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Authorgraph No.198


f, like me, a lot of what you read is sent to you for review, it is quite rare to be surprised by a book or by a writer. But I was lucky enough to have such an experience late last year, when, in the same batch of

books, I was sent two by Sally Gardner. One was Operation Bunny, The Fairy Detective Agency’s First Case, the first of a series, Wings and Co, aimed at younger readers; and the other was Maggot Moon, a dystopian novel for teenagers. Operation Bunny is surreal and funny, and spiked with a gentle social satire. Maggot Moon is a dystopia set not in some imagined future but in a re-imagined past and told by a boy whose view of it, and the manner of his telling, is dark, disturbing and joyously idiosyncratic. And, taking the two books together, this seemed to me to be a writer who could do anything. So it was no surprise to me when Maggot Moonwon the Costa Award for the Children’s Book of the Year 2012.

When I met Sally for this Authorgraph, I realised that she brings not only a unique experience to her writing but also convictions that have been formed in a life and career whose achievements have required considerable self-belief. Before she began her career in children’s books, she had spent fifteen years as a theatre set and costume designer, and had worked with some of the biggest names – ‘amazing people’ like Alan Ayckbourn and Adrian Mitchell. She is passionate about the theatre, and sees it as a marvellous training ground for writing. ‘That’s where you see a story fail or really, really succeed. And I was incredibly fortunate to work with living authors, to see how a play can be developed, how a play can be tightened, and what can really hold an audience. ‘

As a child, Sally was a storyteller. ‘I had incredibly complicated stories going in my head all the time. I liked to go on long walks with my father and step-mother because I could get the beat going.’ But she never thought she could be a writer: ‘I was so dyslexic. Like Winnie the Pooh, I couldn’t spell Tuesday.’ In some ways, as the daughter of two prominent lawyers, growing up in Gray’s Inn, her childhood might be thought to be privileged. Her school life, which she has described in other interviews, must have been anything but. Expelled from one school, and thought to be ‘unteachable’, she ended up as a teenager in a school for ‘maladjusted’ children. There things finally fell into place and she gained a place at college to study theatre arts.

She has strong words to say about the way our education system treats children who don’t fit its expectations: ‘We push people out every day. Surely we are intelligent enough now to know about emotional and visual intelligence. If only education could pay more attention to the skills of the right hand side of the brain, we could scoop up so many children who are, at the moment, lost.’ Leaving college, Sally thought about training as a children’s illustrator, but her theatre career already had a momentum of its own. So illustration was put aside for fifteen years, until she had her own children. Her illustrations to other people’s texts first appeared in 1990, and she slowly made the transition to providing the words. Sally regards A Book of Princesses, first published in 1998 and recently reissued as five separate easy readers, as her first book as a writer.

14 Books for Keeps No.198 January 2013

Sally Gardner interviewed by Clive Barnes

Her illustrations for these retellings of classic fairy tales are delicate, charming, and humorous with an eye for detail. The story’s characters are presented as if in a miniature theatre with the minimum of setting. The text wasn’t easy, however. Sally was advised to take a standard retelling, change it slightly, and ‘it’s yours’. Following her own notion of what it meant to be a writer, Sally began to delve into the motivation of her characters and the mechanics of the plots: ‘How, for instance, did Snow White’s wicked step mother get into the forest three times when she was in Versace all the time?’ When she explained what she was doing to Judith Elliott, her editor at Orion, she was called in and, as she remembers, ‘Judith gave me a master class on writing for little people.’ She went away and started all over again. The final text is the perfect counterpart to the illustrations: spare, simple and, sometimes, slyly ironic and sceptical.

There was another challenge to meet: to write a complete story of her own. Judith Elliott encouraged her, discounting Sally’s misgivings about her dyslexia: ‘Think of the musicians who can’t read music. Don’t worry about the spelling. It can be sorted out later. You have a voice. Go for it.’ For a little while, she had been writing a story for younger readers in an exercise book. When she submitted it to Judith, the response was gratifying: ‘Well, I knew you could write, but I didn’t know you could write.’ The Strongest Girl in the World was the first of the hugely successful six books in the Magical Children series, written and illustrated by Sally. The mix of fun and magic, resourceful children, quirky plots, memorable adult characters and some touching moments, were to become the hallmarks of Sally’s writing for younger children.

In 2005 came the biggest breakthrough, the publication of her first full-length novel for older children, I, Coriander, which brought her critical acclaim and the Nestle Smarties

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