Sally Grindley interviewed by Clive Barnes
I have often heard publishers say that, while there is no shortage of artists capable of illustrating picture books, it’s much more difficult to find writers who can provide the story. Yet, if it is done well, the writer can become almost invisible, while the illustrations command the attention. This may explain why one of our most consistent picture book writers is not perhaps as well known as she should be.
Before Sally Grindley turned to writing for older children, she had spent nearly 20 years producing picture book stories told with humour, emotional depth and engaging surprises, and attracted some of our best known illustrators. When we meet, we talk a little about what makes the picture book writer more visible to the public, particularly in these days when so many books are published and go so quickly out of print. Versatility isn’t necessarily an advantage; and that, perhaps, is Sally’s strength, having now written for a range of ages from two to twelve.
She has had her share of recognition. There is a clutch of awards and shortlists for awards, especially those where children help with the judging, and I have a feeling that our conversation had taken this turn because at the beginning of the month, Poppy and Max and the Fashion Show, one of the titles for early readers that Sally has written with illustrator Lindsey Gardiner, had been recommended in Richard and Judy’s first children’s book list: something that might bring her to the public’s attention as never before. At the same time she was in the middle of a month long project with the BBC, for which she was head-hunted, and which, teasingly, she wouldn’t tell me anything more about.
I think she was most keen, too, to talk about her more recent books; but we started with picture books because that was where she started. Her first writing for children was done as a student at Sussex University, a children’s play which also made its way to the Edinburgh Festival, and, as soon as she left Sussex, she entered the children’s book world, working for the Books for Your Children Book Club for seventeen years and becoming its Editorial Director. It was this that gave her the knowledge and confidence to produce her first picture book story, See Mouse Run in 1984: ‘I started to think, well, I could do that.’
However, it was her second book, Knock, Knock, Who’s There?, illustrated by Anthony Browne, that brought her to wider attention. It is something of a picture book classic. The tale of the potentially scary creatures that knock on a girl’s bedroom door (all with her dad’s voice – indicated pictorially by a pair of slippers worn by everyone from gorilla to giant), it shows exactly how, in a few words, a text can suggest enough to let the illustrations do most of the work.
In conversation, Sally is modest. She says that she wrote picture book texts at first because ‘I don’t think I ever believed I could write anything longer.’ But, even at this early stage in her career, she knew exactly what she wanted and the story demanded; and when, at the proof stage, she spotted something in Anthony Browne’s illustrations which made the book more disturbing than she intended, she insisted on its removal.
She has rarely been able to choose her illustrators. An exception was Peter Utton, for Shhh! The winner of the Children’s Book Award, this invites the reader to visit a giant’s castle, warning about being quiet so as not to wake him up, and allowing peeks through holes in the pages to make sure that you haven’t disturbed anything. A clever and original conception, it builds brilliantly to a climax as the giant gives chase and can be foiled only by closing the book.
Aware that there were so many picture books that we hadn’t talked about, I was reluctant to leave this part of our conversation too soon. Peter’s Place, about the impact of an oil spill on an island community, shows her interest in the environment. And she has a facility for treating emotional issues in young children’s lives with care and humour. There is A New Room for William in which moving house is but part of a greater upheaval in a little boy’s life; and particularly the tales of animal friendship in Why is the Sky Blue? and What Are Friends for? It’s most often friendship, whose ‘ups and downs’ she finds ‘always fascinating’, that provides support for children under heartbreaking pressure in her books for the older age group.
By the time Sally thought about the possibility of full length novels, she had left Books for Your Children, was writing full time and was ready for a new challenge. The subject that she had chosen, or had chosen her, partly because the headquarters of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association is in Cheltenham, her home town, was racing pigeons and the Second World War. The book that finally emerged, despite self-doubt and through dogged persistence, was Feather Wars, which, in the end, was more about a boy coping with bullying at school, than about pigeon racing. And for someone who had expected that the reviews might say ‘she should stick at what she is good at’, the warm critical reception it received was a relief and a vindication.
It encouraged her to attempt more challenging subjects. Spilled Water followed, a book about a Chinese country girl who, after her father’s death, is sold into domestic service by her uncle. Inspired by a newspaper story, it was a book that begged to be written, and that Sally assiduously researched but couldn’t write until she went to China. A ten day trip, largely on the tourist trail, provided her with enough background and confidence to draw a convincing and moving portrait of a resilient child who is the victim both of her country’s traditional values and of the pace and ruthlessness of social and economic change. On publication, it was a deserved success, winning the Smarties Prize Gold Award.
Personal experience prompted her next story Hurricane Wills. At a Cheltenham Literary Festival session in a library in one of the less well-heeled parts of Cheltenham with only one three-year-old and her mum, she heard from the librarian about a boy who regularly used the library to do his homework because home was so chaotic. From that germ of an idea grew a story about living with a brother with Attention Deficit Disorder, one of the books of which she is most proud. After that, she thought she might write something that was ‘a bit of light relief’. But she never has a clear plan for the plot and characters of a book, and is never quite sure where it might go. Saving Finnegan, based on the real life story of a beached whale on a Scottish island, developed another, more demanding theme, about dealing with death: ‘I can’t seem to write a novel that doesn’t have some kind of theme like that in it.’
Sally’s most recent books return to international subjects. Broken Glass, which has just been published, is about street kids in India; and the book she is presently completing is about Aids orphans in South Africa. In Broken Glass two young brothers run away from home after being beaten by their father and learn how to survive by picking glass out of the rubbish on the streets of an Indian city. It touches on disturbing aspects of street life – exploitation, petty crime, glue sniffing, and prostitution – some of which are seen out of the corner of an eye, others which are looked at more closely. She says, ‘I hope children will learn something about lives that are in such strong contrast to their own. Children have actually said to me that they didn’t realise that other children lived like that.’
The lighter side of Sally’s work for this age group can be seen in her three books, beginning with Dear Max, about the relationship between D.J., a phenomenally successful children’s author, and Max, one of her readers. Presented as letters, postcards and drawings going back and forth between author and reader, the books are a breeze to read. However, they were, as Sally says, ‘an absolute nightmare to write… a bit like a jigsaw puzzle’ involving pages all over the floor and a lot of ‘cutting them up and moving them around’ to get the dramatic peaks and troughs of the story right. Sally claims that D.J.’s life is not an exercise in wish fulfilment. It was her editor who suggested she should have D.J.’s books made into films and travel the world going to dazzling celebrity parties. The more difficult side of D.J.’s life, however, the impossible deadlines and temporary writer’s block, are all Sally. And so, I think, is the way that D.J. gently steers Max through some crises in his young life, and the quiet humour that is drawn from them.
As I leave, Sally presents with me with one of her titles for beginner readers that I haven’t seen. When I read it on the train, The Perfect Monster, about how the pride of Monster School, Mungus Bigfoot, tries to teach nice protégé Emily Twinkletoes to be really naughty and disgusting, is also, beside the not too rude jokes, a touching tale of the changes friendship can bring.
Clive Barnes is Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton City.
Some of Sally Grindley’s many titles
(published by Bloomsbury at £5.99 pbk unless otherwise stated)
Broken Glass, 978 0 7475 8615 9 (Feb 2008)
Dear Max, ill. Tony Ross, Orchard, 978 1 84362 383 0, £4.99 pbk
Feather Wars, 978 0 7475 6338 9
Hurricane Wills, 978 0 7475 9095 8
Knock, Knock, Who’s There?, ill. Anthony Browne, Picture Puffin, 978 0 14 055556 1, £4.99 pbk
Mucky Duck, ill. Neal Layton, 978 0 7475 6110 1
The Perfect Monster, ill. Erica-Jane Waters, Kingfisher, 978 0 7534 1142 1, £4.99 pbk
Peter’s Place, ill. Michael Foreman, Andersen, 978 1 84270 037 2, £5.99 pbk
Poppy and Max and the Fashion Show, with Lindsey Gardiner, Orchard, 978 1 84362 393 9, £4.99 pbk
Saving Finnegan, 978 0 7475 8617 3
Shhh!, ill. Peter Utton, Hodder, 978 0 340 74662 2, £5.99 pbk
Spilled Water, 978 0 7475 7146 9
Where Are My Chicks?, ill. Jill Newton, 978 0 7475 4669 6
Why is the Sky Blue?, ill. Susan Varley, Andersen, 978 1 84270 589 6, £5.99 pbk