Garry Kilworth on turning to children’s books after a successful career as a writer for adults
The first ‘full-length’ novel I ever wrote was a children’s book called Beyond the Silver Surf. I was about 20 at the time and it was supposed to be my Alice in Wonderland with a water scene change. The adolescent heroes were boy and girl mermaids who swam their way through the wonders of the deep, with talking walruses, rhyming eels and octopuses who sang.
The manuscript is still in my filing cabinet with a lot of rejection slips which read, ‘Not suitable for our list’.
Fifteen years later, after several thousands of more words, I became a writer of adult novels.
There were two more attempts at children’s novels during the first 10 years of my adult writing career.
Then one day in 1988 I heard that the children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones was getting together an anthology of stories for Methuen Children’s Books. It was ‘by invitation only’ but I’d met Diana at a writer’s workshop, admired her greatly, and cheekily asked if I could submit a story. My gate-crashing worked, because I suspect one or two of her invited writers had failed to deliver for Hidden Turnings, and so a belated and desired career in children’s books began.
I believe writing for children to be more important than writing for adults. It’s a much more serious business having influence over the young. There are far more responsibilities, deeper consequences, and more rewarding results. It’s a little frightening in a pleasant way and not a task to be taken lightly. The formative years are a long, heady period in anyone’s life, and writers who deal in them must do so with care, working positively against discrimination, bullying, drug-taking, and other evils of our time, without appearing to preach or demand.
By the time I wrote my first children’s book I was earning very good money as a full-time writer of novels for adults. You may wonder why I should wish to spend part of my time writing stories and novels for kids when I can earn five times as much in advances for those who’ve reached maturity.
Well, the truth is that like so many things in life and contrary to certain doctrines of the twentieth century, it’s not about money. I’ve been hooked on children’s books since my first passionate affair with Richmal Crompton at the age of 11. Of course, I’d read and enjoyed books before that age, but William was my first superhero and his creator was my unwitting mentor. Richmal Crompton forged a lifelong friendship between William and me, and aroused within me a desire to write about characters like him in my own way.
(Incidentally, Richmal Crompton wrote many serious novels for adults, some 40 or so I believe, but who remembers them, who even knows about them today? She said on her deathbed, ‘I’m afraid William has obscured all my other writing.’ I don’t know why she was afraid. If I could create such an enduring character my adult work could go to hell in a bucket.)
In the first of my encounters with William Brown he was reading a thriller book in which the protagonist was confronted by a ‘grinning skull’ and the absorbed William asked himself, ‘Crumbs! I wonder what it was grinnin’ at?’ I thought this the most brilliant joke I’d ever read and wanted to write just as brilliantly. I cared nothing for, nor even considered, the fact that William Brown was middle-class.
William’s household had servants, a father who worked in the City, a brother who went to university and a sister who spent most of her time playing tennis. I was working-class, went to a secondary modern school, and my father was an air force corporal.
Despite these differences I clearly identified with William through our common heritage – we were both kids who enjoyed the same things about life: adventure, the countryside, reading, running with the boys, pretty girls, pranks, inventing games. We were both terrible spellers and hated mathematics.
I would have followed William Brown to the ends of the earth and back again.
I was also reading Agatha Christie and other grown-ups’ books at the time, but they had nothing of the sparkling clarity and humour of E Nesbit or Mary Norton. Nor did they have the pace and verve of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or the mystery and magic of King Solomon’s Mines and I was so desperate to be Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, I actually got lost in the Hadhramaut Desert for two days, while on a camping trip from Aden where I spent most of my childhood.
William Brown is probably a parent’s nightmare, but he also displays the best traits a human being could pass on to his peers. William has honour, he has loyalty, strength of purpose, a fine love of life, passion, and the right sort of honesty – he does tell the occasional lie, but he is honest about his desires – he does not hide the fact that it is his ambition to be a tramp or a burglar when he grows up. Indeed, he proclaims it.
William Brown would not for a moment consider betraying a friend, nor destroying the weak, nor giving up on a project, nor hating without just cause. For him was invented the maxim I once read on a lintel in an old mansion:-
‘Love well, hate well, serve God, fear no man.’
If you take the word ‘God’ in its broadest terms and call it the ‘spirit of life’ you have William’s philosophy.
My love of children’s books has never left me. I write them for that reason and because a special purity of vision is needed when telling the tale. That 11-year-old is still locked inside me, the boy excited by tales of adventure, tales not with a high moral tone, but with rules of fairness which are followed unquestioningly, tales with a strong sense of honour.
These are stories in which the betrayer is punished and the loyal are rewarded. Stories of true love. Stories of us adults, you and I, set in that place we used to live in, sometimes bewildering, sometimes vicious, sometimes golden, which we had to leave behind forever once we grew in weight and worldly knowledge.
My personal reason for writing them is probably an attempt to go back, to re-enter childhood.
One of the questions I’m frequently asked is, ‘What is the difference between writing for adults and writing for children?’ The plain fact is, there’s very little difference, except the heroes are usually shorter in height and purer in motive. My latest young adult novel, The Brontë Girls, was actually conceived as a novel intended for the adult market. I submitted the synopsis to several publishers, but as so often happens in the adult world of publishing, they felt they’d have trouble marketing it – finding a category, a label, a genre – and eventually interest in it dropped away. Then I took another look and saw a more nobler readership there. Methuen needed a little convincing, but eventually the faith of my editor, Miriam Hodgson, prevailed and the novel was accepted. I wrote the same novel that I would have done had I sold it to the adult publishing world. It looks better on the young adult shelves and is more appreciated.
Of course, if one is writing for an even younger age group, such as my novel Billy Pink’s Private Detective Agency, one has to be less indulgent still as a writer. The prose should be pared down to short sentences, the verbs should be less strained, the philosophical waffle should not appear at all, the description coloured only with the merest tinge of purple, the statements honest and heartfelt. This is what I like most about writing for children: the clean lines, the clear paths. I believe it makes me a better writer, a writer striving for that ‘window-pane’ prose which George Orwell thought so admirable.
In the adult novel world, genre is everything. One’s latest work is either science fiction, fantasy, general fiction, literary, crime, thriller, whatever. In the children’s book world, each new work is simply one’s latest children’s novel or collection of short stories. No tags needed, no explanations required. The young readers will either love it, or hate it, or remain indifferent to it, but simply for what it is, not for its marketed image.
The crystallizing of the categories in the adult book world has destroyed a great deal of individuality in its writers, who have to wear labels whether they like it or not. Wuthering Heights, I feel, would not find a publisher in today’s world, its style being too bizarre, its content too difficult to categorise in order to find the right shelf.
The children’s book world does not suffer so much from this malaise, being smaller and an entity unto itself.
Long may it remain uncontaminated.
I’ve tried to create my own ‘William’ in my futuristic Hotwire and Blindboy books. Hotwire is a 13-year-old girl, and Blindboy an 11-year-old boy with impaired vision. Together these two rubbish dump urchins from The Electric Kid and Cybercats make up my William Brown. I try to infuse them with all the best that childhood has to offer.
Of course, it would be difficult to write about the rosy world of my pal, William Brown, today. We need now to be more aware of social issues and to take account of the vulnerability and angst of young people. This need not be overt – indeed, in my opinion should not be – but it must be addressed as an underlying unobtrusive theme.
The Electric Kid is an ‘entertainment’ but it was born on the rubbish dumps of Manila, where children live and fight for the right to be first at the trash, which I’ve seen and been disturbed by. One can deal in harsh realities with metaphor and allegory, as well as dishing it up straight. I find the idea that serious writing can only be found in ‘realist’ fiction, both in adult and adolescent novels, a little threatening to our great heritage of reflective fantastical literature. In this book, Hotwire is a genius with electronics (as many kids are today) and Blindboy can hear ultrasonic sounds. Blindboy is anti-pathos. He regards his lack of sight as an advantage, because it allows him to concentrate and hone his other senses. Hotwire never offers him sympathy, only her special tomboy brand of affection.
These two young adults take on the world, a very harsh and cruel world of their time, and despite the fact that they get exploited and are forever struggling for survival they do occasionally manage to come out on top.
What I like about them – as with William Brown – is the way they humble the adult in me.
Details of Garry Kilworth’s books mentioned:
The Brontë Girls, Methuen, 0 416 19127 4, £11.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 2692 X, £3.50 pbk
Billy Pink’s Private Detective Agency, Methuen, 0 416 18754 4, £8.99; Mammoth, 0 7497 1723 8, £3.50 pbk
The Electric Kid, Bantam, 0 553 406566, £2.99 pbk
Cybercats, Bantam, 0 553 503278, £3.50 pbk