‘Hmm, I think we’ll have pickled antchovies. Have we got any ants, Wilbur?’
Pippa Goodhart aka Laura Owen has been nominated for the EMBA Award for The Misadventures of Winnie the Witch a storybook of eight stories about an eccentric witch called Winnie and her side-kick Wilbur the cat.
How do you feel about being nominated for the East Midlands Book Award?
Truly excited and honoured, particularly when the shortlisting for this kind of story is usually dismissed in serious considerations of literature, but which I, as a writer, take very seriously. I was particularly thrilled when I saw the high standard of the other books on the longlist.
So is there more going on in the ‘Winnie’ stories than a cursory glance is likely to reveal?
Yes. The ‘Winnie’ stories are written to be full of action and humour, while wanting to engage young readers at a deeper level by tackling the kind of emotional experiences that will resonate with young children. For example, Winnie and her cat Wilbur are very good friends but at times each may want different things. This causes problems which are eventually resolved through compromise. There is also the longing to belong, and the hope not to look a fool, which happens when Winnie tries to set up a circus. She begins by wanting to be admired for the beauty of her high wire act, only for it to go wrong. The school children, who she calls ‘the little ordinaries’ laugh at her, which hurts her feelings; something anyone can relate to. Then Winnie realizes that being laughed at is not so bad and ‘the little ordinaries’ love her for being funny. There are many other things that happen to Winnie in the stories that young children can relate to and talk about.
What do you say to people who believe that writing fiction for young children is really easy, because these kinds of books don’t need many words?
Books for young children are very complicated and in their own way can make just as many demands on a writer as an adult work of fiction. In fact, story and picture books can be read as critically as any novel, which is exactly what you must do if you want to write well. You have to be very aware of the limitations of reading ability and the need to reward the struggle of reading with a really fun, very short story. This means a low word limit and every word must count.
'Winnie' is so much fun to read that I suspect there will be no problem with encouraging parents to read along with their children. How much is literacy a factor in deciding what goes into a 'Winnie' story?
It depends what you mean by 'literacy'. I was somebody who struggled with learning to read, and was stuck on very boring early reader books for far too long. I like to reward young readers with a fast-paced funny story that also has some depth to it. The 'Winnie' stories aren't particularly easy to read because they include some strange made-up words, but, to my delight, young readers do apparently enjoy reading the stories partly in order to tackle those funny words! But they don't fit any formal educational 'literacy' ideas about teaching reading.
Pictures play a major role in your books, adding another dimension to your writing. Is this also another reason why your books are not as simple as they seem to create?
Yes the books I write are not just about the words. The structure of a picture book is particularly important if it’s going to work. If you want to write a picture book then you need to know how many spreads you have, and where the page turns, because the drama of the book comes in the reveal on turning the page. You have to think about a picture book in terms of a theatrical production.
How does collaborating with illustrators work?
The publishers chose them. Sometimes I get to work with the illustrator and sometimes I don’t. It’s a great treat if I do and I think working with somebody is the best combination, because then I can change the words to enhance the illustrations and vice versa. I’ve become very familiar with the style of Korky Paul, who illustrates the 'Winnie' stories. I’ll throw things into the story for him to illustrate, and he’ll do the same for me with his illustrations. These challenges result in a bit of a game between us. ‘Winnie’ stories are very action-packed and we create them with the idea that ‘Winnie’ may one day be animated.
How did you become a children’s author?
It began back in school when I got a Saturday job at a big bookshop in Cambridge. I worked there every Saturday and in the school holidays and continued to work there in university holidays. I eventually returned to work there full-time for five years in their children’s bookshop, until I married and moved to Leicester in 1986. Working there was very useful because I got to know authors, illustrators and publishers.
While at home with two small children I had a go at writing a story for a competition. The story became my first book Flow (now reissued as Rescued by a Dog Called Flow), which was a story about the adventures of a young boy and his dog called Flow.
I’ve written about eighty books since then. Ranging from board books to picture books, early readers to novels and even one adult book, but the Winnie stories are the only long series I’ve done that was commissioned. Commissions are usually only offered to established authors and I was asked them because I was known for writing children’s books.
As well as commissioned books I do write books I want to do, but then I have to try and see if I can find a publisher. ‘You Choose’ is a catalogue of ideas that contains only twelve sentences. It came directly from watching my own children looking through catalogues and choosing things. They may not have been able to have the things they wanted but that didn’t stop them imagining what they would do with them if they did. It was turned down by nine publishers because it hadn’t got a story. However, I persisted and was lucky enough for it to land on the desk of an editor who had small children herself and saw its potential. Marrying that idea with Nick Sharrat, who spent two years illustrating it, was vital to its success. It’s now sold over a million copies and won a ‘Mumsnet’ award.
I’m not always successful but more and more publishers are coming to me and asking me to write particular things, which is exactly how 'Winnie' came to me and I’m so glad I said yes because they are a treat to write.
You also work with children in schools, how much does this help you as a writer?
It helps in two ways. The first is very practical, in that about half my income comes from school visits and teaching writing, rather than directly writing the books. Very few people can earn a reasonable income from just writing books. This particularly applies to illustrated books where the royalties have to be split between the author and illustrator, although the royalties are higher for picture books because they are only published if there’s an international deal. The second point is that working closely with my audience allows me to see their reaction and find out what does and doesn’t work.
Why do you use Laura Owen for the 'Winnie' stories and not your own name?
The first Winnie the Witch story came out twenty five years ago in July. Valerie Thomas, an Australian lady, was the first author to write about 'Winnie'. She wrote eight or nine picture books over the years, illustrated by Korky Paul. Then publishers decided to have some longer, more complex stories for slightly older children. This is where I came in. Valerie agreed, but said the new writer should be called Laura Owen. So at first I used to dedicate the book to a Goodhart, but I finally ran out of Goodharts. However, I did manage to sneak myself into a later book when Winnie uses the services of a ghostwriter with the initials PG.
Where do you see yourself going now with your writing?
More of the same if I’m lucky enough. The next books that are coming out are a great mix. There’s the follow on to ‘You Chose’ called ‘Just Imagine’, as well as more 'Winnie' stories and some early readers. I’ve also written a historical children’s adventure novel set in the Klondike gold rush, which is due to come out next year.
The winner of the East Midlands Book Award will be announced on 24 May 2012, 7-9 PM, Haddon Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire, DE45 1LA.
LeftLion will be featuring all nominees over the next two months.