If, like me, a lot of what you read is sent to you for review, it is quite rare to be surprised by a book or by a writer. But I was lucky enough to have such an experience late last year, when, in the same batch of books, I was sent two by Sally Gardner. One was Operation Bunny, The Fairy Detective Agency’s First Case, the first of a series, Wings and Co, aimed at younger readers; and the other was Maggot Moon, a dystopian novel for teenagers. Operation Bunny is surreal and funny, and spiked with a gentle social satire. Maggot Moon is a dystopia set not in some imagined future but in a re-imagined past and told by a boy whose view of it, and the manner of his telling, is dark, disturbing and joyously idiosyncratic. And, taking the two books together, this seemed to me to be a writer who could do anything. So it was no surprise to me when Maggot Moon won the Costa Award for the Children’s Book of the Year 2012.
When I met Sally for this Authorgraph, I realised that she brings not only a unique experience to her writing but also convictions that have been formed in a life and career whose achievements have required considerable self-belief. Before she began her career in children’s books, she had spent fifteen years as a theatre set and costume designer, and had worked with some of the biggest names – ‘amazing people’ like Alan Ayckbourn and Adrian Mitchell. She is passionate about the theatre, and sees it as a marvellous training ground for writing. ‘That’s where you see a story fail or really, really succeed. And I was incredibly fortunate to work with living authors, to see how a play can be developed, how a play can be tightened, and what can really hold an audience. ‘
As a child, Sally was a storyteller. ‘I had incredibly complicated stories going in my head all the time. I liked to go on long walks with my father and step-mother because I could get the beat going.’ But she never thought she could be a writer: ‘I was so dyslexic. Like Winnie the Pooh, I couldn’t spell Tuesday.’ In some ways, as the daughter of two prominent lawyers, growing up in Gray’s Inn, her childhood might be thought to be privileged. Her school life, which she has described in other interviews, must have been anything but. Expelled from one school, and thought to be ‘unteachable’, she ended up as a teenager in a school for ‘maladjusted’ children. There things finally fell into place and she gained a place at college to study theatre arts.
She has strong words to say about the way our education system treats children who don’t fit its expectations: ‘We push people out every day. Surely we are intelligent enough now to know about emotional and visual intelligence. If only education could pay more attention to the skills of the right hand side of the brain, we could scoop up so many children who are, at the moment, lost.’ Leaving college, Sally thought about training as a children’s illustrator, but her theatre career already had a momentum of its own. So illustration was put aside for fifteen years, until she had her own children. Her illustrations to other people’s texts first appeared in 1990, and she slowly made the transition to providing the words. Sally regards A Book of Princesses, first published in 1998 and recently reissued as five separate easy readers, as her first book as a writer.
Her illustrations for these retellings of classic fairy tales are delicate, charming, and humorous with an eye for detail. The story’s characters are presented as if in a miniature theatre with the minimum of setting. The text wasn’t easy, however. Sally was advised to take a standard retelling, change it slightly, and ‘it’s yours’. Following her own notion of what it meant to be a writer, Sally began to delve into the motivation of her characters and the mechanics of the plots: ‘How, for instance, did Snow White’s wicked step mother get into the forest three times when she was in Versace all the time?’ When she explained what she was doing to Judith Elliott, her editor at Orion, she was called in and, as she remembers, ‘Judith gave me a master class on writing for little people.’ She went away and started all over again. The final text is the perfect counterpart to the illustrations: spare, simple and, sometimes, slyly ironic and sceptical. Sally adds an ending of her own to The Princess and the Pea, balancing the decidedly anti-feminist tale slant of the tale with the note that ‘The princess was happy to marry him too, for it is not easy to find a real prince these days.’
There was another challenge to meet: to write a complete story of her own. Judith Elliott encouraged her, discounting Sally’s misgivings about her dyslexia: ‘Think of the musicians who can’t read music. Don’t worry about the spelling. It can be sorted out later. You have a voice. Go for it.’ For a little while, she had been writing a story for younger readers in an exercise book. When she submitted it to Judith, the response was gratifying: ‘Well, I knew you could write, but I didn’t know you could write.’ The Strongest Girl in the World was the first of the hugely successful six books in the Magical Children series, written and illustrated by Sally. The mix of fun and magic, resourceful children, quirky plots, memorable adult characters and some touching moments, were to become the hallmarks of Sally’s writing for younger children.
In 2005 came the biggest breakthrough, the publication of her first full-length novel for older children, I, Coriander, which brought her critical acclaim and the Nestle Smarties Gold Award. Coriander, a girl growing up in seventeenth century London, lives in two worlds. In one, the political and religious upheaval of Cromwell’s protectorate, her father flees persecution and she falls under the cruel sway of Arise Fell, a puritan preacher on the make. In another, intersecting, world of faery, only she can rescue a prince and save the realm from a despotic queen. Told in Coriander’s own words, the story has a fine sense of period and place, a cast of strong characters, and a command of plot and mood that is remarkable in a first novel. Sally followed it with three equally compelling stories set at times of political and social turmoil: The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade set at the time of the French Revolution, and The Double Shadow for older teenagers set just before and during the Second World War.
Apart from being cleverly plotted stories that keep you on the edge of your seat, with some striking turns of phrase, these books show Sally’s fascination with the past and, perhaps indicating a theatre designer’s eye, the way that the smallest detail can convey the mores of the time, the direction of the story and the perception of character. They also show her interest in the aspirations for political and social freedom apparent in both the English and French revolutions and the way in which such aspirations could be cruelly suppressed, distorted and manipulated. It is these questions which are also addressed in Maggot Moon, for here Sally has created an alternative political history for Britain following the Second World War. A totalitarian state called the Motherland has been established. Yet much of the social reality and mood of 1950s and 60s Britain is still recognisable and provides the emotional dynamic of the book: the TV fuelled dream of America: ‘I wanted to live with Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy,’ says Sally, remembering the popular TV comedy – and the authoritarian nature of school life. Sally sees what happens in education as a test of our claims to equality and inclusion. Maggot Moon is a warning: ‘What will happen if we do not care for our democracy. I think democracy is a very delicate bird. It’s precious and we should be vigilant. ‘
The central character of Maggot Moon is Standish Treadwell. Standish is a boy rejected by the system, bullied in the classroom and the playground, sustained by the love of a fellow pupil, Hector, a relationship that is sealed with a kiss. Here, too, Sally wanted to make a statement: ‘I’m shocked when children say to each other as an insult, ‘Oh, you’re so gay!’ At that age, a kid’s sexuality is unformed. I wanted it to be a kiss of love and I wanted it to be done sensitively and to mean a great deal between them. I hope I have done something good on that. Love comes to people at all stages and in many ways.’ The most remarkable aspect of the book is the unique voice of Standish’s first person narration. Sally found it easy to write. She identified with Standish’s anger and Standish’s slightly askew viewpoint, ‘It’s true to the way I think.’ As a child, she, too, had been baffled as to how the carrots got into gold jewellery. She hadn’t set out to write a dyslexic character, and nowhere is Standish identified as dyslexic (nor would he have been in the 1950s). But once Sally’s editor pointed it out, it was clear that he was.
Sally has a particular way of working. She creates an initial manuscript and has an assistant, Jackie, who corrects her spelling and acts as a sounding board, ‘I read it to her and I also send it to her. She corrects it and she reads it back to me and I follow it on my version and anything I don’t like I change.’ This is a process which Sally calls ‘live editing’. As the story is read back, she is listening for the beat –’it’s very musical for me’. She also does ‘live conversation’, which she thinks more writers could profit from. She and Jackie take different roles and speak the dialogue, aiming to make it closer to real speech. Jackie also provides footnotes on character and plot as they unfold. It’s a relationship and a technique that has developed over five years.
Sally says she loves the ‘magic moment’ when ‘the word in the head’ hits the key. She types on a metal desk, formerly at the War Office, which was reputedly bomb-proof, and which gives a satisfying response to her typing: ‘It makes a hell of a noise. The neighbours must think I have the builders in all the time.’ As she describes it, her relationship with words has a physical and sensual aspect. She talks of wanting to paint with words, and she talks of them as art objects. the amazing shape of ‘the’, for instance: ‘It’s one of the most beautiful words, completely compact, a superb word.’
Sally sees herself as a writer whose preoccupations and style have been influenced by her dyslexia and the way in which it has affected her life. So, while she is understandably impatient with those who might think it is the defining feature of her work, she is happy to be a role model for children who are going through the same things that she did; to act as a spokesperson for them; and to give them reassurance and confidence: ‘You may not succeed at the time you are expected and you want to succeed. School for a lot of us will be a complete nightmare. But that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed or learn afterwards.’ She doesn’t regard dyslexia as a disability: ‘I see it as a different way of being, of thinking, that is no way intellectually inferior. I am seriously dyslexic and I don’t regard myself as disabled. I am a campaigner to get it seen in a positive light. And the first thing that could be done is to change the name itself, because I can’t spell it. And with the change in name should come a change in perception and attitude.’ She is pleased that the Maggot Moon app that has been produced alongside the book includes an opportunity for non-dyslexic readers to experience how it might feel to be dyslexic, with the words swimming about in front of our eyes.
Sally just loves what she does now: ‘I am the thing I dreamt of being although I never knew it was possible.’ As a writer, she feels that her last two books for older children have required an emotional commitment of her that her previous writing hadn’t. ‘If you want to be true to your characters, you sometimes have to go into places in your psyche that are deeply uncomfortable.’ She is intending to republish, and to an extent rewrite, The Double Shadow as an adult book. She has compared writing books like Operation Bunny to snorkelling, while The Double Shadow and Maggot Moon are deep emotional diving. Three Pickled Herrings, the second book in the Wings and Co series, is just about to be published. And, for my part, it doesn’t matter how deep Sally dives, because she always seems to come up with treasure.
Published by Orion Children’s Books in paperback unless otherwise indicated
Operation Bunny, The Fairy Detective Agency’s First Case 9781444003727 £5.99
Three Pickled Herrings 9781444003734 £5.99
Snow White 9781444002430 £4.99
The Princess and the Pea 9781444002454 £4.99
Cinderella 9781444002416 £4.99
Sleeping Beauty 9781444002423 £4.99
The Strongest Girl in the World Magical Children series: 9781858816494 £4.99
I, Coriander 9781842555040 £6.99
The Silver Blade 9781842557150 £6.99
The Red Necklace 9781842556344 £6.99
The Double Shadow 978-1780620121 £9.99 (hbk)
Published by Hot Key Books
Maggot Moon 9781471400445 £6.99
Clive Barnes has retired from Southampton City where he was Principal Children’s Librarian and is now a freelance researcher and writer.