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Authorgraph No.241


intelligent, pacy novels for young people, has also written for film, TV and even a computer game. Yet the word that Catherine uses most to describe her career is ‘lucky’, claiming she just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Anyone who has read any of her skilfully written novels will know that there’s a lot more to


C


hatting to Catherine in her bright, airy flat in Hastings made for a very enjoyable afternoon. She’s funny, smart, full of astute observations about writing and the current writing scene.


There’s a lot to discuss: Catherine has been writing for 25 years and as well as her vivid,


Catherine Johnson interviewed by Andrea Reece


The last couple of years have been very good for Catherine Johnson: she won the 2019 Little Rebels Award with her novel Freedom, was elected to the elite band of writers in the Royal Society of Literature, and then to cap it all, IBBY UK selected Freedom for its three-strong nominations for the IBBY Honour List (outstanding books that encourage international understanding through literature). Joking, Catherine says that conditioned by years writing for TV soap operas, she’s now waiting for something to go wrong: ‘Just when everything is going really well, that’s always when the car goes over the cliff…’.


her success than luck. I was unable to convince Catherine of this, perhaps this summary by Fen Coles of supporters Letterbox Library will change her mind: ‘For us at Letterbox Library, where so much of the middle grade fiction we see is dominated by scatologically- tinged comedy or adorable animal series (and I have enjoyed both in my time), Johnson’s work is a welcome diversion delivering: quickstep, intricate plots; authentic dialogue; complex historical events (the first North Pole expeditions, the French Revolution, the 1781 Zong massacre) distilled into lightning-flash narratives; with period characters who nevertheless feel as familiar as marmalade on toast. Notably, Catherine respects her young readers. She doesn’t confine her more ‘mature’ material to a YA readership, believing instead that a younger audience is more than capable of reading about the devastating cruelties of enslavement and more than ready to handle- with relish and a grimace!- some of the more gruesome realities of life in 18th century England. And she achieves all of this because, we believe, she is truly one of our greatest middle fiction storytellers, giving us, time and time again, adventures and mysteries which will not date nor be set aside by market trends. This is how classics are made.’ Coles adds: ‘Stella was the first children’s novel I read when I joined Letterbox Library and it has never left me. Yes, it chimed with many of my own reading-for-pleasure criteria (part-gothic/part-historical mystery, a defiant female lead, trickery and skulduggery in spadefuls) but I’m sure it also settled in my heart as the first slice of children’s historical fiction I’d ever read which starred a protagonist who wasn’t white. Catherine’s passion for portraying UK history accurately – a history populated by a rich diversity of people across ethnicity and class and gender – is felt across her body of work. She is, quite simply, putting people of


8 Books for Keeps No.241 March 2020


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