Your stories take place in evocative settings: the Amazon, New York, Paris, Russia... As a writer, what elements do you think are essential to creating such captivating atmospheres?
I want to create worlds that feel so dense with atmosphere that it feels children are stepping into them: so I do a lot of reading, research, and ideally exploring the place myself before I begin.
Besides, you set your stories in recent past periods, differing from most contemporary novels. What attracts you to them?
I think some of it is the simplicity it gives you - without technology, you can take children out of their safe daily spaces and place them into peril and adventure more readily. I also want to give children a sense of the past as a vivid, living thing: something to find out about, and be fascinated by, not just a list of dates and names.
Even so, The Good Thieves is set in the 20s and it addresses current relevant topics, such as racism and economic inequality. The characters refer to themselves as 'necessary thieves' because they aim to recover something —physical or symbolic— that the society has taken away from them. Why do you find it important to include social vindication in your books?
My children’s books are where I go to lay down the things I believe in, and hope for, most passionately —so they often have a sense of the perils and joys of the world. So having characters who speak about economic inequality and racism—in the way that real children today really do— was important to me.
We have heard that you travelled to the Amazon, like The Explorer; that, in your spare time, you walk on the rooftops like Sophie and that you spent your childhood in Zimbabue like Wilhelmina. Did the personal experience or the documentation for the novels come first?
It varies —I went to the Amazon to research the spark of an idea for a book— but the rooftop walking inspired Rooftoppers entirely by accident. I was clambering around on the rooftop of my Oxford college one night and found an empty glass bottle of beer, and thought —what if someone really lived up on the rooftops— what then?
You come across, if you will, as 'The Queen of Wild' (The Wolf Wilder, The Girl Savage...). Is there a life philosophy behind it? How would you describe it?
Yes, absolutely! I want children, as they grow, to keep hold of something within them that will resist the imperatives of adulthood —the constant blare of capitalism, the anxious noise of social media. I want them to keep their inner wildness: the part of us that longs for things that are bigger than material possessions, which longs for human connection and connection with the animal world. I want to tell them: the world is far huger and stranger and wider and more beautiful and more unwieldy than anything anyone can sell you in a shop or from a politician’s podium.
Your work stands between children's literature and YA. What elements make a middle-grade book?
I think good children’s books need three things: peril, and love, and good food.
There are reminiscences from the children's classics in your books. Are there some that you always come back to?
I loved the Moomins, and E Nesbit’s books, especially The Railway Children: they’re books with kindness and generosity and wit in their bones, books that suggest that adventures do not have to take place too far from home to be enormous and glorious.
Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, your manifesto in favor of Children's Literature, has not been translated into Spanish yet. However, we have read it and loved it. What would you remark as its core message for our readership?
Thank you! The main argument is: there is so much in children’s books that can be electric and transformative for an adult reader. Children’s books, because they are short and because children have no patience with equivocation, are a distillation of some of our most vulnerable qualities - love, hope, faith, fear, endurance. They distill those things into a very small space - they become a kind of literary vodka.
How do your work as a scholar and as an author relate to one another?
I think they inform each other in that reading the poetry of John Donne —which is what my doctoral thesis was on— reminds me constantly that language is not a set of rules but a set of possibilities.
During the lockdown, you edited an anthology on hope, The Book of Hopes, in which more than one hundred authors collaborated. Could you tell us how was the process? What was the readers' response?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself very much in need of hope. I sent out messages to more than 100 writers and artists, asking them to do a small drawing or write a short piece —no more than 500 words— that would spark hope in the children who read it. The response was glorious - we put it online for free, and hundreds of thousands of children read it; we got the most glorious letters, about children writing a Book of Hopes of their own.
One of our favorite things about your books is how polished is your writing style in them. How long does it take you to write one?
A very long time! I tend to write and re-write, sometimes as many as 16 or 17 drafts.
Do you have any peculiar talent, such as Vita's aim? If you could become one of your characters, in which of your worlds would you like to live an adventure?
Ha —alas I’m not as good at anything as Vita is at throwing her knife! But I taught myself to walk a tightrope when I was younger. And I’ve been learning to fly a small two-seater aeroplane.
Two of your novels, The Wolf Wilder and The Girl Savage, have not been translated into Spanish yet. We would love to hear about some experiences you had with them. What will the readers find different in these stories?
The Girl Savage was my first book and is based (very very loosely indeed!) on my own childhood growing up in Zimbabwe. The Wolf Wilder is one of the books I most loved writing —it’s about fighting for what you believe in, and about revolution and the wonderful ferocity of children, and wolves.
We eagerly await to read something from you again. What can you tell us about what your future projects?
My next book will be one for adults, about John Donne and his strange alchemical poetry —and then a picture book for younger readers, about a girl who bumps her head and learns how to talk to animals. They’re very very different, but they have in common a desire to talk about how vast the world is, and how beautiful.
We are very thankful for your kind words!