A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
This month the Allsorts have been discussing which books have influenced them most as writers. At first, I thought this was a fairly straight-forward topic but the more I thought about it, the more complicated the question of books and writers became. Which comes first – the inspiring book or the writer-in-waiting? How, exactly, are writers made?
Readers, whether they write or not, have favourite books, books that set our imaginations on fire. The most powerful influences happen when we are young. As readers, I fear we ignite less often as we grow older. No matter how well told, the great themes inevitably affect us most first time round, when our imaginations are fresh and un-jaded.
Writers have another problem when it comes to the ability to suspend disbelief and gain total immersion: professional sensitivity to style and technique. A story needs to be technically well-written, the characterisation strong and the story-line compelling to completely pull me into the world of imagination these days.
It’s a question I’m often asked on school and library visits: When did I know I wanted to be a writer? And why? Yes, why? It isn’t a sensible or lucrative profession. Even to me, it seems peculiar: this business of sitting alone in a room, playing pretend on paper. Or, in my case, a computer screen.
I started, as we all do, as a reader. My first book was The Fox in Socks by Dr Seuss. It was a scarily big rectangle of stiff, shiny cardboard with pointy corners that could hurt and the picture of a russet coloured fox on the front cover. My mother sat me on her lap and we read it together over and over. It is the book that taught me to read. Soon, I was reading it myself, from memory, no doubt. But I could read before I went to school, because of Dr Seuss and my mother. I never stopped reading from the moment my mother gave me that book. I have it still; the cover is dented and much less shiny, but it still has sharp edges and sharper memories.
My enthusiasm for the magic of the imagination set loose by The Fox in Sock, Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat somehow survived going to school and being made to read boring and badly written school series books (Dick and Jane and their colleagues in criminal educative practices). Many of my school mates weren’t so obsessive and gave up at that point. But, because I could already read, I sped through the tedium of those pages quickly. For the remaining reading time I was allowed to find a proper story book from the class room library. So I persevered.
A few years later came Charlotte’s Web and Mrs Ormsbee. My fourth grade teacher must have loved books too. At the very least, she knew that the best way to turn kids into readers, to entice their imaginations away from their own small concerns and introduce them to the wider world, to teach empathy by imagining ourselves as others, is to read to them.
Bless Mrs Ormsbee of Cherokee Elementary School in Springfield, Missouri for reading Charlotte’s Web to her class. It was fifteen minutes a day of sheer bliss. I remember the class room, the desk where I sat one row in from the left and five rows back. I see the sun slanting through the wall of sixties metal-framed windows, the speckled green lino on the floor; breathe in the school smell of grime overlaid with disinfectant. And I remember Fleur and the baby pig she saves, and the brave, beautiful Charlotte. I’m ten again, sitting with my head on my desk, listening with my eyes closed in order to see the pictures in my head better, and thinking: someday I want to write stories like that.
If I’m asked which books turned me into a writer, these are the greatest influences, the books I met when young. Dr Seuss and my mother introduced me to the magic of imagination and stories. Charlotte’s Web and Mrs Ormsbee confirmed my desire to write.
But – and here’s the thing I’ve become sure of as I’ve thought about it over the intervening years – I was already a writer. Before The Fox in Socks I was already living mostly in the word of my imagination, making up stories to tell myself, my younger sister and cousins. Before forth grade and Charlotte’s Web I was already writing little poems and stories and drawing pictures to illustrate them.
So I think writers are born that way. I play pretend. I always have. It’s what I do. So, for me, if it wasn’t books, it would be something else: theatre, television, film, computer games. Story is essential to me – to most of us. Stories are the way we ask questions about life, the way we translate chaos into order. Sometimes I do worry about spending much of my life sitting alone in a room fantasizing. But there isn’t a great deal I can do about it.
Ellen was born in the USA, but came to England in her twenties, married here, and now lives in an old house in Devon with her husband and son. Ellen originally trained as a painter and surrounds herself with sketches of her characters as she writes. She spins wool as well as stories, knitting and weaving when time allows. She plays the violin, fences (badly!) and collects teapots and motorcycles. Her first book, Castle of Shadows, won the Cornerstones Wow Factor Competition, the 2010 North East Book Award and was chosen for both the Independent and London Times summer reading lists and, along with the sequel City of Thieves, was included on The Times list of best children’s books of 2010. It is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA. Under the name Ellen Richardson, she is the author of the Oxford University Press’s 8-12 series for girls, The Flip-Flop Club. Her first foray into Young Adult fantasy, the Tribute sequence, will be published by Hot Key Books in the UK in 2014 and DTV Junior in Germany in 2015.