Bestselling author Kaye Umansky talks about her new book Witch for a Week.
Tell us a bit about Witch for a Week and where the idea came from.
When I was a kid, I always longed for something magical to happen. Witch for a Week is about Elsie Pickles, a very ordinary girl, who helps out in her dad’s shop. Life is pretty dull for Elsie until the day the Red Witch blows into town and makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Elsie is hired to house sit a mysterious tower in Crookfinger Forest, where she gets the chance to dabble with magic – and to her surprise, finds that she’s got the knack for it!
Do you have a favourite scene or character?
I am rather fond of Corbett, the grumpy raven who ‘comes with the tower’. I love talking birds, and Corbett has plenty to say for himself. He has a thing about pigeons, who he considers beneath contempt.
What do you think it is about witches that so fascinates young readers? What makes them such fun for you to write about?
Witches are wild and unconventional. They don’t obey the rules. They don’t care what people think – just go their own way and do their own thing. That makes them fun characters to write about.
What were the books that made you laugh the most as a child, or still do?
I absolutely loved the Just William books, by Richmal Crompton. I still re-read them. They were written a long time ago – before the age of computers and televisions – and life has changed a lot for children, but they are still hilarious. I also adored the Molesworth books, with wonderful drawings, written in badly spelled English.
There are new editions of the Pongwiffy books too, three decades after their first appearance. How do you feel about the books and did you have to change anything in the new editions for 21st century readers?
I am so excited that Pongwiffy is rising again! Most Pongwiffy fans are now in their twenties and thirties, so it’s great that a whole new generation will have the chance to read about her. I haven’t changed a thing in the text, but there are brand new illustrations by Katy Riddell.
Your books are always full of sideways looks at contemporary society and even social comment. Is this something you are particularly keen to include, or is it just a rich source of humour?
I don’t start out with the idea of being a social commentator, but things like friendship, loyalty, human failings, bad behaviour and so on, are part of life and inevitably end up in my books. Most things have a funny side if you look for it.
You’ve been writing funny books for children since 1986. Has it got any easier?
No. Every new book brings its own problems. I still love the challenge, but keeping it fresh doesn’t get any easier. How many more times can I write about witches, vampires, goblins, wicked queens, etc, and find a new angle without repeating myself? But don’t ask me to stop. I enjoy it too much.
Do you think funny books are taken more seriously now, for example with the advent of the Lollies Prize?
It was such a wonderful day when Michael Rosen announced that there was to be a Funny Prize. Until that happened, funny books were invariably passed over in favour of ones with important, gritty, serious themes. I was one of the judges on the first Funny Prize – and my goodness, did we take it seriously! We felt we really owed it to all the brilliant writers who have never received the credit they deserve. I am thrilled that the Lollies Prize has taken over, and hope to see myself short listed any day soon, hint, hint.
If you could work magic, what’s the one thing you’d do, or make happen?
I would wave my wand and peace would descend upon the world. Ice caps would re-form, rain forests would grow again and everyone would have enough food, clean water and a place to live.
Will there be more adventures for Elsie Pickles?
Oh, yes. In fact, I have written the next book. It features a huge, magical superstore in the seventh dimension. And a mean spirited genie. And a unicorn. And – no, I mustn’t give away any more. You’ll have to wait and read it next year.
Witch for a Week is published by Simon and Schuster, 978-1-4711-6090-5, £6.99 pbk