background but no longer pinning
it down as her own private history.
Another example of a change I was happy to make was that,
in the original book, Granny is of the generation that saw
the very first immigrants off the Windrush, and she quite amiably
says a few things about the appearance of George and Lavinia,
the children's friends from next door. She means them kindly,
and even in that version of the book the father Henry loudly
disapproves of what she says. But for a Granny even to say
these things, however well-meant, now, would imply something
very different about both her as
a woman and about the family in which she lives - a message
I never wanted to send. So out the whole lot went.
People do argue about whether it's 'right' to change books
later (though I take the view that anyone who is truly interested
can track down the original version - even take a great interest
in looking at what's changed and why). And children read classics
happily through historical spectacles. But my books are still
set firmly in the here and now, so I took the chance to remove
unnecessary barriers (and, on occasions, tidy up my own style).
The test case novel, of course, would be Goggle-Eyes.
Would that book work if it weren't firmly based on the experiences
of the great CND demonstrations? Probably not, in which case
I'd leave it firmly alone.
an obvious ear for the colourful language and phrases people
use to illustrate their lives. Idioms in particular play
an integral role both in your children's and adult books,
most obviously perhaps in “Genie Genie Genie”.
Is there a deliberate manoeuvre in your writing to keep folk-loric
Language with a bit of pizzazz lights my life. The
sheer aptness of the imagery is striking. It's like watching
acrobats land perfectly on the double bars. 'The last gown
I'll be modelling won't have any pockets.' 'Love is not a potato.
You cannot simply throw it out of the window.'
The proverbs in Genie, Genie, Genie are real Persian proverbs.
Once, in the Edinburgh Library, I found a wonderful old book
that had gathered so many together. They so conjured the
atmosphere of the time and the place and it was a joy to
use them, if only to remind children that though, for so
many years few people had a formal education, they had the
richest way of looking at the world, and the deep communal
wisdom of experience still informed their lives.
through the justifiably angry-humour of “Bill’s
New Frock” or the warmth and compassion that belies “The
Tulip Touch”, one of your darkest novels, there is
a pointedly-sharp awareness of the politicised nature of
childhood. This has challenged both readers and critics,
epitomised most recently in critic Amanda Craig’s
review of “The Road of Bones” in The Times.
Do you feel that politics and the politicised nature of
childhood are considered taboo within the children’s
literature field? What motivates you to write-against the
prelapsarian enclaves that have perhaps most familiarly
been associated with children’s literature?
To be honest, Amanda Craig's response to The Road of Bones somewhat surprised me. I take the charitable view that it might
have got a bit mashed in the editing. I don't quite see, for
example, how a character can 'lack sufficient plot'. And the
claim that begins her article 'One of the reasons why classic
children's fiction is so enjoyable is that it is supposed to
offer us an escape from reality' scarcely bears a moment's
Children's fiction has always dealt with real lives, real
problems, real emotions. I don't feel I need to justify myself
on any of those counts. I grant that The Road of Bones, like
The Tulip Touch, is a dark book with a disturbing ending.
But as Marina Warner once pointed out in a Reith lecture,
children aren't wrapped in tissue paper and kept safely protected
up on the shelf. They live in the real world with the rest
I suspect some adults who recoil from a book like The
Road of Bones simply can't bear to look at the world around us
and see it for what it can be. There's more than one reason
why some adults are happier with books written for children!
Doubtfire” and “Charm School” brilliantly
subvert associated gender roles and stereotypes. Do you
feel there is a capacity or indeed, a moral imperative
for fiction to drive socio-political change?
The feminist revolution happened when I was a very young
woman. I thought it was a tremendous opening up for women's
lives. I've lived what you might call a feminist life and been
tremendously happy and unfrustrated. I've lived with two men
for years on end, both of whom have been perfectly comfortable
with sides of themselves, and skills and interests, that in
narrower times might have been thought of as more usual for
women. So to me, for men to cook, and want to be close to their
children, is nothing exceptional.
Yes, I suppose I do tend to do what I can in the books
to offer a wider picture of maleness. (Most of my male characters
can, for example, put a regular meal on the table with absolutely
no fuss.) And I do think that readers benefit. An author
can offer the template of a partner the reading child might
unconsciously come to realise they would want to live with,
or to be. That's one of the main ways in which reading fiction
can vicariously expand the child's experience.
I think of Charm School as 'Germaine Greer for Juniors'.
I suddenly realised that the horror of what is called 'Post
modern feminism' was simply lipstick and being looked at
by another name. So I suppose that is a didactic piece of
work. Its main aim is to illuminate to young readers the
cunning way in which girls and women are duped, often for
financial reasons, into thinking all these things like fashion
and looks are important and will make them happier.
it be Tilly looking out over the cliff-top in your latest
novel for adults, “Raking the Ashes”, or the
hapless Simon pulling the skin on the back of his hand
up into a tent and watching as it falls effortless back
into shape in “Flour Babies”,
there are pivotal moments of epiphany for characters in
your books. How central do you see these as being to the
novel and is it fair to say that these unlock the personalities
and traits of your characters?
When I was at primary school, we were left alone to write
our stories, and always given a double lesson. I learned
to arch the story so that it opened out, reached a climax,
and then folded itself neatly away at the end. I think, now
I'm older, I keep to that discipline - the arching structure
of a novel, but I also like to do that with the characters'
understanding of themselves. So there are often moments in
the book where everything that has been gathering reaches
a sort of climax, the book changes gear, and everything goes
off - seemingly inevitably, I hope - in another direction.
Personally, I dislike 'untidy' novels. As Philip Larkin once
said, 'You write the book that you would most like to read,
but no one has bothered to write for you.' I'm simply doing
what point and how do you determine whether the ideas for
your writing would best be suited to the adult or the children’s
form? What distinctions do you see between the two? How
much are these driven by notions of suitability and how
much by publisher/seller marketing?
Along with the idea for the book always comes the firm view
of the age group who would enjoy reading about the subject
most. Sometimes it's to do with the topic. Sometimes to do
with the way I want to deal with it. If you compare Taking
the Devil's Advice (for adults) with Madame Doubtfire (for
children) you'll find the same topic and situation dealt with
in two very different ways.
Writing for children is different. I use the old journalist's
dictum: Never underestimate the reader's intelligence and never
overestimate their knowlege. Adults know more about the world.
In the one case, as Jill Paton Walsh once pointed out, you're
telling people about something they may not yet have experienced.
With adults, you're discussing something with people who may
well already have embarked on this journey. So you cut at a
different depth and you shine your light on it slightly differently.
I can't think of a topic that couldn't be suitable for
children if dealt with in exactly the right way. After all,
many writers even manage to write about sex and drugs and
violence in a way that seems entirely accessible and acceptable
to young people.
I never bear publishers or marketing in mind. One of the
great virtues of this profession is that one is self-employed.
You'd have to be mad to curtail yourself for people who don't
even employ you. And I write for professional satisfaction
rather than for bigger sales.
their function and dysfunction are central to all of your
writing. Despite having successfully and fiercely protected
your family from an often intrusive media, how much has
your family influenced your work? How much pressure of
media intrusion has there been in your life?
I deal with patches of life that I am going through.
It helps me think about them and put things in proportion.
I also put bits of people I know, including my family, into
the books quite a bit. A finger here. A leg there. But I take
the trouble to disguise them for the sake of their privacy.
(Put your friends and family in any book too openly and they
won't stay your friends and family very long!) Also, mercifully,
the minute you've pinned one particular aspect of them down
on the page, that character wriggles and changes as if alive,
and often ends up barely recognisable. (Phew!)
As Jan Mark said, we don't so much write about people we know, as write what
we know about people.
Some of the press can act like ferrets. I try to meet them only in public places.
I so wanted my children to grow up protected. It's so much easier to get publicity
if you're prepared to use your family as the 'peg' for it. But what a horror
- to have someone else's view of yourself - your parent's or the journalist's
- pinned like a butterfly on the page for ever. People need privacy to grow,
and to be relaxed. So I never, ever let the journalists meet them. I used to
let journalists know I had two daughters, and their ages and names - no more
than that. I didn't even admit to journalists that I had stepchildren until they
were well into their twenties and safely away from all that. There's obviously
been a massive marketing loss there. But to me it was a price well worth paying.
I am astonished at the detail some authors and journalists are prepared to put
about their families into the public domain.
your time as children’s laureate you were incredibly
pro-active in devising schemes to promote book and reading.
One of these was the Home Library. Whilst a lot of people
will have been aware of the scheme, many may not know about
its achievements. Can you tell us about its success please?
Oh, that's worked out so well. As you know, I managed to persuade over two
hundred artists and cartoonists to design us a modern bookplate that could be
freely downloaded by anyone and used to stick in the front of any book, especially
second-hand books, to cover the name of the last person who owned it and make
that book 'new to them'.
It's been a rollicking success. It's still growing. All
people do is go to www.myhomelibrary.org and decide which
of the bookplates they like. They double click on the thumbnail
to bring whatever it is up full size, and then press print.
Out it comes. A brand new bookplate. I do them on paper
and use glue, but I've been in schools so awash with money
they print them out on Avery full-size labels, and that's
even more impressive. Some are in colour, some in black
and white, though these can be printed out on any colour
and it's extraordinary how even a black and white plate
can look so very different printed on grey, or pink.
We have takers from all over the world, and many educational
systems abroad are linked to us. I have this vision of so
many children stuffing their bookshelves with cheapy books
from Oxfam, or jumble sales, or wherever. They all become
part of that child's 'Home Library' and enrich their lives.
The idea began because so many children seemed to be finding
it difficult to get to their libraries as often as they wanted.
It seemed more important than ever for them to have books
in the home, and now that everyone sends so many fine books
up to charity shops each time they redecorate, pure gems
are there for the taking. Lots of children haunt bookshops
for perfect picture books, shove in a bookplate and give
them as presents to their younger brothers and sisters.
I don't know what it is with me and bookplates. I have
adored them ever since, when I was eight, we moved to an
old house with an abandoned trunk in the cellar. In there
was a heap of mildewed books - each with a personal bookplate
for Viscount Molesworth. Boy, was I jealous of him! (Though
I will tell you that, since then, a young descendent of his
has taken a very real interest in our brand new bookplates.)
I know why I did it. I'm a library child. But we could
walk there safely any time of day or evening. And times are
different now. It's miserable to be stuck in a house with
'nothing to read'. The Home Library really began in just
the same way as most of the writing. I thought to myself,
'If I was a child now.....' And The Home Library just sprang
© 2006 Jacob Hope