One of the first pieces of advice I got as a beginner writer was to read other writers’ work. I’ve modified that for myself – read about the writers themselves as well. When you’re alone and suffering those scary writers’ blues and wondering if you’ll ever achieve the goals you’ve set, it helps to know that some really famous writers have been where you are and still have days when they doubt themselves or find it difficult to get that vivid idea in their head onto the page.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Judith Kerr’s brilliant children’s book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and it is also Judith Kerr’s birthday today, Thursday, 14 June. Judith Kerr is 95 years old and came to England as a refugee, escaping the wave of Fascism which took the lives of so many. The Tiger Who Came to Tea was a bedtime story she told to her daughter and it became her first picture book.
In a BBC Radio 4 programme this morning, she explained how she’ll make several copies of a piece of work to give her scope to play around and develop it. She freely admits that “Drawings don’t take me as long now because I’ve got better at it.” Such honesty is encouraging when so many famous writers prefer not to share their development process and give the impression that they’ve always been able to create with great ease.
Listening to her speak this morning and reading about her in the The Telegraph Magazine of 2 June, she had some useful tips and although she is an illustrator, she’s also a writer:
“I go on for as long as it works. You can’t just stop, even if what you’re doing is rubbish, because you have to work through that …”
However, when she has to stop, it’s always “at a point where the next thing is sort of in view.” And her final comment: “A blank page can be very intimidating.” We can all identify with that!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Judith Kerr!
“Pink Rabbits and Other Animals” available to download on BBC i player
Once upon a time in the world of publishing, there were adult books for adult readers and children’s books for children and never the twain crossed. Then Harry Potter was born and suddenly both children and adults were reading the same book or as it turned out, books as long as they began with the words “Harry Potter and …”
Suddenly it was okay for adults to read children’s books. Filmmakers tapped into this appetite for fantasy and fairy tales and plundered Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in search of magic. The same adults, who wouldn’t have touched the books, found it okay to go and watch the stories on the big screen.
And the totally cross over market emerged. Children’s publishing which had never reached the figures of the adult market was suddenly booming. More books than ever were being published for children. It was adults who were buying them for their children and grandchildren but it was adults who in many cases were also reading them.
A children’s novel, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge has just won the Costa Book of the Year while another children’s book, The Fox and the Star has become Waterstones Book of the Year. This is only the second time a children’s book has won the Costa and the first time one has won the Waterstones. What is it then that raised them above the other novels, mostly written for adults? Could it be that they fulfil a desire for wonder, excitement, the unexpected and the need of our inner child to truly suspend our disbelief and go back to those strange worlds that captivated us?
Those worlds where anything is possible, where you can fly with the help of a friendly dragon, restore order or defeat evil with a spell from your magic wand and combat and win against almost unassailable, overwhelming odds – how could anything grounded in reality compete with the chance to become a child once more. I don’t know why there’s so much fuss about the news – but I suppose some people are born grown-up!
Oh yes, and to celebrate Libraries Day today – five out of ten most borrowed books from UK libraries were children’s!
What would you do if one of your kids came home from school with a picture they’d drawn of themselves and it didn’t look anything like them because the drawing was of a child who was white and your child was black? You’d be worried about why they saw themselves like that but the answer wouldn’t be difficult to find. The overwhelming majority of characters in the media that surrounds us are white.
How many of us use characters from other cultures or ethnic minorities within our own country or do we stick to people with the same ethnicity as our own? Do we think about characters from other cultures only when a story might be racially based? As writers we use our imaginations and our life experiences to create worlds to which we can relate and if there are more writers from the larger racial group, then the characters created will mirror this, which is why society tries wherever possible to encourage diversity with box ticking.
Recently Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Producer from EastEnders, refused to support this practice. He ‘has rejected the idea of diversity targets on the show, adding that he has no intention of including ethnic minority characters just for their own sake.’ as doing this and then ‘defining them by story lines around ethnicity, sexuality or disability, would leave viewers with ”a blancmange”. The Guardian.
But why would he have to define them? Are the white characters in EastEnders defined in a similar way?
It was recently pointed out that fictional Walford is twice as white as the real East London but this is where market forces come into play. It’s not just East London that’s watching EastEnders; it’s the whole of the UK. When we watch drama, we’re in a make-believe world that won’t be a mirror image of the one on which it’s based. But do characters have to be defined by the story lines that Treadwell-Collins mentions?
I remember seeing the original Star Wars movie. It was in a small town cinema somewhere in the States and I apologise for not remembering exactly where as I was travelling around a lot then but the scene that stands out most in my mind is when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker go into the bar which is full of aliens and virtually every alien is different and speaks a different language. And nobody bats an eyelid. How’s that for diversity? How interesting, funny, engaging and downright entertaining that scene was. Now imagine what it would have been like if it had been full of characters from just one culture, the typical kind of character who featured in, say, a science fiction movie of the fifties or early sixties. You know the sort, where the men are all white and there’s a token female for the love interest and there to be rescued from the alien. Not half as interesting. And not one of those characters had story lines defining them. And yes, it was a feature film and not a continuing drama series but why should that matter?
Have we come very far along the road towards diversity? If we look back on say children’s books – I can’t remember any books from when I was growing up that had children from different ethnicities but then I can’t remember any books about kids from working class areas either. My favourite books as a child were fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm and the book that I will return to read over and over again, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You could say that when it came to diversity, Lewis Carroll was ahead of his time. Look at his characters, the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat and he even had a female as his protagonist. And when it comes to being completely inclusive, the Mad Hatter, who, after Shakespeare’s Richard III, must be one of the oldest disabled characters in history.
It was at a Commonword workshop on writing for children that I heard about the little boy and his picture. Commonword in Manchester champions diversity and encourages new writers. If you want to write for children, their annual competition is worth a look – http://www.cultureword.org.uk And if we want to achieve greater diversity in our writing, it’s up to us all to think outside the boxes that constrain us as well as the box ticking ones – that way we can be better writers and reach a wider audience.