How growing up in Highgate inspired my children's book
- Credit: Matty Swann
Children’s author and teacher, Michael Mann, explains how growing up in Highgate inspired his book, Ghostcloud which features Hampstead Heath as a magical place once night falls.
The best thing about writing a book is that you get to put your favourite things in it. If you read Ghostcloud, you’ll soon realise that North London is one of those.
It's a magical adventure set in London, but not as we know it. It is a London where Big Ben beeps and there are robot-horse carriages, where the Channel Tunnel is closed and the Thames has flooded the East. Indeed, the only part of London that looks familiar is the North, rising green above the smog, although at night, even the Heath has some unusual visitors.
It’s a story about courage, friendship and finding your voice – just as I found my voice in Golders Green where I went to King Alfred's School, and Highgate where my parents ran a GP practice near Swain’s Lane. We lived above it and my favourite memories were heading up to Parliament Hill and rolling down it with my brothers. I loved the view from there – you could see the whole world. The whole sky too. This led to one of the ideas in my book.
In Ghostcloud, when you see a shape in the clouds – whether it’s a horse, a snake, or a skull – there’s a chance that it saw you first. My hero - twelve-year-old Luke - goes up to this magical ‘ghostcloud’ world and learns to do the things these ghosts can: to ride the clouds, bend their shape to his will, fire lightning and make it rain – all the things I wished I could do from the top of Parliament Hill.
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My early years at King Alfred’s School, before my family moved to Yorkshire, were also formative. Recently, rummaging through my garage, I was astonished – and moved – to see that I didn’t just have an old exercise book, but a treasure trove of stories, lovingly bound and typed up by the teachers.
They’d even cut the book into exciting shapes: the genie story was in the shape of a golden lamp, the time machine a clock with spinning hands. I am a teacher now and know that doing that for a class of kids would take ages. But I also know it would make a huge difference and send a message to pupils. Even from this young age, my stories were clearly valued. My imagination was valued. It didn’t matter that my handwriting was terrible. What mattered was the stories and my voice. I feel lucky. Who wouldn’t love writing stories when you could make books like that?
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Years later, when I moved back to London after University - living in Archway, Highgate, then Tufnell Park – I found myself rediscovering the area. This time I loved not just the landmarks, but the people. Compared to Yorkshire, I loved the diversity, which even today, isn’t sufficiently reflected in children’s fiction – especially not those with magical elements. So I tried to make my characters diverse. Luke, is half-Indian like me, and many of the characters feel like they don’t quite fit the categories, but through the course of the book learn to accept it.
Finally, and less seriously, another way North London shaped my story was through the resentment I felt about visiting South London! It was just too far. I used to joke with my South London friends that nobody should be allowed to live there, and then when writing the book, guess what? I turned South London into a toxic wasteland, save for Battersea Power Station.
So if you read Ghostcloud, you are guaranteed a few hours when you can imagine a utopia of never having to ride the Northern line past Waterloo.
Ghostcoud is out on October 7 and available to pre-order from bookshops. Signed copies will be available at Owl Books Kentish Town and Daunt Books Hampstead & Belsize Park.