Lauren Child proves you don’t have to be a mother to write children’s books

lauren Child

lauren Child - Credit: Archant

Author behind Clarice Bean and Ruby Redfort fights back against cliches

For a long time, Lauren Child endured questions about how she could write for children when she had none of her own.

That all changed when she adopted three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Tuesday from Mongolia after travelling there as a UNESCO Artist for Peace.

But the multi-million selling illustrator and creator of Charlie and Lola, Clarice Bean and now Ruby Redfort, still chafes at the unimaginative notion that a writer cannot “get” children if they don’t have them.

“I was always asked ‘how can you write for children when you haven’t got one’ but the idea you have to be around your audience to know what they want is so obviously ridiculous.

“Now I feel quite lucky I didn’t have a child when I started because it’s easy to get sentimental or sidetracked by your own fears and desires for your child, when what you have to do as a writer is to pare it right back and distil it.”

Take Lola, a little girl modelled on a fidgety toddler Child once observed on a train journey. Her charm lies in getting her word order slightly wrong or adding amusing emphasis – but over-egg the piping little voice, and it’s suddenly saccharine.

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“I suppose I am suited to writing children’s books because I love illustration and I understand my audience. It’s a world I remember very clearly, how it felt – but I don’t live in a child’s world – I wish I did, and I don’t have to hang around children to write for them. It’s about being able to tune in.”

She adds: “I don’t really think about what a child might like when I write. Talk to most children’s writers and they don’t think about their audience, they write what they feel passionate about.”

The 48-year-old, who lives in Belsize Park, had tried several unsuccessful ventures, and was in her early 30s, when a friend suggested she write a children’s book.

Instant success

Clarice Bean That’s Me (1999) was an instant success and Child has said the relief and joy at finding something she was good at was all the sweeter because she’d experienced relative failure.

Since then she seems incapable of putting a foot wrong.

The latest of her memorable characters is Ruby Redfort, a 13-year-old special agent and maths genius, who started off as a character in books read by Clarice, then stepped into her own series after young fans begged Child to write about her.

“Writing Clarice put me in touch with lots of older girls, up to 13. I started getting letters because Ruby first appeared in those Clarice Bean novels, from readers asking me if they were real books.”

The third book Catch Your Death (Harper Collins) is out this month and the series – and its cool, geeky, daring, gadget-laden heroine – has propelled Child to the third best-selling author for teenage girls.

Ruby is a self-assured go-getting heroine, but Child bridles somewhat at the notion that she’s a role model.

“It can feel quite pressurized, it’s often discussed in the press – what’s a valuable or important book for a child to read. I say children should not be made to read at all, they should just read for pure pleasure – who’s to say what someone gets out of a book?

“Ruby’s pretty capable, sometimes she rescues someone and they rescue her back. That feeling of jeopardy is important to a crime novel. She was meant to be a fun caper, a slightly silly book in a James Bond kind of way.”

Child has enjoyed writing crime, though admits the plots have taxed her brain.

“It’s horrible – like doing maths. You have to keep everything in your head, remember when you said it, go back through the manuscript to make sure you haven’t left something behind. Everything has to play out.

“If you mention something you have to tie it up at the end and you constantly worry you are either making things too obscure or too obvious.

As a child growing up in Marlborough – where her father daught art at the public school – she was the middle of three sisters and loved the likes of Pippi Longstocking, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, and Anne of Green Gables.

“I loved books with girls at the centre. There was nothing princessy about those books and none of my friends are princessy. I’m not interested in that world.”

When it came to turning the hugely popular Charlie and Lola into an animated TV series, Child as co-developer put her foot down to veto pink and lilac in the marketing.

As an art school graduate, who once had a job painting spots for Damien Hirst, she has a sophisticated eye for colour, texture and patterns, used to brilliant effect in her illustrations.

“That gender/colour thing I find really awful. We are so tough on all the marketing to make sure everything is a lovely colour. It’s not about who wears what. Clarice could have been a boy – there’s nothing in there about her being a girl. I feel it’s sad how we market girls’ and boys’ things differently.”

Child who has won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s illustration, the Gold Smarties Award for children’s books and was awarded an MBE in 2010 for services to children’s literature, says it’s always pictures before words for her.

“I always have to be able to visualize something in order to write about it. Ruby I imagined as a film and writing the books is almost like transcribing that film onto the page.

“When I write a picture book I can see the world it’s in. Some of the spreads are obvious, some are blank. I start working on the ones I understand and that informs the blank ones.

“Sometimes I feel a surprise and the page zooms in or pulls out from a character or I go into an abstract, and my brain has found the answer to those blanks.”

And how has having a pre-schooler in the house changed her life?

“I’ve had to reconfigure me and my work. I used to work in the evenings or at weekends when no-one’s going to find you. You have a sudden shock that you can’t just work when you feel motivated.

“It’s recalibrating everything – the need for clarity for both of you is really important.”

Ruby Redfort Catch Your Death is out on October 10, price £12.99.