Ham&High Lit Fest: Lauren Child debuts her spin-off star Ruby Redfort

Lauren Child. Picture: Polly Hancock

Lauren Child. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

The children’s author opens up to Amanda Blinkhorn about her new book and her love of dolls’ houses.

Writer and illustrator Lauren Child has come a long way since she was sofa surfing in Kentish Town and filling in painting spots for Damien Hirst as she struggled to find a publisher to take her precocious story of a seven-year-old seriously. “Clarice Bean was rejected so many times,” said Child of the book which single-handedly restored picture books to the top of the best seller list. In the same way Pixar made cartoons palatable for grownups, Child’s wise, but never arch, heroes and heroines also enabled adults to face bedtime stories with, if not a leap in their heart, at least an appreciative, knowing smile.

Thanks to Clarice – who was closely followed by Charlie and Lola, the very wonderful Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent and, more recently girl detective Ruby Scarlet – Child is now comfortably settled in a large house in Primrose Hill and has enough Smartie awards behind her to lay a trail clear across Hampstead Heath to Kristin Baybar’s toyshop in Gospel Oak. The shop is an on/off miniature emporium whose treasured dolls houses are cunningly hidden from view of all but the most determined and curious child. It is one of Child’s favourite places in the world.

“It’s almost got too many things in it,” said Child, who used the shop to furnish not only her own dolls house, but also to decorate some of the extraordinarily beautiful miniature sets which grace the pages of her 2005 retelling of The Princess and the Pea.

Child has a soft spot for dolls’ houses and her own, now 30-years-old, will be on show at the House of Illustration in Granary Square, King’s Cross, until February 2016. Fans can hear more about this and also her latest creation, secret agent Ruby Redfort at the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival later this month.

Ruby Redfort first saw the light of day as the heroine of Clarice Bean’s favourite book, and after a succession of children continued to ask about her she was made the heroine of her own series of books. “I love spinoffs,” said Child, “It’s a bit like Rhoda coming from the Mary Tyler Moore show”.

The writer keeps her heart firmly away from her paint-splattered sleeve when she’s working. “I don’t do messages and I don’t do issue books” she says emphatically. In Child’s world, children are purely fictional creatures who sound, deliberately, as if they come from a different time and place. They say “bother” and complain about annoying big sisters who “barge in” and even more annoying boys next door. The lack of current children’s cadence is deliberate, explains Child, partly because it dates so quickly, but also because they are not real. They don’t say “like” (as punctuation) either, because often her books are either based in the past, like Ruby Redfort, which is set firmly in the ‘70s, or in a time of fairy tales, pink milk and storybook wolves who come to life.

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Child’s own life could not be more different. She takes an active role in children’s charities and it was while working for Unicef that she visited Mongolia and began supporting, with her presence and her cash, street children who had been, through a combination of, she says, crude overdevelopment and polarising poverty, abandoned to fend for themselves. She resisted the urge to sweep them off the street herself and instead went through “the proper channels” to adopt a child. The result, after much heartache, sleepless nights and three tough months in Mongolia, is Tuesday, her now five-and-a-half-year-old adopted daughter, whose beauty, pigtails and beady eyes have prompted friends to tell her she looks “as if you’ve drawn her”.

Indeed, Child has begun to outsource some of her own creative work to Tuesday. Her handiwork can be seen in the latest Charlie and Lola creation. “She’s a very good colourer-inner,” explained Child.

We wouldn’t expect anything less. Lauren Child will be speaking about her work at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival on November 14. Visit handhlitfest.co.uk. Her Dolls’ House will be on display at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross N1C 4BH from October 30 2015 to February 7. Visit houseof illustration.org.uk for details.