Ahead of her appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the British children’s author, who with her Tracy Beaker series and other works, tackles difficult social issues, explains her writing process to Vision
I have something like 15,000 books stacked on bookshelves all over my home. At the back of the house is what used to be a dental surgery and I’ve had that turned into a library. I do keep my precious books beautifully shelved but I buy so many books purely for the pleasure of reading them that there are volumes strewn all over the place. It’s like one of those old-fashioned secondhand shops where you can barely move for piles of books.
I don’t own a Kindle. The pleasure of reading for me is in holding a physical book, turning the pages, and being able to flick back if I have forgotten anything or want to reread something special; and the smell too.
My favourite character [from my own books] is Hetty Feather, who’s a Victorian foundling. I so loved writing about this one character that there are now four other books about her. It’s been a wonderful self-indulgence to write this sort of thing and, luckily for me, children seem to enjoy reading it. Because I’m known for writing very contemporary books I did wonder if my readers might be resistant to the different tone of a historical book. There’s lots of drama, lots of emotion and lots of fear and trembling because of the nasty matrons at the Foundling Hospital.
I gave Hetty every disadvantage I could. She’s small, she’s scrawny, she has to be handed into a foundling hospital and she grows up not knowing who her mother is. Also, she’s red-haired, which, as she’s being trained to be a servant, is a disadvantage because people in Victorian times thought people with red hair had fierce tempers, meaning they were always the last to be chosen as servants. But in spite of all this adversity, I make her spirited and determined, and while I heap troubles upon her, she still manages to strive, bless her.
I like to balance out difficult subjects with comedy in my books. Even in real life when terrible things happen, a little black humour can be a way of coping with things. I think children rather enjoy sad or worrying passages, as long as they’re not relentless, and as long as there is a realistic way of dealing with upsetting things. There’s lots of light relief in my books, just to take the tension away, and I always try to have as upbeat an ending as I possibly can.
I’ve had a long, successful partnership with the wonderful illustrator Nick Sharratt. He manages, with just a few lines, to convey such a range of emotions. It is always a treat when I’ve sent him a first draft and he sends me back his idea of what the character looks like. He always gets it so right. He reads the book two or three times before he even starts drawing.
I’m a veteran of many literary festivals but I’ve never been so cherished and happy as when I’ve been to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. You get wonderful big audiences of children from a multitude of different races and cultures, and they are keen and eager readers. The nice thing about the festival is that it’s very much about igniting that love of reading among children.
I love visiting Dubai. The thing that perhaps impressed me most was going up the Burj Khalifa. As part of the visitor experience you are shown what Dubai was like 40 years ago. It’s almost magical – I don’t believe any other city has created itself in such an extraordinary fashion, and so quickly.