Judi Curtin is one of Ireland’s best loved children’s authors. She writes warm, cheerful, contemporary stories about girls, families, friendships. She has fans across the world and her books, including the Alice and Megan series, are bestsellers. Though hers are exactly the kind of books that give young readers hours of pleasure, they’re not necessarily the ones that get the most reviews or feature coverage. We spoke to her on publication of Viva Alice, the eighth book in the Alice and Megan series, and in her tenth year of writing for children.
Judi is an easy person to interview: she’s very friendly and chatty, talking away at top speed with the same Irish accent that you can hear so clearly in her characters’ voices. In fact, though her parents were Irish, she was born in England and lived there until she was eight when the family moved to Cork. The family moved around quite a bit in Cork, not a happy experience for a young child, and one reflected in the plot of her first book Alice Next Door in which Megan’s best friend Alice moves away from her friend. Judi says, ’It was only joining up the dots later, I realised why I wrote that particular book!’
She lived the rest of her young years in Cork, and went to college there. She was a classic bookworm as a child, always with a book in her hand and, like so many, Enid Blyton was a particular favourite. She used to write too, ‘little poems and stories. I always wanted to be a writer. But at school it didn’t seem like a real job when I got to 18. It just didn’t feel right to be saying “I’m going to be a writer.” I certainly didn’t know any writers.’ Instead she trained as a teacher and ‘buried that inclination.’
The impetus to write finally came about twenty years later. ‘I know it sounds really corny,’ Judi says, ‘but it got to be the Millennium. I started checking out what I had done and what I had still not done in my life and just thought, “Why am I not doing this?” I came up with an idea and took it from there.’
That book was for adults and it wasn’t until she’d written another two successful novels for adults that she decided to write a children’s book. ‘I was working on my fourth novel and my children started asking me over and over to write one for them. I was so much in the world of books I decided I would – kind of like a present for my children – but then it did well and I got into the characters. Alice Next Door was supposed to be a stand alone, but things just went from there.’
She’s very happy in the genre she found herself in, and loves writing for children. Two other series have followed Alice and Megan, the Eva stories, and Friends Forever. But she’ll always have a special affection for Alice and Megan. ‘Alice and Megan were my first child characters, so they are particularly close to me. Though you’re not writing about your own childhood, you are writing about your experiences, the people you were or would have liked to have been. Megan, the quieter girl is more like me, like the child I was – a bit timid, thinking things through, maybe over thinking things. Alice is the kind of girl I would have like to be, who just dives in and thinks things will be fine. I wasn’t that kind of girl unfortunately!’
The depiction of the relationship between the two girls is one of the outstanding features of the books. Their friendship rings absolutely true and, like the books’ author, readers will see lots of themselves in the characters. ‘I suppose everyone likes to read about friends, and people would like to have the perfect friend, the one who is always there for you.’ says Judi, ‘The girls are different in very many ways, but they have the perfect friendship. They can look out for each other, and complement one another.’
Not surprisingly, Judi has frequently been described as ‘the Irish Jacqueline Wilson’. How does she feel about that? ‘I have no complaints! Jacqueline Wilson is a great writer. I met her once and she’s a really charming lady. To be honest, I don’t read her books now – my children had them in the house when they were younger – but because of the comparisons that have been made, I’m afraid of accidentally echoing one of her stories, there’s only so many stories out there.’
There’s a four year gap between Viva Alice and the seventh book in the Alice and Megan series. What was it like writing about the girls again after such a long gap? ‘It was lovely. I’d left such a gap I had to go back to the beginning and read all the previous books. I spent a lovely week last winter sitting down reading all the books. They were far enough away from me that I could almost enjoy them impartially. There were little things where I thought I’d change that now, but then there were other lovely things where I thought “Oh I like the way that happens, and the way that little relationship develops”.’
In between there have been two other series. Friends Together are time slip adventures, with stories set in both ancient Rome and during World War II. ‘The idea came on me while I was in the library with my daughter,’ says Judi, ‘I picked up a book on the Titanic (the setting for the first book) and suddenly thought I would love to write about that. I like writing about contemporary girls though, and didn’t want to have to write from the point of view of a girl in the early 1900s, so the only way was to send Lauren, the central character, time-travelling.’
The Eva series was prompted by the problems in the Irish economy. Judi explains, ‘My own children were very much brought up in what we call the Celtic Tiger. There was an awful lot of excess and children had huge expectations about all the material things they could have. Then the recession started. I thought about children who’d been brought up with everything and then their whole family finances collapsed. What were those children going to do? So I started writing about Eva, who’s a very spoilt girl in the beginning and then her family lose all their money.’ She describes the reactions of children to the Eva books, ‘Children can be very wise sometimes. They’ve said to me, “She was very spoiled wasn’t she?”, weighing up whether she is happy – or even happier – when she stops relying on super duper parties, money, cars and holidays.
We finish our conversation talking about ‘popular fiction’ for children, so easy to read, so hard to write, and the values that are put on that kind of writing. Judi talks about her childhood favourite, Enid Blyton, ‘I have a big issue with Enid Blyton, people dismiss her writing all the time, but she inspired so many people to read – including me. When I’m speaking and there are parents there and I mention Enid Blyton, all their eyes light up, and children still read her today. People forget that children are actually discerning and if they like a book, it’s for a reason.’
‘There are strange values we put on books – I’ve fallen into it myself sometimes. I remember taking my daughter to the library one time, and for some reason she had to stay in the car. She said, “Mum, pick some you’d like for me and some I’d like for myself” – we forget that children really should be given the choice to read and say what they like.’
Judi took a break from writing over this summer, and has been ‘saving up’ her next project to write during the autumn, after her youngest child leaves home for university. She hadn’t decided when we spoke what that book would be, but it will undoubtedly be another story of contemporary girls, with friendship at its heart: a treat for young readers.
Alice Next Door The O’Brien Press, 978-0862788988, £6.99
Viva Alice The O’Brien Press, 978-1847176653, £6.99
Friends Forever: The Time Spell Puffin, 978-0141335025, £5.99
Eva’s Journey The O’Brien Press, 978-1847172242 £6.99