‘I think story telling is in the East Anglian’s blood’
PUBLISHED: 13:27 10 January 2018
The author Francesca Armour-Chelu talks about her freewheeling Suffolk childhood, the strangeness of East Anglia and why she is thrilled her books have got more boys reading.
It seems like you had a good deal of freedom to explore your Suffolk surroundings as a child. Was this important in feeding a sense of adventure that has later gone into your books?
Absolutely. It was a pretty unfettered childhood - not because my parents were exceptionally libertarian but because they were always working. They were full time artists only just scratching out a living for many years, so I did the dangerous stuff kids do when adults aren’t around - and had lots of accidents. I also spent lots of time in and around Aldeburgh, exploring the marshes and boats which helped me visualise Fenn Halflin’s world.
But the main thing about my childhood was the self reliance I developed; I’d get ready for school on my own, feed our numerous animals, get my own breakfast, mend my school shirts; that sort of stuff. My parents had an interesting ‘presumption of ability’ about us children which meant we were just expected to do stuff, and one of the themes of the book is how Fenn’s grandad teaches him to stand on his own two feet- a good lesson for anyone.
Do you think there’s something special about the Suffolk and East Anglia countryside that lends itself to stories?
I think story telling is in the East Anglian’s blood. Maybe long dark nights encourage it, but also East Anglia seems stranger than other places, less reasonable somehow. It feels like it still has one foot in another time, or dimension; an ancient place which is constantly shifting beneath our feet - whole areas once under water now recovered, other places once dry now deep beneath the sea.
Why did you choose to write children’s stories?
I didn’t exactly choose children’s writing. In fact the first thing I had published was a short story called The Starving Ghost for adults. Fenn Halflin was the first book I got a publishing deal for, but I want to write lots of different things. That said, writing for children is lots of fun, and I’m thrilled so many boys loved Fenn’s adventures. It seems to me that boys are often less ‘into’ reading, so I consider that a real badge of honour.
Did you try out your story ideas on your children? Do you/ did you read a lot to your children?
I only really talk about story ideas with other writers and even then only ones I trust not to say; ‘Well I’d do it this way!’ Maybe I’m too prone to self doubt but it doesn’t take much for me to think a good idea is a bad one.
My children are older now but I still read to them and wish I could have read to them every night, but life doesn’t always work out that way; I worked full time when they were very little and often wouldn’t be back home in time. However I always read to them if they’re unwell, like my dad did with me. I think there’s something comforting about hearing a story when you’re feeling under the weather. It’s good for the soul.
What are the elements that you think make for a good children’s story?
I’m tempted to say ‘the same things which make a good adult story’ because most of the time that’s true. But one crucial difference is adults are usually more tolerant of a dull beginning whereas kids will often dump a book if it doesn’t grab them. I think there’s still a bit of a myth that writing for kids is somehow easier; the poor relation of serious writing, something you do if you can’t write for adults. I think kids see through that and good children’s writers are the ones that treat their audience with respect.
What were your favourite books as child and why?
In every interview I always answer Pippi Longstocking to this question, partly because she was my first love with books; I was in Patrick Stead Hospital recovering from a near death experience (literally) and my dad gave me Pippi to read and I adored her.
She’s funny, kind, loyal and rebellious and I desperately wanted a friend like her, a friend who’d have tea parties up trees. But I loved lots of books- Roald Dahl obviously, probably for similar reasons as Pippi, rebellious characters and wild, dark humour, but I also loved illustrated books and would devour any book with beautiful pictures.
I really like people like Edmund Dulac, Brian Wildsmith and Victor Ambrus. If I could change one thing about book publishing it would be to make more books illustrated, including adult fiction.
As well as being an author you work in a library. Do you think it is important children are encouraged to read widely and what do you feel is the importance of your role as a librarian?
Naturally as a book-peddling librarian, I’d love all children to love books. Not just because books help them to express themselves and the impact reading has on all the other subjects, but because reading seems to make children more empathetic. However sometimes there seems an almost missionary zeal about reading; people trying to out-do each other in how many books they, or their child, read. I find the idea of competitive reading quite odd really and I’m very sad for parents who think they’ve failed because they can’t get their kids to read when they’re clearly devoted parents and their kids are happy.
Reading is obviously important but is it vastly more so than drawing or music, for example? Ideally books should be one of a range of activities children experience. When I meet a child in the library who isn’t into reading my instinct is to rush to find them the book that’ll change that, but I try to remember to talk to them about something other than books first; find out what they like, ask about their hobbies.
I don’t want to be yet another person expecting them to love the books I love. I should add that besides this, our Suffolk libraries provide so much more than books alone, I feel my main role as a librarian is to make everyone feel welcome; readers and non-readers alike.
Finally, is there going to be another adventure for Fenn Halflin or do you have different plans for your next project?
I sometimes wish I hadn’t concluded the story in book two; there’s plenty more material for more, and children have asked me about the Sargasson tribe, or Gulper’s story or if Fathom is ever reunited with his sister. But whilst theoretically there could be a third book I don’t currently have plans to revisit. I lived in Fenn’s watery world for many years and I need a change of scene, so my next project will be very different. I’m also working on an idea for an adult story - I love having more than one creative thing on the go-that way if I get writer’s block with one I can go to the other, still work, and let my subconscious mull over the first problem.
Francesca’s Fenn Halflin books, Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero and Fenn Halflin and the Seaborn, published vy Walker Books Uk, are available from good book stores and Amazon.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Books from our childhood can stay with us for life and our crucial in building our imaginative world. We asked readers what their favourite books were when they were young and why.
Tim Gould: “Watership Down is a classic adventure and took me to a different world with heroes and villains where good overcomes evil.”
Sharna Pratchett: “The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman really developed my love of books as a child, I even convinced my stepmom to read them! I enjoyed the books so much I named my daughter after the main character Lyra. I have now started reading the first book to my daughter and she is hooked.”
Chris Grover: “I loved reading my children the Kipper the Dog books by Mick Inkpen. One of my friends lived in Nayland, near him and managed to get us the odd signed copy!”
Hilary Bugg: “I loved The Elves and the Shoemaker by The Brothers Grimm when I was young… (that was a long while ago!!)
“I used to lose myself in this story and read it over and over again, it is a magical story.”
Charlotte Smith-Jarvis: “A book I absolutely adore is The Jolly Postman by Allan and Janet Ahlberg. Although my children have grown out of it, I can’t bring myself to give the book away. I remember, as a kid, being so excited reading it myself, turning each page, prising open the envelopes and poring over each word of the letters inside. I’ll be holding onto it for my grandchildren!”
David Vincent: “There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed was a great book to read to my children when they were young; and to practise the song and sing it on holiday journeys together in the car.
“Now my grandchildren have the same illustrated book, and love it just as much.”
Rebekah Rodwell: “I absolutely loved the Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton which I believe is still popular.”