By Artika Raj for Youth Ki Awaaz:
When I was a kid… wait, before you run (as is the wont when most adults start a conversation like that), life was simple. Fun. Simple and fun. But not easy. Because hey, growing up is not easy. There were questions we had, curiosities that we plagued adults around us with (Why is this like that? Why is this not like that? What will happen if I press this button? I want to press this button!) and the recurring ‘I want’ needs that warranted immediate gratification.
But, here’s the clichéd – it was the best time of our lives.
And here, I believe, Lauren Child, will agree with me. The creator (writer and illustrator) of the phenomenally famous Clarice Bean, and Charlie and Lola series of books, as also Ruby Redfort, the spunky teen detective series for young children, Lauren Child, is a Member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) and winner of multiple awards such as the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and the Kate Greenaway Medal for her works. Her Charlie and Lola series, about an inquisitive little girl Lola and her indulgent elder brother Charlie, began back in 2000, and in 2005 was adapted into a TV series by the BBC. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, these immensely imaginative tales about the brother-sister duo are hugely entertaining not just for children, but adults nostalgic about those years too.
‘I have this little sister Lola.
She is small and very funny.
Sometimes I have to keep an eye on her.
Sometimes Mum and Dad ask me to give her her dinner.
This is a hard job because she is a very fussy eater.’
How many elder brothers would swear by that situation?!
Child’s work is unique in that her writing and her artwork are closely observant of everyday lives of children, minus the presence of adults, where they themselves deal imaginatively and creatively with their dilemmas. With lines that criss-cross, over and under, running across text and imagery, there is this playfulness in her work that also gives one an overwhelming sense of a child’s world – not really following the strict patterns of design and text, a peek into their stream of consciousness almost. This is of course reinforced by her use of a first person narrative for all her characters.
Luckily enough, Youth Ki Awaaz managed to catch the much-loved artist (she dons so many hats, this is just one of the many) who was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock no less for her young detective character – Ruby Redfort, for a quick interview over email. And just because we can, we’d like to imagine her typing away her answers to us, sitting in a cosy corner in her lovely North London home, as she looks out at the view – trees, people, and….
Artika Raj (AR): You mentioned in an interview, having a first offer to publish a book you and a friend had written when you were 18. While that didn’t really happen, in another interview you mentioned waking up on your 30th birthday with a decision that things needed to be changed. If you could take us back to that moment, before Clarice, Charlie and Lola came about, and the eventual publication of the books and the subsequent BBC series…
Lauren Child (LC): There can be pivotal moments in life and sometimes when you reach your lowest ebb, you gain a kind of clarity as you see things as they are. There is nowhere else to go. This happened to me when I was about 30. Most things I had been trying had been turned down or hadn’t worked out, and I was turning things down myself and not taking up oportunities that were being offered to me because I was afraid. Suddenly I look at my life as I was turning 30 and thought that this just wouldn’t do, so I started accepting work that I wasn’t sure of but knew that I just had to try. I’d already written Clarice Bean then and though it had been turned down by publishers numerous times, I still really believed in it. I sensed after years of failure that I had done something special, but that it just wasn’t the right time for it. I felt that though the publishers were rejecting it, it wasn’t because it wasn’t good work, it just didn’t suit them or fit their list. I needed to wait it out and then eventually someone would publish it.
AR: To an artist (also author for that matter) rejection may mean many things. Some may even say that it’s an artist’s greatest muse. How did you deal with this phase that you went through? ‘Clarice Bean, That’s Me’, your favourite, was reportedly rejected 5 times, and today that’s hard to imagine why. What would your advice be to other artists in such a circumstance?
LC: I believe that to be an artist you do need certain things– talent, luck and determination, but you’ve also got to have self belief to get through the rejections. You’ve got to be aware and keep listening to yourself as that will help guide your decisions. Clarice Bean was turned down by numerous people but what kept me going was that I felt certain that they all liked the work, that I’d done my best work. I was able to step back from the rejections because I still believed in Clarice Bean. If you are a creative person you have to be able to hold on to your belief in the work, without that we probably wouldn’t have many of the artists of recent times. What they have in common is a certain amount of inner resource and strength.
AR: Charlie as the elder, understanding brother is never irritated with Lola and her questions, but always patient and endearing. Unlike most older brothers! How did you envisage this relationship, and how has it changed/been built upon over the years, especially with the creation of the BBC series? Will we ever meet a teen Lola?
LC: There will never be a teen Lola. What I always say about Charlie is that we are really only seeing one aspect of him. There are children who are exceptionally tolerant – my sister was one of these, but with Charlie and Lola, we are just seeing 15 minutes of their lives, this lovely fragment of time. If you saw him a few hours earlier, things might be different. In my book Slightly Invisible, Charlie does get a bit fed up with Lola, but generally they are a hugely cooperative sibling pair and this is how they always appear in the tv series.
AR: While Hubert Horatio has ‘stupid parents’, one never sees Charlie and Lola’s parents in the pictures. Why so?
LC: Hubert’s parents aren’t really stupid. They are like children. What I was exploring was that sometimes in family relationships the children take on the adult role. They are anxious and care for their parents. I took this to a humorous extent where Hubert has to sort out the family problems for his parents. In Charlie and Lola, I am exploring how they relate to each other when their parents aren’t around. I wanted to show what it’s like to listen in to conversation between children without an adult voice interrupting.
AR: You said in an interview that ‘Adults forget how little control children feel they have. It is only when you grow up, you realise you don’t actually have that much control’. It is remarkable how your work addresses some very real questions that children face at that age, and even adults enjoy these, perhaps reminded of their own childhood – Could you tell us a bit about your writing process?
LC: I’ve got good childhood recall – quite a good sense of what it felt like when I was a child. I am also quite good at observing what goes on around me. Watching from afar you can pick up shreds of a story, little fragments of life that can be used for stories. I suppose this is a kind of observational memory. I like to listen to the way people and children talk to each other. I jot things down or sometimes I do a drawing. I’ve no idea if it going to turn into a character or a situation but I keep a notebook with me. And sometimes I build a story around something that I’ve drawn or written down. But usually, the words come first and I don’t draw anything until I’ve worked out the story.
AR: Children possibly being the most honest sort of critics, how much easier or harder is it writing for them?
LC: It’s very hard writing for children. I never find writing easy but I do feel more confident as I get older and more experienced at the work. It’s the same with any job – you get better the more you do it. When I started writing the longer fiction, the Ruby Redfort novels, I found that really very hard but it’s a bit easier now. I feel lucky that I can write and illustrate, so if I get stuck with the writing, I switch to illustrating for a bit which helps take the pressure off.
AR: As UNESCO’s Artist for Peace, what was your experience of the ‘My Life as a Story’ campaign? Do share with us any stories or instances that were particularly memorable for you. Also, in times such as these, where war and poverty have ravaged many a childhoods, what according to you can be the role of an artist/author?
LC: Whilst I was UNESCO’s Artist for Peace, I travelled to Mexico where I met street children. At first I felt totally overwhelmed and couldn’t really see what use I could be to these boys who had lived on the streets all their lives. But then I started talking to them, they asked me questions and wanted to know all about my life. I felt an overwhelming sense that we are all the same and that we need to treat them just as we treast anyone else we meet. It’s so important not to feel sorry for them. We talked about my books and they were responding to the family dynamics in my stories. That was really important to them in some way despite their situation. Books communicate visions, ideas and possibliities, and stories give the reader hope. That’s really all you can do as a writer.
AR: Lastly, artists and authors whose works you admire (any from India maybe)?
LC: Indian culture has been a big influence. I love the colours, patterns and fabric. I collect saris for their colours and prints and often use them in my work. I also love miniature Indian pictures and I have a few of these. Aesthetically, India hugely appeals to me. And I love the sound of Indian music. I often listen to it as a work and it makes me feel in a different place.
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Describe your working space…
It’s really cluttered and crowded but I am looking to move somewhere bigger to work.
The view from your window?
Very good view. I love looking out my window. I can see trees and part of a line of shops and houses and lots of pedestrians going by.
What distracts you from work?
The lovely view from my window!
What do you do when you hit the mythical writer’s block?
I’m lucky because I’m an illustrator as well as a writer so if I feel stuck, I do some drawing or something physical to unlock my mind. Or I often watch a film.
And where does one find that mystical muse?
Inspiration can be anywhere – walking round the street and looking at things is probably more important that anything else.
From doodling to illustrating: 3 tips to make that happen?
Telling a story with your picture that’s not necessarily in the words. Cultivate a sense of design as an illistrator as you have to lead the reader through the story. Remember that illustration is as much about design and where the words and pictures fit on the page, as it is about draftsmanship.
The one thing that you love about children?
I love the way children – particularly very young children – use language.
The one question your fans ask you the most?
Where do you get your ideas from?
Critical acclaim or massive fan following?
It depends if critical acclaim comes from your readers, then that is wonderful. Obviously, I would love lots of people to read my books, but with children readers they choose what they want to read. They don’t read you because a critic or reviewer has recommended the book. They choose books that they like or that interest them and that’s one thing I love about writing for children.