My last stop at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival is the Mission Theatre. And it lives up to its name: it is a total mission to find. I have no sense of direction (I can get lost between the bedroom and the kitchen of my own house) so it comes as no surprise to me that I wind up down some weird back street rather than at the event. Thankfully there is a bit of moontrugging to be there before I try to find myself – because Hardys Original Sweetshop, a treasure trove of over 400 sweets in old-fashioned jars, is beckoning me inside.
After buying a handful of buttered popcorn flavoured jelly beans, I try again. The next search leads me to an empty car park – and this is with the help of Google Maps on an iPhone. I mince around the car park until my iPhone gets a grip and realises that it’s been searching for the Mission Theatre in Portland, Oregon. In the U.S.A. Brilliant. After some furious keyboard tapping, I wind up at the Mission Theatre, Bath, ready to listen to two of the biggest names in children’s books right now: Sally Gardner and David Almond.
Before the talk starts, I notice that Gardner and Almond (click here for moontrug’s recent scribblings about Almond) are sitting in the Mission Theatre café, trying to pretend they’re not famous. But everyone around them is whispering and pointing so they might as well have walked into the café to the Final Countdown theme song with enormous ‘I’M FAMOUS’ badges plastered to their foreheads. Moments later, we are all whisked out of the café and into the theatre itself. Almond is interviewing the award-winning author, Sally Gardner, and everyone is on the edge of their seats.
Brilliantly funny and self-deprecating, Gardner tells us about her unusual childhood. ‘I’m severely dyslexic and I couldn’t read until I was 14 years old – but I loved the shape of words. I used to gaze at the Coca Cola logo for hours and think how beautiful it was. And I used to think that the word ‘schizophrenia’ – regardless of its implications – looked pretty incredible on the page.’ Almond, another wonderer at the shape of words, laughs. ‘I used to like the way ‘Heinz’ looked as a kid. And I think the reason kids spend most of breakfast reading the back of cereal boxes is because of the sheer array of brilliantly-shaped words.’
But Gardner’s childhood memories of words weren’t all pleasant. She was expelled from her first school for stealing currant buns and dishing them out to friends – and also for not being able to spell her own name. She describes her school life as ‘colourful’ though there was evidently much darkness at its core. When turning up to take her GCSE English literature exam, her teacher said to her, ‘What are you doing here, Sally?’ Sally replied, ‘Taking the exam, miss.’ To which the teacher replied, ‘Well, don’t make ANY noise with your pencil and put it down once you’ve finished writing because there are pupils here who actually stand a chance of passing.’ But Gardner did pass the exams and when offered a place at the school for sixth form, she told the teachers just where they could stuff it. Gardner’s determination to succeed against all the negativity from her teachers is one of the reasons she is the author she is today. She admits that if anyone told her, ‘You can’t do it, Sally,’ she’d reply with, ‘Yes, I can; I will.’
Both Almond and Gardner are passionate about the need for schools to broaden children’s imaginations. Gardner tells us, ‘Twenty years ago five children, each one 5 years old, were given a paperclip and asked what they could do with it. They came up with 500 ideas. Those same children were asked what they could do with paperclip nine years later (when they were all 18 years old and leaving school), and they could only come up with 5 ideas – between them.’ She sighs. ‘Something’s going wrong – we need to spend time growing our imaginations not shrinking them. I hate all this tick-box education. I found a ‘How well do you know Maggot Moon?’ quiz online recently and I had a go – I thought at least I’ll have a chance at this one because I wrote it! The answers came back with one comment: I suggest you read the book more thoroughly next time.’
But Gardner didn’t always want to be a writer. ‘I didn’t go to university; I went to art school and from there I went into theatre – as a set designer. For my first play I organised for 1,500 car tyres to be used! The van was MASSIVE.’ It was at the theatre that Gardner realised she wanted to write though and on walking into a publishing house after writing her first book, she said, ‘If you don’t publish this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’ Luckily they published her book. And her latest one, Maggot Moon, has just won both the Costa Children’s Book Award and the Carnegie Medal. BOOM. Yes I can; I will…
Almond picks up a copy of Gardner’s fantastic novel, I, Coriander (click here to buy it on amazon). ‘You seem to have a number of cruel authority figures in your books,’ Almond muses. Gardner nods. ‘They come from a dark place inside me. But I love them. I genuinely love painting a villain – and the best ones are the ones with a small trace of vulnerability in them…’ She speaks of the brilliantly-named Arise Fell (named after Arise Evans, a religious fanatic in Cromwell’s time) and Maud Leggs (a name lifted from a gravestone) from I Coriander. Almond picks up the thread: ‘Graveyards are great for character names. As are telephone directories.’ Take notes all you moontrugs… Almond asks, ‘Where did you get the inspiration from for the name Standish Treadwell for Maggot Moon?’ Gardner smiles. ‘A friend of mine was walking up north in a place he said was called Standish Treadwell. But when I looked it up on the map it didn’t exist. It seemed a mystical place – outside the sphere of reference – and I just knew it was the name for the hero of Maggot Moon.’ And what a hero he is. Even the blurb on the back of the book sends shivers down your spine: ‘What if the football hadn’t gone over the wall? What if Hector had never gone looking for it? What if he hadn’t kept the dark secret to himself? What if…? Then I suppose I would be telling myself another story. You see, the what ifs are as boundless as the stars.’ Click here to buy it on amazon.
Q: Out of all the books you’ve written, which one is your favourite?
A: Maggot Moon.
Q: Where did the idea for Maggot Moon come from?
A: I was on an impossible diet at the time and I was foul to live with. My family told me to ‘go away’ so I sat down in a room by myself and wrote ‘What if…’ The story came out of the character – and I followed.
Q: The ending of Maggot Moon is quite confusing. Is it meant to be this way?
A: Yes, you can interpret the ending in whatever way you want to. I meant it to be open like that…
Q: Why did you write Maggot Moon?
A: I think I was sending a message back to my 14 year old self – the little girl in a glass dome who couldn’t read. Maggot Moon was my message to her.