BAD CHILDREN, GRUMPY ANGELS AND INTERSTELLAR AGENCIES: Emma Barnes chats with Luke Perrell-Williams, one of the first readers of her forthcoming book How (not) To Make Bad Children Good.
One problem for a children’s author working on a new story is that niggling question of how to know whether any actual real, live, breathing children – today’s children – are going to enjoy the result. Nearing the end of her latest book How (not) To Make Bad Children Good , and afflicted by writerly doubt, caffeine overload and incipient RSI in every limb, Emma Barnes decided to find out what some real children thought about her latest draft. Chief among her literary critics were the book-worms that lived just down the road, and here she chats with one of them, Luke Perrell-Williams.
Emma: Luke, you were the oldest of my child readers: you love reading, and you write your own books blog. What kind of books do you like reading now?
Luke: I’m very fond of sci-fi and fantasy books. One of my favourite types of books are when they get old myths and add modern twists, like the Percy Jackson series.
Emma: Did How (not) remind you of other books you read when you were younger?
Luke: Not particularly – there are lots of books with naughty main characters but I haven’t read one with an angel reforming them before! Why did you choose to write about a Guardian Angel and a bad child?
Emma: Writing about naughty main characters is always fun. But they need to have a foil. And for a long, long time I had the idea in my head for a Guardian Angel character. Only my Guardian Angel wasn’t going to be patient and kind, the way you expect Guardian Angels to be. He was a Guardian Angel with flaws: he was often grumpy, and didn’t even like children that much. Also, although he is convinced he knows best sometimes he doesn’t! He is often out-witted too.
When I was a child I had a very old book with some Guardian Angel stories in it, and although I loved it, I couldn’t help wondering if a real child would always be as biddable and grateful for their Guardian’s guidance as the stories suggested. After all it’s not always that straightforward, how to be good, and I thought a truly sparky child would point this out.
Luke: When we read the early draft, he was definitely an Angel, but then he became an Interstellar Agent. Why is that?
Emma: It was fun to bring him up-to-date, with all kinds of technological gizmos. Also there are strong religious connotations to angels, but I was setting out to write a funny book, not a religious one, and didn’t want to give the wrong impression.
Luke: What or who inspired the characters in the book? Do any of the characters exist in real life?
Emma: I have never met an Interstellar Agent called Fred, with the job of sorting out bad children and making them good! Although maybe on a bad day I am a bit like Fred. I think all parents are. We like to present ourselves to our children as wise and all-knowing but they soon work out that we are as full of inconsistencies as everyone else. And that it’s often a case of “do as I say, not as I do”!
As for Martha – she appeared in my head fully formed. She certainly isn’t me. She’s too fierce and feisty. However, when we were growing up there might have been an element of Martha and her older sister, Sally, in my sister and myself. I was the snooty older sister, like Sally, and my sister Rosy was the rumbustious one, challenging the status quo and always struggling for attention. She certainly wouldn’t have been cowed by any Interstellar Agent.
Luke, as one of three yourself, what did you think of the family in How (not)?
Luke: When I was reading the book I could understand all their points of view. Martha’s brother and sister get far more attention than her, and that makes her annoyed because she would like more attention to herself. Sometimes I can relate to how she feels – I can put lots of time and effort into something, and my parents take too long to appreciate that!
Emma: It’s often said in the children’s book world that boys won’t read books about girls. What do you think about this? Did that bother you when reading How (not)?
Luke: It didn’t bother me at all. I find it completely equal whether it’s a boy character or a girl character if the story is good. For example, Pippi Longstocking, George in the Famous Five series. I know several people who probably would be bothered by the gender of the main character but I don’t think they are the type of people who love to read.
Emma: That’s good to hear. It’s quite challenging when writing about a comical naughty child to get the balance right between being too tame and right over the top. How do you think the book succeeded?
Luke: Pretty well, because while Martha does some horrible things, she thinks she has a good reason for them. I liked the character of Martha and I loved how she used her parents’ decisions against them: like donating her mother’s money to charity, then saying “you have more just like it” when her mother had said the same thing to Martha about the toys that her mother wanted to donate!
I was wondering what was the first actual story you wrote without any school guidelines or anything? The first one that came just from you?
Emma: I was scribbling down stories from primary school age, and the first ones were very much Enid Blyton inspired. They were versions of The Famous Five or Mallory Towers. The problem was finishing them: I loved setting up the situation and the characters, but once the plot got tricky I abandoned them. So lots of first chapters.
The first story I actually finished was written for a short story competition in the local newspaper. I won a pair of Birkenstock sandals.
Luke: I hate people changing my work, because it doesn’t feel like mine anymore. How do you feel about being edited and revised? What do you think of the changes you’ve made from your original story?
Emma: I hate it at first. When my agent phones and says I need to change something I usually have a good old sulk, but once I start tinkering with the manuscript I can see she’s right. It was interesting this time getting child readers’ responses. I remember you and your sibs didn’t see that it was Martha’s fault when the ceiling came down, even though she got the blame, so I had to work out how to make that section much naughtier!
Luke: And how about seeing the pictures for the first time?
Emma: That’s an odd feeling too – but I’ve been very lucky with illustrators, and this time I have the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark (a favourite in your family, I know) producing her vision of Martha and Fred, as you can see.
Luke: Will there be a follow-up to How (not)? Will we see more of Martha and Fred?
Emma: I hope there will, because I definitely have ideas brewing. However it will depend on a lot of things – not least how many copies are sold of this book. If there is another, you will certainly be seeing it first!
Luke blogs at http://lukesreads.blogspot.com.
For more about Emma Barnes go to www.emmabarnes.info
How (not) To Make Bad Children Good will be appearing later this summer, from Strident Publishing.
Emma would like to give a big thank you to Bonnie, Laura, Piyusha and Zack who also read the early version of the book.