Plenty of publishing people have become authors. But few have made the transition quite as successfully as Holly Webb. August 2015 sees the publication of The Truffle Mouse, her 100th book. Appropriately enough it comes from Scholastic, not only the publisher of her first book, but also her former employer. Webb is now so popular and prolific that one event organiser even paid her the ultimate in back-handed compliments. ‘She said to me: “We didn’t think you were real. We thought you were like Daisy Meadows”.’
Webb describes her first book as a ‘fluke’, but it was more a case of boldly making the most of being in the right place at the right time. While a junior editor at Scholastic, she was discussing with colleagues how to fill a hole in the publishing programme which had opened up after girl friendship series, Glitter Girls had come to an end. ‘We were just sitting around, throwing out ideas and I came up with the idea of triplet sisters who looked alike but who were very different on the inside. I was supposed to go away and flesh out the concept, and then we were going to talk to an author about whether it was a series they would like to be involved in. Except that by the time I’d thought of a few plots and characters, and given the characters names, and then named their pets, I realised that actually I didn’t want anyone else to do it.’
So mainly by sitting on the floor of packed trains and writing on her daily commute from Reading into London, Webb got stuck in. Once she had finished book one however, she was too embarrassed to present it face-to-face to her then boss Jane Harris. ‘So I left a print-out on her desk with a note’. The rest is children’s book publishing history. Harris liked what Webb had written, and so The Triplets series became rightfully hers. The first book was published in January 2004, whilst Webb was on maternity leave following the birth of the first of her three sons in December 2003. ‘I remember sitting at the kitchen table typing into the laptop I bought with my advance money, whilst rocking his car seat with my foot.’
Just like one of the triplet characters she created, Webb describes herself as a chronically shy, animal loving child. She grew up in Norwood, South London in a tall Victorian house where she was often to be found reading on one of its staircases. ‘The house was full of books, and I was really lucky in that I was pretty much allowed to read any of them’. The Narnia series was a particular favourite, along with The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Webb’s father, Brian Webb was – and is still – a graphic designer, specialising in book cover design. ‘So there were always a lot of very beautiful books in our house too.’
There were regular trips to the library, and Webb hatched an early ambition to be a librarian. ‘I thought that librarians got to sit and read books book all day which sounded fantastic.’ Her favourite subjects at school were Latin and Ancient Greek, which led her eventually to a degree in Classics at Cambridge. ‘In the first year of secondary school we did a subject called Classical Studies, which consisted of Mrs King telling us stories. And it was fantastic, I loved it.’ After Cambridge, Webb did an MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute in London and flirted with the idea of working at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. But by this time she was already working in the editorial department at Scholastic, after going there on work experience. ‘I loved being there, and working with authors was really exciting.’ Her colleagues at that time included Liz Cross and Kirsty Stansfield, as well as Jane Harris. ‘That’s really how I’ve ended up with several different publishers, and a diverse range of fiction because all the people I worked with at Scholastic gradually moved on elsewhere, and I carried on working with all of them.’
Webb returned to work full-time for a while after the birth of her son, but quickly realised that the costs of child-minding and commuting made it uneconomic. So she worked from home, and had soon written the first of her animal series for the Stripes list. ‘The idea for the first story, Lost in the Snow was suggested to me: they wanted it to be a wintry story, so the kitten became lost in the snow. At that time, we thought we might do four books featuring a puppy, a rabbit, a chick or maybe a duckling. It wasn’t ever conceived as the long-running series it is now.’
The series became a huge success and the 30th book, The Secret Kitten has just been published. One of the most appealing aspects of Webb’s animal stories is the way in which she manages to get inside the minds of her animal characters as well as those of the children who care for them. ‘I really enjoy doing that. I know it sounds terribly twee, but I think it’s because I do sort of wish they could talk and I love imagining what they would say. It’s also about wanting children to understand that animals are not their toys; that they have thoughts and feelings and that it’s important to treat them properly.’ The soulful eyes of the cute puppies and kittens which adorn her jackets may be larger than life, but the animals in her stories are very real.
Whilst animals are common to all her books, Webb has – in a frankly very un-Daisy Meadows like way – diversified in numerous directions into numerous other series including Wintry Tales, Magic Molly and My Naughty Little Puppy. There is her Maisie Hitchins detective series, inspired by her love of Sherlock Holmes; her Maya, Izzy, Poppy and Emily books for Nosy Crow about four environmentally friendly friends who want to make the world a better place. And her much-loved Rose and Lily books which have now inspired a new series, set in the same world, but several hundred years before. The first title, the rather fabulous The Water Horse – sumptuously set in Venice – is coming from Orchard Books in May.
How does she manage to hold so many different series in her head at the same time? ‘I find it quite refreshing actually. If I’m stuck on one thing, I can go and work on something else, moving from a kitten story to a fantasy story for older children for example. It’s a great way of getting rid of that feeling of “I don’t know where this story is going”.” Her six years as an editor of other writers’ work at Scholastic (including that of Philip Reeve and Hilary McKay) is undoubtedly a huge help in a technical, as well as an inspirational sense. ‘Just being able to think in terms of plot and pace and structure is a huge advantage.’
Webb also finds that most of her series have an arc which brings them to a natural end: the final book in the eight-strong Maisie Hitchins series has recently been published for example. Her animal series however, looks set to run and run. ‘Just from doing events, particularly in schools, children tell me so many stories about their pets, I think, oh, I could put that in the next book, and so the series carries on.’ Now that her own children are older – she has three boys, the younger two twins – they too are becoming adept at producing ideas. And one book, Looking for Bear – about a boy who imagines he’s seen a bear in his greenhouse – even came out of building work being done on the family house. ‘The builders – one of whom had long grey hair and earrings – convinced my two younger boys, then 5 going on 6 – that they were pirates. And then that the soakaway they were digging in the garden was a bear trap. When somebody gives you an idea like that, you have to do something with it.’
Webb still mines her own childhood for ideas too. The Truffle Mouse is based on her very first pet: ‘a dark brown mouse who looked like a chocolate truffle.’ The Secret Kitten – was inspired by her childhood dream ‘that I was going to find a kitten in the garden which would be mine and which would be a secret from everybody else. I think that came from wishing I could find fairies or tiny people at the bottom of the garden who would come and live in my dolls’ house.’
And talking of secrets and gardens, Webb is also working on a follow-up to her childhood favourite, The Secret Garden. ‘It’s set at the beginning of the Second World War, when Mr. Craven, in gratitude for Colin having recovered, sets up a children’s home in London, which is then evacuated to Misselthwaite. And then one of the children from the home rediscovers the secret garden. It’s been fabulous to write.’ With a new series about a time-travelling dog, inspired by the classical era plaster cast dogs of Pompeii also in the pipeline, the extraordinarily prolific Holly Webb has comprehensively proved, not only that she actually exists but that she is one of our most consistent and versatile children’s authors.
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer.
Lost in the Snow, Stripes Publishing, 978-1847150103, £3.99pbk
The Secret Kitten, Stripes Publishing, 978-1847155924, £4.99
The Snow Bear, Stripes, 978-1847153296, £5.99pbk
Maisie Hitchins series is published by Stripes, £5.99
Lily and Rose stories are published by Orchard at £5.99
Magic Molly stories are published by Scholastic at £4.99
Maya, Izzy, Poppy and Emily stories are published by Nosy Crow, £5.99
The Water Horse, Orchard Books, 978-1408327623, £5.99 (publishing May 2015)
The Truffle Mouse, Scholastic, 978-1407144863, £5.99 (publishing August 2015)