Eirlys Hunter and Julia Eccleshare are schoolfriends who both ended up in the children’s book world—on opposite sides of the world. On the release of Eirlys’ first children’s novel in the UK, The Mapmakers’ Race, we asked them to have a small conversation about children’s books.
Eirlys Hunter is a London-born fiction writer who lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She has published seven books for children as well as a novel and short stories for adults. Hunter teaches Writing for Children at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University (New Zealand’s most prestigious creative writing school).
Julia Eccleshare is a journalist and writer on children’s books, and the former children’s book editor for the Guardian. She published 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up in 2009.
‘I’ve known Julia since we were three, but we became close friends when we were in the same classes in years 12 & 13. We had holidays at her parents’ cottage in Wales and used to go for long walks across the hills, talking about books.’ —Eirlys Hunter
JE: You grew up in the UK in what was thought of as ‘a golden age of children’s literature’. Do you think that influenced your decision to become a writer, especially your decision to write for children?
EH: I’m sure it did, though of course I had no idea of how lucky I was. The children’s library up the road had a constant stream of exciting new books and my sister and I had Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Philippa Pearce, Susan Cooper, William Mayne, Leon Garfield and Rosemary Sutcliff on our bookshelf.
Nowadays, reading adult novels gives me intellectual pleasure, but for emotional satisfaction and total immersion in another world I still prefer reading children’s books. I have written for adults and I may do again, but when I write for children I feel connected to the period in my life when stories were the only thing that mattered.
JE: Apart from the obvious things about what the characters are able and allowed to do, can you identify any differences between writing for adults and writing for children?
EH: You can write about any subject for children, but there are differences between how you write for children and adults (and by children, I mean pre-teens—writing for young adults is something else again). Of course, there are exceptions to undermine every generalisation, but for me the most important feature of a book for children is that it should have a child’s eye at its centre.
This probably means a child, or a childlike character, but it also means a sense of wonder. So much of children’s experience is new, extraordinary and inexplicable, and children’s writers have to reflect that.
Also, adult readers may be prepared to wade through pages of introspection, but children usually aren’t. Child characters may be thoughtful or dreamy, but they shouldn’t spend a lot of time reflecting until they’re teenagers. Children in books have to be active; they have to be doing.
And children’s books must end, if not entirely happily, at least hopefully.
JE: Does your Welsh heritage and your love for the remote Welsh countryside ever provide a landscape for your stories?
EH: Often! Setting is so important; it provides a mood as well as a stage for the action. There is a small corner of Wales that is in my DNA and I can’t keep out of my writing. The Mapmakers’ Race isn’t set in a named country but the landscape is a blend of the South Island of New Zealand and Snowdonia in North Wales.
JE: When did you discover you were a storyteller and writer? Did you start by writing for your own children or do you write to entertain yourself?
EH: I write because it’s an addiction. I used to make small books, and my parents must have noticed because they gave me an ancient typewriter for Christmas when I was ten. I began my first novel, painstakingly clacking out each letter, but it took two long pages for my heroine to get dressed and have breakfast; I wanted to write a realist novel but had no idea how to skip the reality of toast and tooth-brushing. In my teens I wrote poetry, and what I thought of as scenes—they were short stories really. It was a surprise to be praised for these at secondary school, because in primary school my writing was only ever singled out for poor spelling and wonky margins. As a teenager I kept a diary full of high emotion, and for many years I wrote to find out what I thought and felt.
I started writing for an audience when the last of my four children went to kindergarten, and I wrote for children rather than adults because that’s what I knew best; that’s what I’d been reading most of for so long. And children’s books tended to be shorter and seemed more manageable. I did try to write one novel specifically for my son, but the whole process took so long that he was practically grown-up by the time it was in print. I’d say that I was inspired by my children, but really I write for myself, because I have to.
JE: Do you imagine yourself in stories? In which case, which character from a children’s story would you most like to be?
EH: I always imagined myself in stories when I was young, sailing with Nancy and Peggy,
or languishing in the attic with poor Sarah Crewe. When I was older I spent a long time being Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle. Now I’d most like to be Lyra Belacqua or Malcolm Polstead, Philip Pullman’s brave, loyal, quick-witted heroes. Or, on less adventurous days, I’d like to be Orlando the Marmalade Cat.
JE: Writing fantasy novels for children has been very popular for the last 20 years, not least because of the success of JK Rowling. What is so attractive about writing fantasy and what opportunities does it give a writer?
I think many writers have been forced into writing fantasy because the reality of most contemporary children’s lives is so boring. They’re driven everywhere, closely timetabled and monitored, and spend so much time looking at their screens. Writers write fantasy because it’s the only way to get rid of the adults in a child’s life without causing major trauma (not that there’s anything wrong with writing about trauma, but then it’s trauma that drives the story). Fantasy may also be the only way to give child characters time to muck about and observe the world, and the opportunity to explore and take risks.
It’s impossible to imagine a contemporary realist novel in which the children have the kind of adventures that were standard in stories of a generation ago. Child welfare agencies would be called in if any contemporary children were observed to be unsupervised
for whole days at a time like the Famous Five or the Swallows and Amazons (and they didn’t wear life jackets!). It seems that only neglected children are free to have real world adventures nowadays. If a writer wants to give their child characters agency and a happy, functional family they have to write fantasy. (Historical fiction can serve the same purpose, but that involves research. I prefer making it all up.)
Fantasy doesn’t only allow child characters autonomy, it also gives writers autonomy.
I’ve been struggling with a contemporary YA novel in which social media is crucial,
but technology and the way it’s used by teens changes faster than I can keep up. In
The Mapmakers’ Race I not only ditched the parents but was free to ditch any aspect of contemporary life that limited my characters’ experience, or that I found hard to imagine, or intrinsically uninteresting. My children lose their mother on page one, but no one intervenes. They must manage without money or any means of communication. They have the technological skills they need for the race but soon discover just how many life-skills they’re missing. But they survive, and grow, and have fun.
The Mapmakers’ Race is out now in paperback (£6.99, Gecko Press)
Thanks to Laura Smythe for inviting me to host this exclusive and very enjoyable interview for this brilliantly-written book.