Fiona Noble talks to Ben Miller about his latest festive adventures.
During lockdown Ben Miller and his family discovered a new walk close to their house. ‘In this little valley is this amazing hollow tree with a face – two eyes, a nose hole and a mouth,’ he tells me over video call from his home. ‘It’s incredible and really felt like a jumping off point for a story.’ That moment led to Ben’s sixth book for children, The Night We Got Stuck in a Story, published in September and once again pairing him with long term illustrator Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. Two children, Lana and Harrison, discover that their favourite tree is about to be cut down by unscrupulous property developers. Later that night, a golden thread draws them up the tree and into a magical storybook world where Lana must use all her courage to rescue her brother and restore balance to the land. The book combines escapist adventure with strong environmental themes about protecting our eco-systems.
Ben is, of course, well known as an actor and comedian, starring in everything from The Armstrong and Miller Show and Death in Paradise to Paddington 2 and Bridgerton. He studied science at university and had written several science books when his literary agent asked if he had ever considered writing for children. He had the outline of a Father Christmas origin story which had begun life as a story to read aloud to his oldest son, Jackson. ‘That evolved, over a period of some years,’ he explains, ‘into my first book The Night I Met Father Christmas.’ He made a strong connection with the team at Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, particularly his original editor Jane Griffiths. ‘What I had wasn’t really a children’s book, it was just a story. I worked a lot with Jane on how to turn that into an actual 50,000 word novel.’ The book was a success and Ben was hooked; he talks with such warmth and delight about his new career path. ‘Writing children’s fiction is a lot tougher than I expected but I enjoy it so much.’ Another ‘lightbulb moment’ came when he began doing school visits. ‘I just loved meeting these kids, making them laugh, chatting to them about the story.’ After releasing several books during the pandemic he clearly relishes the opportunity to get out and meet his readers this year, at both school and festival events.
In common with most of Ben’s other books, the stars of The Night We Got Stuck in a Story are based on his own children., this time his younger two. ‘I use their conversations, their personalities. Harrison is the health and safety officer, so serious, Lana is a real wild card, a big personality.’ (Right on cue, Lana makes an impromptu appearance on our video call.) So, what do they make of it all? ‘It doesn’t get tougher than my kids,’ Ben confesses. ‘They are so unimpressed by the whole thing.’ He test drives the stories with his children, reading them drafts, watching very carefully for when their attention flickers. ‘I’m always trying to grab kids, constantly, from the very beginning, and keep them until the end of the story.’ His compact chapters and cliffhanger endings are perfectly suited to being read aloud, as a classroom read or at bedtime. ‘One of the things you’re always hopeful for as a parent is short chapters!’ he laughs. For newly confident readers, this format can garner a real sense of achievement.
The Night We Got Stuck in a Story has a rich sense of magic and wonder but there is also a seam of darkness, in the evil Spider Queen and those shady property developers. Pitching the right level of peril for a young readership can be a tricky business, so how does Ben strike the balance? Having children of the same age as his readers, and hearing what they consider to be scary stories is, he says, enormously helpful. ‘You have a responsibility to tell the world as it is. Children are living in that world; they hear the news and they know what is going on. I feel that a story should equip a child for the world as it is.’ Each of the books is loosely based around a well-known fairy tale and Ben uses the events of these as a guide. ‘It’s not my intention to scare children. Darkness is in fairy tales for a reason, so that a child gets that feeling that they have mastered, in some sense, some form of danger.’ He is also keen to address common childhood fears and anxieties. Whatever is happening in his stories, Ben always tries to make things funny and to weave humour into the danger. In one of The Night We Got Stuck in a Story’s most dramatic sequences a spider called Elvis lightens the tone considerably. ‘Comedy makes things slightly more manageable.’
A busy autumn will also see Simon & Schuster publish Secrets of a Christmas Elf in November, the second part of a festive trilogy which began in 2021’s Diary of a Christmas Elf. The stories are inspired by the description of Father Christmas in Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem The Night Before Christmas, a seasonal favourite in the Miller household. ‘The practical side of what must be involved in being a Christmas elf really made me laugh,’ Ben tells me, citing the numerous and rather mind-boggling skills which a successful elf might require, from toy making to IT systems and human (and reindeer) resources. This time, Father Christmas’s daughter Holly takes centre stage, inventing a robot to help them get finished on time. Writing in diary form offers a different challenge for Ben, who typically writes in the third person. ‘The logistics are really tricky – the character telling the story has to be in every single event – but it’s a very fun challenge.’
Fiona Noble reviews books for The Guardian and was previously Children’s Previewer for The Bookseller magazine.
The Night We Got Stuck in a Story, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, 9781471192494, £12.99, hbk
Secrets of a Christmas Elf, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, 9781398515819, £9.99, hbk