Meeting Jeremy Strong was a bit of a surprise. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but any reader of his books, full as they are of the madcap adventures of extraordinary characters, could be forgiven for anticipating an encounter with someone like an elderly Hell’s Angel, or perhaps a huge, bearded and be-horned Viking warrior. In Jeremy’s books such characters abound, and besides Lancelot, the Hell’s Angel in My Granny’s Great Escape, and Sigurd in There’s a Viking in My Bed, you will soon encounter a mummified Pharaoh in someone’s bath, a dog called Streaker that runs faster than a whirlwind, and an exceedingly dangerous vacuum cleaner, rejoicing in the name of Fatbag, intent on sucking up the world! Surely I would find, I thought, as I journeyed down through the quiet Kent countryside, an eccentric person at least. Who else would invent a louche though stunningly handsome royal prince who finds it amusing to fill his grandmother’s ear trumpet with rice pudding? This improbable fellow is the villain of the piece in The Karate Princess in MoNsta Trouble, that is, apart from the actual ‘MoNsta’. I should perhaps explain that ‘MoNsta’ is so spelt because that’s how the semi-literate Dudless the ‘Duck’ (sic) of Dork spells it when he summons Belinda, the clever and cunning Karate Princess, to help him defeat a creature (with ‘2 hedz’) that is ‘teRRoRyzing’ his dukedom. Are you beginning to feel like I felt?
I suppose I should have foreseen it, but the surprise was that Jeremy is nothing like his highly imaginative creations. As is the way with creative writers, his crazily conceived characters all live in his extraordinarily inventive mind. He himself is a modest, thoughtful man. Indeed I found him and his wife Susan as charming as the picturesque, bucolic village where they live. This is a world very different from the world in Jeremy’s head. You will perhaps see the odd cow grazing in a nearby field, but it is nowhere near as odd as the totally bizarre cow (with Swiss Army udder) who is the eponymous heroine of his forthcoming book, Krazy Kow Saves the World – Well, Almost. (His titles are often as wayward as his stories.) Notwithstanding the zany world of his books, Jeremy is a calm, unassuming chap who writes for ordinary young readers in an extraordinary way. He stresses that he wants ‘to encourage reading amongst ordinary children’, not necessarily the cleverest or most precocious. And he has a special regard for those who find reading a bit of a struggle.
And Jeremy knows what it is like to struggle, though it was not in his case a struggle with literacy. He feels lucky to have grown up in a book-loving home and, unlike many children, he thoroughly enjoyed writing at school. He remembers an enlightened primary teacher, Miss Cox, with gratitude. ‘She was tall and young and pretty and I liked her a lot. It was while I was in her class that I discovered how wonderful it was to write.’ Later, in secondary school, another progressive teacher, Tony Harding, introduced him to the works of poets like Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he found himself greatly attracted to their verbal intricacies.
No, it was not with writing that he struggled. From early on he knew he wanted to be a writer and felt, he says, ‘driven to write’, though as a young boy he was not so single-minded that he never thought of anything else. He also wanted to be a racing driver! He had everything planned. He would start as a mechanic, he told his father, and work his way up, but his father was horrified. ‘You cannot be a mechanic,’ he told the young Jeremy, ‘you will always have dirt under your fingernails!’ Whether this disquieting revelation robbed British motor sport of a budding world champion, or whether the lure of writing was too great, we shall never know, but Jeremy’s fate was sealed, and his struggle began. His big problem, not unusual for embryonic writers, was to get published.
Jeremy’s early life as a writer is an object lesson in determination. He began writing, he says, when he was about 17, but it was over 10 years before he found a willing publisher. In the meantime he had been to York University, where he first read music (he is an accomplished violinist) and then later switched to English. He did odd jobs, like working in a bakery stuffing the jam into 3,000 doughnuts a night. He was a relief school caretaker and a casual strawberry picker. For a time his wife Susan selflessly went out to work (she is a teacher) while he stayed at home to concentrate seriously on his writing. But after 18 months of nothing but rejection slips, and feeling he was getting nowhere, he decided that he too must take a postgraduate course to qualify as a primary teacher. Then one day he put together a mock-up book, complete with words and illustrations, about a cat with a long tail, and personally hawked it round a number of publishing houses. It was an almost desperate ploy, but it worked. In the end he got a taker, and Smith’s Tail was published by Evans in 1978. The book is no longer in print, but it was a breakthrough and he had struggled hard for it. He still has, and cherishes, the 24-year-old mock-up version, now faded and discoloured with age.
More work followed, and Jeremy’s dream of becoming a successful writer began to look a little more attainable. A steady trickle of books appeared, but getting established was a slow process, and it was just as well that he had a day job as a teacher. In fact Jeremy taught for 17 years altogether, ending up as headteacher of a primary school in Kent, not far from where he now lives. All the time he continued to write, and his reputation was building, but true recognition did not come until 1997, when The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog won the Children’s Book Award. This was a massive boost and at long last Jeremy really had broken into the big time. It had only taken him 30 years! Jeremy is up for the award again this year with My Mum’s Going to Explode!, one of several preposterous stories about a 10-year-old’s crazy family.
But then all Jeremy’s stories are preposterous, anarchic, iconoclastic. In My Granny’s Great Escape, Nicholas’s Granny, who loves snooker and motorbikes, falls in love with her 65-year-old next-door neighbour. He is the proud owner of a big black Matchless motorbike, and wears a leather jacket with MAD, BAD AND ARTHRITIC written in silver studs on the back. This unlikely love-match begins when Lancelot, for that is the elderly gentleman’s name, whisks Granny off on his bike to ‘burn rubber’ round the local park, pursued by the park keepers on a motor mower. ‘It was fabulous,’ said Granny, ‘we went so fast I thought my dentures would fall out.’ Their respective families do not approve of this liaison, and lock them in their rooms like naughty children, but in a chaotic sequence of events they manage to escape, with their families in hot and hilarious pursuit. Of course in the end the old people are married and live happily…but wait! That’s another story!
Highly imaginative stories have been flowing from Jeremy’s computer throughout the ’90s and since. Imagine waking up one morning to find you are a stegosaurus. This is what happens to Jodie in Dinosaur Pox. She had never particularly liked her looks, but this was ridiculous! In Pirate School: Just a Bit of Wind we meet Patagonia Clatterbottom, the fiercest headteacher in the swashbuckling universe. And at Dullandon Primary School there are very strict rules until the day a supply teacher, Miss Pandemonium, arrives. Then, in Pandemonium at School, amazing things happen. Big Mugg, Ugly Mugg and Little Mugg have problems finding somewhere to live, as hysterically related in The Monster Muggs. In Giant Jim and the Hurricane the giant, huge but meek, causes accidental mayhem wherever he goes. Mayhem is habitual in Jeremy’s books, though there is usually a satisfying resolution. In this book Giant Jim is forgiven when he saves the town from disaster. Come to think of it, disaster is habitual in Jeremy’s books too.
One of his top selling books, and my own personal favourite, is I’m Telling You, They’re Aliens! Robert, an 11-year-old who worries a lot (like Jeremy himself used to at school), is convinced that the family who have just moved in over the road are aliens from another planet, about to take over the world. He and his friend Marsha decide they must do something about it. As a result, they have an action-packed Close Encounter of the Third Kind, and it was not quite what they were expecting. Any reader of Jeremy’s books knows the feeling!
So far Jeremy has about 60 or more titles to his name. According to his current publishers, Penguin, his sales now top one million copies. He writes about three books a year, usually short novels aimed at junior children. However, they are often enjoyed by older children too, as is evident from the significant numbers who write to his website. All his books are relentlessly humorous, but sometimes the humour takes a more sophisticated turn, and this is perhaps what appeals to his more mature readers. For example, in Aliens, Marsha confidingly tells Rob, as they formulate their daring plan to foil the aliens, that she is ‘petrified’. Rob is astonished, not that she is petrified, but that she even knows the word! He has to go and look it up in the dictionary. Marsha, he reflects, is indeed turning out to be a dark horse. ‘Or,’ he adds thoughtfully to himself, ‘a stone.’ There are quite a lot of throwaway jokes and quips of this sort, more appreciated by an older readership.
Although Jeremy is constantly able to surprise, in fact it came as no surprise to learn that he was a devotee of Spike Milligan and the Goons, and later of Monty Python. He also feels, impishly, that another formative influence was The Beano. He thinks his books are rather like a ‘wordy version of a comic strip’. Does he regard himself as a serious writer for children? He only knows that he labours long and hard to find ‘the right voice’. He re-wrote The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog twice, eventually changing it to a first-person narrative before he was satisfied. ‘I take my writing seriously,’ he says, ‘but I have no axes to grind, and no neuroses to reveal.’ Jeremy writes farce, and writing farce is a very special skill, an art form of its own. He is a comedian, but not one who hopes one day to play Hamlet. ‘There are moments of seriousness in my books,’ he says, and then adds with a customary mischievous throwaway, ‘though they are possibly fleeting!’
Some of Jeremy Strong’s many titles
(published by Puffin, £3.99 each pbk)
Dinosaur Pox, 0 14 038979 2
Fatbag: The Demon Vacuum Cleaner, 0 14 036233 9
Giant Jim and the Hurricane, 0 14 038248 8
The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog, 0 14 038030 2
I’m Telling You, They’re Aliens!, 0 14 130685 8
The Karate Princess in MoNsta Trouble, 0 14 130492 8
The Monster Muggs, 0 14 130219 4
My Granny’s Great Escape, 0 14 038390 5
My Mum’s Going to Explode!, 0 14 131053 7
Pandemonium at School, 0 14 130495 2
Pirate School: Just a Bit of Wind, 0 14 131269 6
There’s a Pharaoh in Our Bath!, 0 14 037571 6
There’s a Viking in My Bed, 0 14 034878 6
Krazy Kow Saves the World – Well, Almost, 0 14 131374 9 (August 2002)
Jeff Hynds is an independent literacy consultant and a writer.
Drawings by Nick Sharratt from Jeremy Strong’s Sir Rupert and Rosie Gusset in Deadly Danger (see review on page 22).
Photograph courtesy of Puffin.