I’m there because I am nine years old and I have just read Matilda by Roald Dahl.
One question that crops up a lot when discussing children’s books is “what do kids want to read?” The answer to that is anything and everything, but I’ve always wondered what important elements make certain stories really special for them.
So when I started writing Witch Wars I decided to go back to all the books I really loved as a child in an attempt to pinpoint what it was that made them stand out.
I joined Broughty Ferry library because I wanted to be Matilda, and I wanted to be Matilda because she was powerful. Dahl’s books portray powerful, resilient children in a world dominated by idiot adults, and he empowers the child reader also, by trusting them to get it. His jokes are, structurally, as complex as those written for adults, just with kid-appropriate content. It’s never dumbed down, or patronising, because kids will get it. And kids read that message between the lines – they know Roald Dahl is a guy on their side.
Take George’s Marvellous Medicine, about a boy who tries to poison his grandmother. Kids find it funny because they recognise how extreme and ridiculous it is, and that’s the joke. No kid has ever finished that book and thought well that was an incredibly informative murder manual…
It did inspire seven-year-old me to make a dubious “marvellous medicine” of my own (mostly ketchup and face wash), but then again, Delia Smith’s cookbook inspired my sister to make biscuits out of mud and fairy liquid (added to reduce the earthy smell). She, being far more enterprising than me, sold them to the neighbours, including elderly Mrs Smith*, who later called my mum to complain she was “foaming at the mouth”.
Funny books ranked highly among my favourites, along with those I felt I had discovered by myself.
In the library I found Harriet the Spy. What I remember the most about that book, apart from the cool notebook Harriet had and that she figured everything out in the end, was trying to balance on a frayed beanbag so I could reach it on one of the high shelves. And I remember what it felt like to check it out of the library and take it home, just like Matilda.
So much of the magic of books is wrapped up in how kids discover them, whether it’s a library, a great bookshop or a friend’s bookshelf.
Sometimes it’s the magic of who reads them – your sibling doing all the voices or your granddad reading The Twits and shouting in his thick Dublin accent, “WELL, SURE, I DIDN’T THINK THE BALLOONS WERE GOING TO LIFT MRS TWIT, DID YOU?” rather than actually finishing the story.
The Worst Witch helped me cope with bullies, Tracey Beaker was cool and had a great hamburger cartoon on the cover by illustrator Nick Sharratt, which I doodled for years, and Peter Pan made thimbles weird.
Witch Wars is in many ways a nod to all the books I love. The first chapter is after the first chapter in Alice in Wonderland (Down the Rabbit Hole/Down the Plughole) and Patricia the Producer in Brollywood is a big fan of the book and film adaptation of Mary Poppins. She comes soaring into the scene on an umbrella singing ‘SUPERCALAFRAGI-‘ but crash lands before she can finish, for potential copyright reasons…
And it is, hopefully, a product of the lessons I’ve learned from what I loved as a child: strong kid characters, lots of jokes, and the sense that the author knows you’ll get it. The only thing I can’t really control is how kids discover the book, although – fittingly – a kid contacted me recently to say she found Witch Wars in WHSmith in Heathrow, and she was allowed to buy it and “one of the big Dairy Milks”.
*Names changed to protect the innocent.
Witch Wars by Sibéal Pounder and Laura Ellen Anderson (illustrator) is available to order online today.