Rabbits make excellent heroes for children’s books. There’s Peter of course, and the unforgettable Hazel and Fiver of Watership Down. Now Santa and Simon Sebag Montefiore have made rabbits the stars of their new children’s book, The Royal Rabbits of London, and in particular Shylo, a nervous, bookish young rabbit, who discovers depths of courage when he’s sent to warn the Royal Rabbits of London of an imminent threat to her majesty the Queen. The Royal Rabbits are resolute underground (literally) guardians of her majesty, living beneath Buckingham Palace, and always ready to jump to the defence of HRH. It’s a stirring adventure story, a reminder that everyone struggles sometimes to be brave and confident, and also a delightful fantasy with some memorably eccentric rabbit characters! Not surprisingly, film rights have already been snapped up by 20th Century Fox. Where, I wondered, did the story begin?
‘It was my son’s idea,’ explains Santa. ‘He was about six years old and he couldn’t sleep so I asked him to think of something he loved and he said “Rabbits”. I asked where do they live and he said, “Under Buckingham Palace”. Usually ideas for my novels come from things I read in the papers, or things that happen to me in my life and it felt a real bolt between the eyes when he said that, it was such an odd thing: usually you’d say that rabbits live in a wood or a warren, but living in Buckingham Palace seemed extraordinary! I rushed in to my husband who was in the bedroom and said “Sasha has come up with the most amazing idea, we have to write it!” And so it became something that as a family we’d chat about at meals or while walking in the countryside, with a view to one day writing it.’ This was six years ago, and various things held up the writing: the fact that both Santa and Sebag were busy with their own projects, but also because initially they couldn’t work out who the villains should be. ‘We really hit a stumbling block and it wasn’t until last summer that Sebag suddenly came jumping in saying “OK, I’ve got it!” – he often does that with my own novels – I tell him the plot and say I don’t know how to get to this point and five minutes later he’ll say “I’ve got it”, and he always does get it. So even before he said what he’d come up with, I knew it would be good.’
Sebag’s idea was Ratzis, giant super rats, very ugly and decidedly sleazy, under the command of the thoroughly unpleasant Papa Ratzi. ‘Once we had the Ratzis, it all then worked. Over the six years we’d been talking about it, I could see the rabbits on the side of buses, I could see the movie – it’s so visual with the rabbits popping up throughout Buckingham Palace – so I was determined then we were going to sit down and do it. I managed to get Sebag to the kitchen table, while we were all in the country for the holidays, and we wrote it last summer.’
What was it like to write a book with her husband? ‘You’d think because we’ve got such different writing styles that it wouldn’t work, and it was tricky at the beginning but we were very keen to do it together, and really didn’t want it to be mostly one of us with the other just adding their bit. So we did sit down together and do it as a pair. I think it worked really well and that we complemented each other, for example, I tend towards the old fashioned, so if I’d written it on my own, it would have been much more Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows. Sebag sees things differently, so for example when we were thinking about where the rats live, for the next book, I saw them living underneath the Bank of England but Sebag said no, they live on top of the Shard, they have all the latest tech, computers, iPhones, everything is all gleaming new. It works particularly well because you get the cosy old-fashioned start with Shylo and the old rabbit Horatio in the country, then you get the Ratzis with their smart phones. We very much had in mind as we wrote the book a conflict between the old world and the new world, the old world being reading, honesty, integrity, loyalty, all the things the rabbits represent, while the Ratzis represent the dark side of the internet, intrusion, disloyalty – all of that.’
The rabbits have their own motto: Anything in the world is possible – by will and by luck, with a moist carrot, a wet nose and a slice of mad courage! It inspires Shylo to conquer his fears and discover that he’s actually a bit of hero. How important was that to them?
‘When you watch children you can see they do all want to be brave, but also that they all feel insecure, shy, not as cool as everyone else – even the cool ones feel they’re not as cool as everyone else. We all go around with this myth in our head that everyone else is very happy in their own skin and having a fantastic time with loads of friends. It’s just a myth, and we wanted to show that. I think there’s a huge pressure on children to be sporty and to be cool, but actually you can be brave because you’re clever, rather than because you’re in the top team for hockey or football or whatever. Shylo is curious about the world, he wants to read newspapers, he’s curious about people – and bravery is in your head, it’s often about having the courage to speak out – something that comes to you as you get older. We hope children will see that.’
The next book is written and with their editor Jane Griffiths at Simon and Schuster, while Santa and Sebag are also executive producers for the film. Santa has loved the process of writing the book, and very excited about the Royal Rabbits’ future: ‘It’s been enormously liberating for us, so different to what I do on a daily basis; yes, the whole rabbit thing has been such fun!’
The Royal Rabbits of London by Santa Montefiore and Simon Sebag Montefiore, illustrated by Kate Hindley, is published by Simon and Schuster, 978-1471157868, £10.99 hbk.